The Guide to Every Wedding Dress Code (That Actually Matters)
Wedding dress codes seem like a good idea. Having a fun dress code yields fun guest attire, right? Well, it could. That is, until you're a guest for a "desert chic" wedding and have no clue what you're actually supposed to wear. That's why we're putting an end to the confusion, once and for all. We rounded up the most common codes—from white tie to straight-up casual—and consulted with etiquette expert Myka Meier to define what each code actually means. Read it. Learn it. Live it.
Level of formality: Very high. White tie is the most formal dress code.
Definition: Quite literally, it means you'll be wearing a white tie.
The suit: An evening tailcoat and trousers. Think of it like a tuxedo, but fancier.
The accessories: The jacket, underpinnings, vest or cummerbund, and wing-collar shirt should all be white. You'll need studs and cufflinks, too. As for shoes, stick with the most formal options. A polished, closed-toe shoe in calfskin or patent leather is fine. A pump is the most traditional, and the fanciest, choice.
Level of formality: High.
Definition: Black tie means tuxedo.
The Suit: A tuxedo. Read the situation in terms of what you can do to play here. The no-fail option: a black peak lapel. Shawl necks, color variations, and stylistic details can either be welcomed (like on a red carpet) or out of place (like a very traditional wedding). For wedding purposes, you can't go wrong with black.
The Accessories: Black tie is most commonly a tuxedo worn with a bow tie, although some will opt for a straight necktie (we don't necessarily recommend this). Your shirt should have French cuffs, which you can wear with cufflinks (though only true sticklers will give you a hard time about a barrel cuff). Studs for your shirt, unless you go ultra-modern and opt for a covered placket. You have the option of a pocket square (go with white), plus a waistcoat or cummerbund. For the shoes, they should be black and polished. Velvet or satin loafers are also seen with black tie. Wear either style with a (black) sock.
Black Tie Optional
Level of Formality: Still pretty high.
Definition: You have the option of black tie, or the option of another (as formal as possible) suit.
The Suit: If you're going for it with black tie-level tuxedo, follow the rules for black tie, but know that you can get away just a bit more, like Gosling is here. If you're opting not to take the option (price is usually a factor here), stick to the most formal suit you have in a dark color. Black, navy, or dark gray works here—the darker, the better.
The Accessories: As simple and polished as you can keep them. Keep in mind there will be people in black tie even if you're not, and you want your look to feel as in place as possible.
Level of Formality: Medium-high.
Definition: You're not wearing a tux, but you are wearing a suit and tie.
The Suit: This really depends on the location and time of year. If it's semiformal during the colder months, you'll see darker colors and heavier fabrics on the suits. If it's spring or summer and/or held outside, you'll likely see less black and more light gray or beige. But the suit should match, and you should be wearing a collared shirt.
The Accessories: You should be wearing a tie here. If you're a hard no on the tie—even though you shouldn't be—at least use a pocket square to up the suit's formality. Also, make sure to match your belt with your shoes here. Though if your suit trousers fit, skipping the belt is recommended.
Level of Formality: Medium-high.
Definition: Cocktail dress was invented to fill the space between casual daywear and formal eveningwear. So wear a suit, but you can make it fun—within reason.
The Suit: Your suit has a looser definition here. You could mix and match the pieces, like proper trousers with a different color blazer. Depending on the venue, colored pants might be a fun option here—but don't go bright. Cocktail means darker colors, in general. The differentiating part of cocktail: You do still need to wear a collared shirt.
The Accessories: You don't necessarily need a tie here. A blazer with a pocket square is a good alternative. You can definitely play with color, both in the outfit and in the accessories. (But remember: don't go bright!) As for shoes, you could do a lace-up or maybe even a polished a loafer. Stay away from sneakers, though. Even dressy ones are still too casual for cocktail.
Level of Formality: Medium-high.
Definition: If you see the word "formal" in a dress code, it means wear a suit and tie.
The Suit: Always remember, the darker the suit, the more formal. For a beach wedding (likely in warmer months), this is where you get to play with that: Light-colored summer suits and linen fabrics are perfect for beach weddings.
The Accessories: You should wear a tie or a pocket square. For your feet, keep in mind you might be walking near sand and water. Of course, that's no excuse to wear sandals or anything else you wouldn't otherwise be wearing to a formal event. Light colors, textiles, and shoes you can wear sockless are good options here.
Level of Formality: Medium.
Definition: "Dressy" is your hint that shorts and sneakers are still not OK. Yes, even if they're dressy.
The Suit: It doesn't necessarily have to be a suit, actually. You could go for trousers or nice chinos. On top, you could wear a crewneck with a blazer, or just a button-down. "Could" is the operative word here. If it's dressy, a jacket—or a patterned suit like Kevin Love's—is generally the best move.
The Accessories: Tie strictly not required. But be careful of your shoes here. You might think your "dressy sneakers" are perfect. The couple might not. But if they're the type of folks who would approve? Well, all the better.
Level of Formality: Semi-low.
Definition: Casual at a wedding does not mean the same thing as casual on your own time. Do not wear shorts to a wedding.
The Suit: You can get away with a more relaxed outfit here, but it needs to look polished—you're still at a wedding, after all. You could wear a pair of well-fitting dark jeans (no rips or distressing) and a button-down. You could wear a pair of khakis, a T-shirt or polo, and a blazer. There are many options, but you need to look pulled together.
The Accessories: For shoes here, keep it refined. You can finally break out those streamlined sneakers, or you can opt for nice loafers. No running sneakers or anything where "distressed" might be a descriptor.
Level of Formality: Depends.
Code names: Backyard barbecue. Barn chic. Desert chic. What they mean: Lean on the hosts to give some sort of guidance here. If you are hosting, add a line about what you're expecting ("Cowboy hats and boots welcome" or "Linen for days"). If you're the guest, don't be afraid to ask. When in doubt, always go dressier.
Another tip: Check out information on the venue. Seeing how formal (or not) the place is can help guide you. The Suit: When in doubt, dress a little more formally. It's much better to go with a suit and tie—where you can take off the jacket and tie—than to not have the option at all. A fun suit is welcome here.
The Accessories: Accessories might be extra welcome at this sort of wedding, maybe in the form of the aforementioned hat or boots. Use your discretion.
Other Helpful Tips
The Tie: If you're going to wear a tie, this is not the time for novelty prints or loud patterns. You don't want to be remembered as "The Tie Guy."
The Dress Shirt: When in doubt, go with white. Also, make sure the fabric isn't too thin (your undershirt shouldn't be visible) and there isn't any yellowing under the arms. You might think people won't notice. They will.
The Cufflinks: Cufflinks are seen as more formal, and you're generally going to wear them for the most formal dress codes. If you plan on wearing cufflinks, make sure you're buying a French cuff shirt—otherwise, you won't have anywhere to put them. The Pocket Square: There is no right or wrong way to fold your pocket square. You just want to see a bit of the fold coming out, and not in a way that looks messy.
The Must-Know Etiquette: For your suit jacket: Unbutton the top button when you sit down, and button it when you stand back up. Never button the bottom button. And a tip for when you are allowed to take your jacket or blazer off: Not until the most senior person take theirs off.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.