The Definitive Guide to Wedding Dress Codes
t took almost two years, but weddings are back, baby. And though they might not look a whole lot like the ones you're used to going to (smaller guests lists and getting Covid checks are now standard), there are still a few fundamental features that've largely stayed the same. Primary among them: the dreaded dress code. If you've ever spent the better part of an afternoon puzzling over a meaningless mishmash of terms and trying to figure out what in the hell everyone else will be wearing to Anna and Drew’s Western-themed wedding, you're not alone.
It's high time we put an end to the confusion, once and for all. It's all fun and games until you're served with an invite that calls for, like, "Creative black tie, but make it rugged!" and you have no idea what in the hell you're actually supposed to wear.
So we rounded up a list of the most common wedding dress codes you're apt to encounter and then consulted with etiquette expert Myka Meier to break down what each one typically entails. Because if you're being asked to celebrate one of the last truly good things on this godforsaken planet, the least you can do is come correct. Here's how.
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 even fancier.
The Accessories: The bow tie, vest, and wing-collar shirt should all be white. You'll need studs and cufflinks, too. As for shoes, they should be patent leather. (Yes, patent leather.)
Level of Formality: High.
Definition: Black tie means a tuxedo.
The Suit: A tuxedo. Read the situation in terms of what you can get away with here. The no-fail option: A classic black peak lapel number. Shawl collars, color variations, and stylistic details can either represent a welcome swerve (like on a red carpet) or look wildly out of place (like at a very traditional wedding). And, as always, you can never 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 (though we don't necessarily recommend it). Your shirt should have French cuffs, which you can wear with cufflinks, but only true sticklers will give you a hard time about a barrel cuff. Studs for your shirt, unless you go ultra-sleek and opt for a fully covered placket. You have the option of a pocket square (go with white, naturally), plus a waistcoat or cummerbund. Shoes should should be dark and polished, and worn with black dress socks.
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 a black tie-level tuxedo, follow the rules for black tie, but know that you can get away with just a bit more, like the Gos-god is here. If you're opting not to tux up (price is usually a factor here), stick to the most formal suit you have in a dark color. Black, navy, or gray works here—the darker the better.
The Accessories: As simple and polished as you can keep 'em. Bear in mind there will be people in black tie even if you're not, and you'll want to feel as appropriately dressed 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. If it's spring or summer and/or held outside, you'll likely see less black and more light grays and beige. But the suit should match, and you should still be wearing a collared shirt.
The Accessories: You should be wearing a tie here too. If you're a hard no on the tie, at least use a pocket square to up the suit's formality. Also, make sure to match your belt with your shoes, though if your suit trousers fit, skipping the belt altogether is always a play.
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 have some fun with it—within reason.
The Suit: Your suit should have 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 too—but don't go too bright. In general, cocktail means darker colors. And you 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 around a bit with color, both in the outfit itself and in your accessories. (But remember: don't go too 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 you're wearing a suit and tie.
The Suit: Always remember, the darker the suit the more formal it is. For a beach wedding, lighter-colored suiting in summer-ready fabrics like linen are ideal.
The Accessories: You should wear a tie or a pocket square. In terms of footwear, 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 rock to a formal event. Shoes you can wear sockless are good option here.
Level of Formality: Medium.
Definition: "Dressy" is a hint that shorts and sneakers are still not okay. Yes, even if they're "dressy" shorts and sneakers.
The Suit: It doesn't necessarily have to be a suit, actually. You could opt for trousers or nice chinos below and a crewneck with a blazer, or just a button-down, on top. "Could" is the operative word here. If it's dressy, a jacket—or a suit with some personality—is generally the best move.
The Accessories: Tie strictly not required. But be wary of wearing the wrong shoes here. You might think your "dressy sneakers" are perfect. The couple might not. But if you know for sure they're the type of folks who'd definitely approve? Go for it, dude.
Level of Formality: Semi-low.
Definition: Casual at a wedding does not mean the same thing as casual on your own time. Don't wear shorts.
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 some well-fitting dark denim (sans rips, please) and a button-down. You could wear a pair of crisp khakis, a T-shirt or polo, and a sportcoat. There's a lot of options, but you should look like you have your shit together.
The Accessories: Keep your footwear fairly refined. You can finally break out those streamlined sneakers, or opt for nice loafers. No running shoes or anything where "distressed" might be a descriptor.
Level of Formality: Depends.
Code names: "Disco fantasy chic." "Gallery opening."
What they mean: Lean on the hosts to give you some sort of guidance here. If you're the host, include 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 your decisions.
The Suit: If the invite's ambiguous, dress a little more formally. It's much better to go with a suit and tie—pieces you can ditch pretty easily—than to not have the option at all.
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, so, fittingly, you're generally going to want 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 as for when it's appropriate to take your jacket or blazer off? Not until the most senior person at the shindig takes off theirs, too.
From: Esquire US