Wedding Dress Code 101: What to Wear to 5 Types of Weddings

Every year, more than 2.4 million couples decide to tie the knot in the US. The average wedding has about 139 guests. That means it is very likely you have a wedding invitation tacked to your refrigerator door right this instant, or you're going to receive an invitation to someone's wedding in the mail soon.

Depending on your point of view, figuring out what to wear to a wedding is either part of the fun or part of the stress of going to a wedding. When the wedding takes place, where it takes place and the dress code can all give you hints as to the type of wedding outfits the bride and groom hope to see guests wearing.

What kind of wedding will you be attending? Is it a formal occasion or semi-formal? Perhaps it's even casual. Whether the ceremony you're preparing for will take place in an upscale hotel, in a boathouse or on the beach, the type of wedding attire appropriate for the occasion depends on the formality and personality of the occasion itself. 

Even if the dress code is spelled out for you on the invitation, how do you know what outfits will work for which kinds? If you're trying to figure out what to wear for casual outdoor wedding attire or what qualifies as semi-formal wedding dress, here's everything you need to know about the different types of wedding attire for guests.

1. A Formal Wedding

If the bride and groom are planning on hosting a formal wedding, usually one that takes place in the evening, they might list a "white tie" or "black tie" dress code on the invitation. "White tie" calls for the fanciest and most formal wedding attire possible. "Black tie" is a little less buttoned up, but still very formal.

Admittedly, unless you have some very fancy friends, it's not likely you'll see "white tie attire" on a wedding invitation. This is the type of attire that's usually reserved for major events like the Met Ball or a state dinner at the White House. "White tie" means more than simply wearing a white bow tie with a rented tuxedo.

For women, it usually means going all out and wearing a ball gown or a full-length evening gown. Ideally, the dress will be a neutral color, such as navy blue or black. A brightly colored or boldly patterned dress is too loud and casual for a white tie affair, even if it's a dress made by a major designer or couture house.

Going neutral with your ball gown allows you to dress up the rest of your outfit in other ways. Your hair, makeup and jewelry should be very glamorous and dramatic. Think long, flowing waves if you have longer hair or a chic up-do. A white tie wedding is definitely the time to channel your inner Hollywood starlet, whether she's Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn or Blake Lively.

When it comes to jewelry, the more sparkles you have, the better. A diamond or cubic zirconia necklace is a good option. If you want to add to the elegance, you can wear a pair of long opera gloves that match your gown.

For men, white tie means wearing a white bow tie, white vest and a stiffly starched white shirt. The coat of the tuxedo should have tails, and the shoes should be black patent leather. A pair of white gloves is also recommended.

Black tie is formal, but less so than white tie. It's not nearly so limited when it comes to appropriate wedding outfits. You're welcome to break out your ball gown if you have one, but women are also able to wear more colorful evening gowns, shorter-length cocktail dresses or elegant and refined "little black dresses." Just be sure to err on the side of too dressy rather than underdressed. Although a below-the-knee-length or a tea-length dress might be appropriate, as long as it’s sufficiently dressy, a mini dress isn't a good pick.

Guys can trade their white bow ties for black ties, and swap their white vests for black cummerbunds. The jacket should be a tuxedo jacket, but it doesn't need to have tails. Gloves aren't required for a black tie wedding, for either men or women.

To further complicate things, some couples list "black tie optional" on their invitations. Just as black tie is a step down from white tie in terms of formality, black tie optional is a step down from black tie. Long evening gowns and tuxedos are still welcome, but you can also wear something a little less formal, such as a dressy skirt and top combo, a cocktail dress or a little black dress if you're a woman. Men can wear a tuxedo or opt for a dark colored suit with a conservative tie — bow tie not required.

2. Semi-Formal Wedding

When your hosts don't want to be too suit-and-gown but are still setting standards for their event to be relatively formal, they might tell you to wear semi-formal wedding dress. Seeing the words "semi-formal" on a wedding invitation doesn't mean you get to combine casual clothing with a tux jacket or a long dress with a pair of sneakers. Instead, it means your wedding attire can be slightly less buttoned up than at a formal event./as a guest, you should aim to dress conservatively but not conspicuously formally — think what you might wear to a nice concert or graduation with a tad more style.

