If you’re in the midst of wedding-planning, you’ve probably started to think about your dress code. As the bride (or groom), you’re expected to dictate the attire that’s expected of your guests. Should it be super-formal, casual, or somewhere in between? The choice is up to you.
Most weddings in the U.K. are formal or semi-formal events. Male guests tend to wear a dark suit and tie, while ladies opt for a formal dress (usually below the knee). But as it’s your wedding, you have the final say on what your guests wear.
Before you make your decision, take some time to learn the most popular dress codes for weddings, and what they mean. This will help you decide which one is most appropriate for the kind of celebration you have planned – whether you’re having an elegant evening soirée, or a beach wedding with a barbecue. At the end of this guide, we’ll explain how to communicate your dress code to your guests.
What Are the Most Popular Dress Codes for Weddings?
The five most common dress codes used at weddings are black tie, formal, semi-formal, casual, and white tie. If you’re not sure what they mean, or which one is right for your wedding, read on. We’ll talk you through each one and give you some attire examples.
Black tie weddings are more common in the U.S. than in the U.K. However, it isn’t unheard of for a U.K. wedding to have a black tie dress code, especially if it’s an evening event involving dinner and dancing.
At a black tie wedding, men wear black tuxedos and black bow-ties, usually with shiny black leather shoes. Female guests can wear a formal floor-length gown, or a shorter cocktail-style dress (though it should still be formal, and not revealing – nothing above the knee). High heels or dressy flat shoes are both acceptable.
Most weddings in the U.K. have a formal dress code. If you ever attend a wedding and a dress code isn’t specified, it’s best to err on the side of formal, as this is what’s ‘traditional’.
To formal weddings, ladies wear the same as they’d wear to black-tie weddings – that is, a floor-length or cocktail-length gown, or a smart trouser suit. Men, however, don’t have to wear a tuxedo or a bow tie. They can simply wear a dark-coloured formal suit (with or without a waistcoat) and a smart necktie – the kind one might wear to a business meeting.
Formal dress codes can sometimes include the term “black tie optional”. This means that gentlemen can wear tuxedos and bow ties if they want to – however, it’s not required.
Semi-formal weddings are, as the name suggests, are slightly more relaxed than black-tie or black tie optional affairs. The term semi-formal is interchangeable with ‘dressy casual’ and ‘cocktail’ – they all mean the same thing.
To a semi-formal wedding, a male guest might wear a light or dark-coloured suit, with or without a tie. On a warmer day, it’s acceptable to forego the suit jacket and just wear a smart shirt and suit trousers.
For the ladies, a shorter cocktail-style dress (above the knee, knee-length or tea-length) is appropriate. Trouser suits, skirt-blouse combinations, and dressy jumpsuits are also acceptable. Floor-length ball gowns are too formal, and should be avoided.
Casual dress codes aren’t traditionally seen at weddings. However, weddings are arguably becoming more casual as more brides and grooms move away from ‘the norm’, and start to make their day their own. It can be a lot of fun to have a less ‘stuffy’ wedding celebration!
If you give your wedding a casual dress code, it means guests can wear what they want. They can dress just as they would in their everyday lives (though most guests will still choose to dress a little more smartly than they normally would).
For men, a long or short-sleeved shirt (with no tie) and pair of chinos would be appropriate. Ladies might wear a sundress, or trousers/skirt with a short or long-sleeved top. Jeans, shorts, tracksuits and tank tops are still considered too casual for weddings.
White tie is the complete opposite of casual. It’s the most formal dress code that exists, and usually it’s only donned by royalty, celebrities, and members of high society. White tie is the attire that you’d wear to the Oscars, the world premiere of a Hollywood movie, or a royal wedding.
For men, white tie involves a long-tail tuxedo, a white shirt, white waistcoat and white bow tie. White gloves and black top hats are also acceptable. Ladies wear formal floor-length ball gowns and high-heels.
Very few weddings have a white tie dress code. But if you’re having a particularly extravagant wedding at a grand estate, for example, then it might be a dress code to consider.
