Wedding Style: Casual Weddings

These days, everyone seems to want relaxed, understated elegance. Do you have what it takes? We'll show you how to pull-off a wedding that's done to the nines ... but with ease.
Amy Elliott
Amy Elliott
Amy Elliott
Amy Elliott
Jewelry Expert
  • Amy Elliott is a Contributing Writer at JCK/JCK Online, a jewelry trade publication and website.
  • Amy has been a copywriter for such brands as Tory Burch and J.Crew.
  • Amy was an editor at The Knot from 1999 to 2002.

It's the new obsession. As many social circles have collectively declared the traditional pomp and pageantry of workaday weddings to be too much, couples are now choosing a more laidback approach that's elegant in essence but never stilted or overblown. It's a beautiful breed of informality that allows for a carefree aesthetic, as well as expressions of personality, wit, and style. In rejecting cookie-cutter conventions, many brides and grooms are discovering "casual elegance." Luxe with less is definitely more, but exactly how do you plan a played-down party? Here's how we'd do a cool, casual wedding.

The Litmus Test

First things first: Ask yourself, do you


want a casual wedding? The term speaks to simplicity and a dressed-down ambience. For some, informal means stripping the wedding of all the bells and whistles in favor of more free-spirited fancies: "We envisioned something out of a Robert Louis Stevenson poem," described a bride who married in Sonoma County. Or, as a bride who married amidst a copse on a Colorado mountaintop put it: "It was as if Gatsby had set up a tea party in the forest." Sometimes "simple elegance" conjures up a sophisticated, understated soiree, probably set in a chic hotel ballroom, but with a minimalist, less-is-more theme driving the decor. We think contrast is key -- tuxedoes and bare feet; beach grass in cut-crystal vases; Texas-style barbecue served on luxurious white linens....

Whatever your interpretation, committing to casual usually means forgoing the voluminous gown, the dramatic ice sculptures, the sprawling buffet, and towering centerpieces. That said, you never want to be in the position of having to reject certain details or concepts that are important to you in an effort to appear stylish, or because someone tells you they aren't in good taste. Many wedding consultants tell their couples to close their eyes, imagine the scene of their wedding, and then describe the specifics as best they can. In fact, this is how you'll find the answers to all of your vibe and formality issues.

The Invitations

The look and language of your invitations typically prescribe the degree of your wedding's formality, cluing guests in as to what to wear, the mood of your celebration, and who you are as a couple. While the classic ecru, engraved invitation is straightforward and elegant, we prefer the use of handmade papers with soft, sumptuous surfaces, textured or detailed ribbons, echoed motifs (bumble bees, butterflies, snazzy monograms), and imagery for a casual wedding. Color also helps to create an evocative picture of the fun to come: for ink, instead of black, think copper or burgundy. Or, better yet, incorporate unexpected color combos -- lime with raspberry or hunter-green with burnt orange -- into the design scheme. Personal, imaginative wording is another way to flaunt your casual style. Hip invitation designers urge their clients to compose the text of the invitation in their own voice, as if they were writing a letter to their guests. Your own handwriting might work well; otherwise, ask your designer to see samples of type styles that are not too flourished.

Find your kind of venue

From barns to ballrooms, discover reception venues that feel like you.

The Setting

Basically, you want a location that allows for stretching legs, letting down hair, and leisurely, unpretentious partying. You want a place where guests can feel free to throw a Frisbee after dinner, or where children could comfortably set up a picnic on the grass. Meanwhile, just as easily, other guests could be twirling parasols or sampling oysters from a nearby display. Frolicking dogs are charming, too. Rustic but refined is a good rule of thumb: a meadow, a ranch in the desert, a white tent on the beach, a clearing in the forest...all of these settings will provide a fitting and welcome sense of informality. City slickers might head for a small town in the country, appropriately equipped with pared-down peace and quiet. Likewise, pastoral bed-and-breakfasts offer unbeatable seclusion and intimacy. Still, such venues don't mandate a rough-around-the-edges kind of revelry. For instance, no aspect of the decor should look styled; instead, the scene should seem spontaneously decorated. For table linens, ditch the demure ivory damask and go for heirloom lace tablecloths, toile, plaids, Provencal patterns, or cheery checked cloths.

Flowers -- Gerbera daisies, sunflowers, or gathered wildflowers -- can be displayed in eclectic containers like jars and pitchers. The lighting's as au naturel as possible, subtly illuminating the fete in the form of clean, white candles, antique candelabra, or rustic metal railroad lanterns.

The Look

Simply put, a casual-but-elegant bride may wear whatever she likes. It might be a streamlined sheath with crisp, columnar lines, a strapless sundress with a straw hat, or a smart, retro pantsuit. While plush and princess-like are never entirely out of place, the wear-again potential is often a priority. We love the idea of revamping a vintage gown, transforming a lace-heaped creation with multi-tiered petticoats into something more runway-worthy: maybe a fresh, flirty, above-the-knee masterpiece. Her relaxed groom can sport an East Coast ensemble: tan trousers with a navy blazer, perhaps, with a colorful grosgrain belt and bow tie. A jacket might not even be necessary -- we love un-tucked white dress shirts worn with neckties partly pulled undone. As far as wedding party attire, abandon the matchy-matchy urge. Let the guys get gussied up in their own gear, and dress the girls in flowery "summer-at-the-seashore" cotton frocks. Bouquets have only to show some stem, while stalks of wheat or sprigs of rosemary make beautiful boutonnieres.

The Menu

In the midst of multiple toasts and other blissfully unstructured reception moments, guests can enjoy a grand gourmet feast or a pleasant picnic repast -- both are fair game. We envision guests dining family-style at long wooden tables, passing stoneware platters piled with oak-smoked meats and aromatic grilled vegetables back and forth. Anything you can eat with your fingers is appropriate. Think olives, ripe raspberries, imported cheeses. Rustic loaves of bread served with sweet butter and an assortment of homemade preserves are ideal accompaniments. Pitchers of ice water, lemonade, or sangria might grace the tables, along with carafes filled with wine from local vineyards.

The Parting Gesture

Say goodbye graciously: Give out thoughtfully chosen favors, modest and meaningful. How about a perfect pear, apple, or white peach? An assortment of penny candy makes a kitschy keepsake, while indigenous delights like wax-sealed jars of honey from a local farm are deliciously quaint. Making a donation to a local charity or historic property is yet another way to show good taste. Finally, a few words about presentation: Think twice about tulle pouches and pearl-edged ribbons. Instead, look to the powers of antique handkerchiefs, dried herbs and flowers, raffia, burlap, and other unexpected materials.

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