Guys have it easy when it comes to semi-formal attire. It means wearing a dark colored suit, dress shirt and tie. You can add a matching vest if you'd like, but that's optional. Your shoes can be black or dark brown leather. Socks should match your shoes — no white sports socks, please!

For women, when the wedding takes place will have some influence over the type of dress or outfit you put together. The wedding's season can also play a big part in the kind of semi-formal wedding dresses best for women to wear.

If it's a daytime wedding, you can choose a midi-length dress or a skirt and top set in a brighter or lighter color, such as pink, blue, green or purple. Pastels are also a good bet, and florals can be beautiful and appropriate in the spring and summer months. For warm seasons, look for materials like chiffon, organza, silk or other light fabrics. Your dress should not fall above your knees.

You can wear a strapless dress if appropriate, but make sure to bring a shawl or a cardigan — especially if you know the couple or wedding basis is religious. For cooler months, choose a semi-formal wedding dress or skirt with a longer length. Opt for darker, richer colors like deep purples, burnt orange, red or dark blue, and look for heavier materials like jersey or wool. When it's cool outside, wear nylons with your dress for a clean appearance and warmer legs.

For an evening wedding, your dress or skirt set should be a darker, more neutral color. Black and navy blue are ideal for a semi-formal wedding that takes place in the evening. A dress with sequins or other sparkles is definitely okay. Shorter dresses with embellishments are good for semi-formal evening wear in any season, but long, sleek evening gowns are also ideal for semi-formal evening weddings — especially if they're outdoors. 

You can have a bit of fun with your accessories when dressing for a semi-formal wedding. While few people will really see your shoes when your gown is floor length, if you're wearing a midi-length or tea-length dress for a semi-formal affair, you can add some flair to the outfit with a pair of shoes like studded black wedges. Your heels can be anywhere from two to five inches, but don't take it too far! Wearing your best jewelry is also a great idea and will complement your dress. If you need some shade from the sun in an outdoor daytime event, consider a chic, tasteful hat. If you're bringing a purse, opt for a small clutch or evening bag.

Can you go all out and wear a tuxedo or a long gown to a semi-formal wedding? You can, but remember that makes it possible to be overdressed. While the cliché states that it's always better to be overdressed than under, in the case of the wedding, you want to exercise caution and do whatever you can not to upstage the bride. Sticking to the recommended dress code helps you do just that.

3. Casual Wedding

Some couples just aren't into dressing up and don't feel comfortable asking their guests to don their finest or to shell out for fancy gowns and tuxedos. If you have friends or relatives who you always see in sweats or jeans or you know they like to keep things sweet and simple, they just might make the dress code of their wedding "casual" or "dressy casual."

There are distinct rules for white tie and black tie affairs, and even a semi-formal event has some boundaries and guidelines. However, casual events don’t come with many rules, so figuring out what to wear to a casual wedding can actually be the trickiest. Casual weddings are meant to be welcoming, rustic, down-to-earth and focused primarily on the couple's happiness, and that's what your casual wedding attire should reflect.

You don't want to go too casual and show up for the event in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, but you also don't want to be too fancy and to stand out from everyone else — potentially upstaging the bride.

A good rule of thumb to follow when deciding what to wear to a wedding that describes itself as casual is to avoid jeans and anything you'd wear when you're just relaxing at home. In this case, you want to interpret casual to mean a comfortable dress or skirt. You can also try wearing a pair of dressy pants and a blouse, or even a jumpsuit, if you're into one-piece dressing.

The fabric of your wedding outfit plays a big part in determining whether it's right for a casual event. Formal or semi-formal weddings call for dramatic, luxurious fabrics, such as silk or silk-like fabrics. Options such as cotton, rayon jersey or viscose can be more appropriate for a casual affair.Especially if you're looking for casual outdoor wedding attire, breathable fabrics in laid-back cuts and relaxed colors are the best choice.