Unusual and Alternative Wedding Dress Codes
Some weddings are a little different (in a good way!), and require attire that deviates slightly from the five main dress codes we’ve already discussed. You’ll see the following terms used less often, but they’re still options that you should be familiar with.
If you’re lucky enough to be getting married abroad, a tropical dress code – also called ‘beach formal’ or ‘destination attire’ – may be up your alley.
Your guests’ priority should be to keep cool in the hot weather. So this dress code lets them know not to stifle themselves by wearing floor-length gowns, tuxedos or non-breathable material. They should dress for the heat, but still look appropriate for a wedding.
For example, a tropical weather wedding outfit might consist of a tea-length formal sundress or a loose cotton shirt with smart linen trousers. Shorts and vests are going too far down the casual route. Your guests should still look like they’re celebrating a wedding – just avoiding hyperthermia while doing so.
This dress code is pretty self-explanatory. For rustic weddings, held in the woods or in a meadow, formal attire might not be very practical. Formal gowns and high heels, for example, wouldn’t be a good idea if there’s muddy ground to contend with.
Most guests will put two and two together on their own. If they see that you’ve invited them to a wedding outdoors in September, they’ll know to be sensible and wear appropriate gear.
However, to be on the safe side, it makes sense to warn your guests outright. Comfortability and practicality should always take precedence over aesthetics, even at a wedding. Suits and dresses are still on the radar – just perhaps paired with waterproof boots and a parka.
Weddings held around particularly festive times of year – such as Christmas, and Halloween – sometimes have dress codes to match. This is relatively uncommon, but it’s something we’re seeing more and more of lately.
If your wedding will be around Christmas time, and you tell your guests to dress ‘festive’, you can expect lots of red, green and gold, glitter and sequins. It’ll be similar to what you’d wear to a Christmas party.
Some brides and grooms also use the ‘festive’ dress code to refer to a more cheerful type of formal attire. For example, brightly-coloured dresses, and jazzy suits with highly patterned ties.
Themed dress codes can be based around almost any style choice. For example, let’s say you’re having a vintage wedding, based around 1950s fashion and décor. It might be fun to have your guests dress in the fashion of the time!
If you’re having a themed dress code, you should make extra effort to guide your guests on what is and isn’t appropriate to wear. Give them plenty of ideas – a page on your wedding website filled with example photos would be helpful. Bear in mind that some of your guests may not be at all familiar with your chosen style, and will need help.
Your guests may also appreciate the option to not dress up if they don’t want to. They could have the choice of whether to partake in your theme, or just wear a nice suit or dress instead.
No Dress Code
Although it’s rare, some weddings simply have no dress code at all. If you choose not to have a dress code at your wedding, expect your guests to turn up wearing a mixture of different styles and looks.
Most guests will err on the side of caution, and wear something smart. It’s generally accepted that if you’re invited to a wedding with no dress code, you should treat it as if it were formal or semi-formal. Nobody likes to risk appearing ‘underdressed’.
You should try to specify a dress code if you can. Otherwise, you might find that you receive many confused phone calls from guests who aren’t sure what to wear. Even if you don’t care what your guests wear, it’s always best to tell them that, rather than leave them to wonder and worry.
How to Tell Wedding Guests What to Wear
So, how do you communicate the dress code to your wedding guests? There are several ways of doing it, and which one you choose will depend on your personal preference. For example:
1. Write the dress code directly on your wedding invitations. For example, a note saying “Formal attire” in a small font at the very bottom. You don’t want it to take up too much space, or be the main focal point.
2. Include a note card, also called a guest information card, with your wedding invitations. You can include the dress code there, and be as specific as you like. A note card will give you a little more space than writing it on the invitation itself.
3. Put the dress code on your wedding website. You could mention it on the home page, as part of a FAQ section, or even have a whole page dedicated to it.
If none of the above appeal to you, you can also spread the dress code through word of mouth. Make sure that your parents, bridesmaids, and close friends all know the dress code. Then, as they chat to your guests about the wedding, they can bring up the dress code as and when it’s appropriate. Just be aware that, this way, there’s a risk that some people might not get the memo!