Casual doesn't have to mean shorter dress length. You can wear a full-length or maxi dress, such as this multi stripe maxi dress. The length of the dress and its short sleeves make it look chic enough for a wedding, while the rayon jersey fabrication makes it appropriate for a casual event. Pair it with a long necklace and a pair of strappy heels, and you'll have a look that's great for a casual summer wedding.

If you prefer to wear separates, a knee-length skirt such as this textured skirt that comes in many colors is easy to pair with pretty much any style of top. You can wear it with a silky blouse in a dark color for an evening wedding or for a wedding in the fall or winter. If you're attending a spring or summer wedding or a daytime event, lighten up the black skirt by pairing with a floral print blouse.

For men, a casual wedding usually means wearing a pair of dress pants and a button front shirt. You can leave the tie behind, and a jacket is optional. You have a bit of leeway when it comes to the style of your dress shirt, too. There's no need to limit yourself to a white button up. You can try wearing a button front shirt in a striped or gingham pattern or choose one with a small dot or floral print.

Another good rule of thumb to follow when choosing a dress or outfit for a casual wedding is to pick out something you'd feel comfortable wearing in a business casual workplace. That can help you rule out dresses that are too short, dresses that don't cover the shoulders or arms enough, and dresses that are just too relaxed to be worn anywhere but around the house.

4. Outdoor Wedding

Holding a wedding outdoors can complicate the dress code somewhat. Although it's not impossible to have a formal wedding in the great outdoors, it's usually unlikely that a couple will expect guests to dress to the nines while having to navigate grass, sand or mud. Generally speaking, outdoor wedding attire is typically more casual than indoor wedding attire.

But, just as you don't want to break out the jeans and ratty T-shirts for a casual wedding, you also want to avoid dressing down too much for an outdoor wedding. After all, it should still be idyllic and put-together in aesthetic. Since the couple has probably but a lot of time into selecting just the right wedding decor to set the mood, you don't want to misinterpret the dress code and wear something that totally clashes with the event.

Since an outdoor wedding can take many forms, here are a few suggestions for casual outdoor wedding attire based on the location and season of the wedding:

  • Springtime Garden Wedding. "Florals for spring, how ground-breaking," sighed Miranda Priestley in "The Devil Wears Prada." But a floral dress is really the perfect thing to wear to a wedding that's taking place in a garden in the middle of spring.
  • If the event is going to be dressy casual, this bell-sleeved floral print beauty is a perfect pick. Since the ground in a garden can be uneven, it's best to leave the stilettos at home and opt to wear a pair of flats or wedges instead.
  • Fall Wedding by a Lake. Fall is the time for richer colors such as burgundy, mustard and deep olive green. Since temperatures tend to be cooler in the fall — especially if you're outside — you'll want a wedding outfit that offers more coverage, such as longer sleeves or a longer length. You'll also want a pair of sturdier shoes, like chic ankle booties, to keep your feet warm and to protect them from any mud. It tends to be muddy by the banks of a lake, after all.
  • Whether it's a daytime or evening wedding, this soft colored and patterned dresses such as this denim stripe dress is a good pick. Pair it with a pair of booties and a longer necklace for a dressy casual look.
  • Winter Woodland Wedding. A wedding in the woods in the winter may or may not be outdoors, depending on the temperature. But such a wedding will still call for a relaxed, bohemian casual look. Think loose, flowing dresses in deep winter colors such as hunter green, dark blue or garnet red. Jewel tones like emerald or amethyst are also good color picks.
  • If the wedding is taking place in a colder area, you'll want to pick a dress in a heavier fabric, both to be seasonally appropriate and to keep yourself warm. Soft velvet is always a good call as well as warm and woolly tweed since it looks right at home in a woodland setting.
  • Summertime Rooftop Wedding. In an urban area, the best spot for an outdoor wedding in the summer might be on the top of a tall building. Not only will the rooftop setting let your guests enjoy the warm weather away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but it will also offer them great views of the area.
  • Although they are outdoors, rooftop events tend to be more formal affairs than most other outdoor weddings. Depending on the time of the wedding and the taste of the couple, it might be appropriate to break out a black tie outfit or to put on semi-formal outdoor wedding attire.

5. Beach Wedding

Although a beach wedding is a type of outdoor wedding, it gets its own category because figuring out what to wear to a wedding on the beach can get complicated. Your first thought when you find out that your friend is getting hitched by the seashore might be that it will be a casual affair.

While it's true that plenty of beach weddings are more casual than weddings that take place in a church or traditional reception hall, some couples plan on having a formal affair on the beach. If the wedding invitation doesn't specifically say "beach formal" or "beach casual," your best option is to reach out to a bridesmaid or the mother of the bride and ask what the style and dress code for the wedding is.

Attending a beach formal wedding doesn't mean you need your heels or an evening dress. Guys don't have to wear a tux to the beach. It usually simply means that the couple hopes you'll dress to impress and won't go too casual.

For women, that means a longer dress, such as a tea length. Anything longer will drag on the sand and potentially get wet on the hem, which can be a nightmare to clean. Since most beachfront weddings take place in the summer, you'll want to pick a color that's bright and sunny or a pretty print, such as floral or polka dot. A black dress is acceptable, but you might look a little somber if it's a hot, sunny day.

The shoes you pick to wear to a beach formal wedding might matter more than the dress. Stilettos will sink to the sand, and ballet flats will fill up with sand. Strappy, dressy sandals are a must, as is a pedicure to make sure your toes and heels look on point.

Since beaches tend to be windy places, a swept-up hairstyle might be ideal to keep your hair from blowing about and flying into your face. You'll also want to keep your makeup more natural during a formal beach wedding. You don't want to sweat under layers of thick foundation and blush, or have your smokey eye makeup end up running down your face.

Men attending a beach formal wedding can wear a lightweight suit, such as seersucker or linen, with a pair of loafers or sandals. No socks are required, because they'll just fill up with sand. You can also usually skip the tie, but bring the jacket.

In the case of a casual beach wedding, the hemline of your dress can be a bit shorter, around knee length, but you don't want to go too short. This darling lavender high-low wrap dress screams beachwear, while also being dressed up and long enough for a wedding.

Guys can usually get away with wearing a pair of knee-length shorts to a casual beach event, as long as the shorts are made of khaki or linen and are paired with a button-front shirt and jacket.

General Wedding Attire Dos and Don'ts

Some wedding attire rules apply in all cases, whether the event is a super formal white tie affair or a more relaxed wedding taking place at a lakeside cabin. Here are some basic wedding outfit dos and don’ts that are always in season:

  • Don't Wear white. With the exception of a bow tie and vest at a white tie wedding, the only person who should wear white at a wedding is the bride. It's best to avoid any shade of white, from snow white to ivory, to prevent any confusion.
  • Do Wear Your Nicest Clothing. If you're not able to afford to buy a fancy new dress or rent a tux for a wedding, don't let that stop you from attending. Simply pick out your best outfit and make it work. If you're close friends with the couple or a family member, they'll be happy you could make it.
  • Don't Wear Ripped or Dirty Clothing. It should go without saying, but since distressed clothing tends to come and go in and out of style, you never know. Avoid wearing any clothing with obvious rips and tears, intentional or not. Check your outfit before you head out the door to make sure there are no spots or stains.
  • Do Ask If You're Not Sure About the Dress Code. Sometimes, couples get creative with the dress code or don't list one at all. If you're not sure what "Funky disco formal" or "Creative casual" means, ask someone in the wedding party.
  • Don't Be Afraid to Wear Black, but Do Remember You're at a Wedding. Black is a perfectly acceptable choice for wedding guest attire. Just make sure the black isn't too somber. You're at a celebration, and your outfit should reflect that.
  • Do Dress for Comfort. Wear a dress or suit that fits, and pick of a pair of shoes you can walk or dance in. Try to avoid wearing something you'll need to adjust or tug at the whole time.

When it comes to the many types of wedding attire for guests, you have countless possibilities for each type of event and dress code. Whether you need wedding outfits that are appropriate for a semi-formal, dressy occasion or for a more casual celebration, My Sister's Closet Boutique has something for you. Take a look at our selection of midi- and maxi-length dresses as well as our skirts and shoes when you're putting together your wedding outfit.