A Guest's Guide to Every Kind of Wedding Dress Code

From black-tie to casual, we break down what each wedding dress code means.
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by
Lauren Whalley
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Lauren Whalley
Fashion Editor, Beauty & Inclusivity
  • Lauren writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a specialty in fashion, beauty and size inclusivity.
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Lauren worked in wedding editorial for Brides, Style Me Pretty and Enaura Bridal.
  • Lauren studied public relations and advertising at the University of Central Florida.
Updated Jun 26, 2023

Shortly after you RSVP to attend a wedding, you'll likely start thinking about what to wear. While most wedding invitations include the preferred wedding dress codes, it might be hard to decipher exactly what types of wedding dress codes to-be-weds envision, from rehearsal dinner attire to the wedding day itself. Plus, with the rise of creative wedding guest attire suggestions (like "whimsical garden party" or "tropical formal"), you might be stumped when it comes to interpreting what they mean. And while more wedding dress code clues can often be found on the couple's wedding website, choosing what to wear isn't always easy—but that's where we come in.

Wedding guest attire cheat sheet.
Photo: Mens Warehouse/Sachin & Babi/Rent the Runway /The Black Tux/ASTR The Label/Bonobos/Abercrombie & Fitch/Anthropologie,Design: Tiana Crispino

To help you brush up on the basics of wedding dress codes, we've broken down the most popular types of wedding dress codes, ranked from most formal to least formal, so you can find the best wedding guest outfit. We tapped industry experts to define the most common wedding dress codes, from black-tie and menswear attire to semi-formal and casual wedding attire. Plus, tips on what to wear to a wedding by venue (yes, it matters) and more tips to help you decipher the couple's wedding dress code and show up as the best dressed guest (because who doesn't want that title!)

In this article:

THE KNOT ORIGINAL VIDEO

White-Tie Attire

White-tie wedding attire is the most formal of all dress codes. Also called full dress, white tie attire is often reserved for elegant events like state dinners, royal banquets and very formal weddings. While white-tie weddings aren't as common today, it is important to dress appropriately if you're invited to one. White-tie wedding attire for men includes a long and dark tuxedo tailcoat with fabric extensions that reach to the back of the knee. A white piqué button-down shirt should be worn under a white vest with a bow tie and a cummerbund. Pants should match the color and fabric of the jacket, and white-tie trousers often include a satin or grosgrain stripe along the outer seams.

As for women, a formal dress is a must for this attire suggestion. An evening gown with a full-length A-line or sheath silhouette is appropriate, though you could also consider a floor-length ball gown depending on the formality of the venue. If you are attending a white-tie wedding, this is your chance to accessorize with glittering jewels, sleek dress shoes and elbow-length white silk gloves.

Black-Tie Attire

Following white-tie, black-tie is the next most formal wedding dress code. Black-tie weddings often take place later in the day, and they require formal outfits. "Traditionally, black-tie weddings happen after 5:30 or 6:00 p.m.," explains Virginia-based wedding style expert Monte Durham. "Black-tie means just that: Expect to see tuxedos with black bow ties, a simple long black-tie or even a long string tie. Formal gowns are also expected, and they should touch the ground or the top of the shoes." It's important to note that black-tie wedding attire is one of the stricter dress codes, with little room for interpretation. "Black-tie requires a tuxedo—not a black suit, and definitely not suit separates," explains Jian DeLeon, Men's Fashion & Editorial Director at Nordstrom. "You don't have to wear full tails and a cummerbund, but today there are plenty of great formal options for any budget."

Attending a wedding with a black-tie dress code is a great opportunity to dress up your outfit with accessories too. "Cufflinks on French cuffs are a great way to enhance any tuxedo," explains Andrew Roberts, CEO of luxury formalwear brand Del Toro. And, for women, you can't go wrong with pieces that add sparkle to your outfit. "Refined jewelry like pearls or diamonds are the best options to dress up an evening gown," explains Ranu Coleman, CMO of wedding fashion brand Azazie.

Black-Tie Optional Attire

If your wedding invitation says "black-tie optional" for the dress code, you might be confused as to whether or not you actually need to wear a black-tie wedding outfit. Think of black-tie optional guest attire as a fusion between black-tie and formal fashion. You can wear a tuxedo or a floor-length evening gown if you want, but a dark suit with dress pants and nice loafers would be acceptable too. Similarly, a knee-length or midi cocktail dress would also be appropriate instead of a floor-length gown.

The time of day the event is taking place can also be a helpful indicator of what the wedding dress code means. Evening weddings often indicate a more formal wedding style. In that case, you might consider an outfit that feels a little more upscale. Or, for a black-tie optional wedding in the early afternoon, it's perfectly appropriate to trade the tuxedo or evening gown for something on the less-formal end of the black-tie spectrum.

Formal Attire

One of the most popular wedding dress codes is formal attire. And, while you might see this wedding attire wording on a lot of invitations that land in your mailbox, that doesn't make it any easier to decide what to wear to a formal wedding. "A formal wedding dress code is slightly less formal than a black-tie event, and in general, it tends to have fewer specifications," says Coleman. "Women can get away with a nicer cocktail dress, and for men, tuxedos are not required."

So, with less guidance, what should you wear for a formal dress code? Durham, who also appears on TLC's Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, encourages guests to start with the basics. "A formal wedding might include a jacket and tie or a traditional suit," he suggests. "An elegant dress or a nice pantsuit would also be appropriate."

If you're confused about what's appropriate when it comes to formal wedding attire, you can never be too overdressed. When in doubt, a dark, well-tailored suit or a floor-length dress are safe choices. But if you're feeling adventurous, you can experiment with trendy jumpsuits, a suit with a colorful jacket or bold accessories. As you're choosing what to wear to a formal wedding, remember that erring on the side of caution with a more formal look is always a safe choice.

Cocktail Attire

When it comes to cocktail wedding attire, guests have more flexibility with hemlines, colors and patterns. "The phrase 'cocktail' comes from the 1950s," Durham explains. "This style requires a formal dress with a shorter hemline. It might also be accented with jewelry or a nicer pair of shoes—embellishment is key for a cocktail dress code."

Since cocktail wedding attire is slightly less formal than black-tie and black-tie optional, tuxes and floor-length gowns are not required. (However, you can always opt for longer skirts or formal jackets if you'd like, which are popular choices for winter wedding attire.) When it comes to deciding what to wear to a cocktail wedding, a suit and tie with a crisp black or white shirt and dress pants is a no-fail choice. You can also wear a short formal dress or an elegant jumpsuit with jewelry.

Semi-Formal Attire or Dressy Casual Attire

Guests in semi-formal and dressy casual attire
Photo: Ashley Cox Photography

Semi-formal wedding attire may seem like one of the trickier dress codes to nail. And, since cocktail and semi-formal wedding attire can sometimes be used interchangeably, you might feel confused when it's time to pick an outfit. "Semi-formal falls in the gray area between casual and formal," says Coleman. "However, cocktail attire tends to be a little more dressy than semi-formal." So, what do you wear to a semi-formal wedding? "Some ideas include a midi dress, a chic jumpsuit, or a wrap dress," Coleman continues. "For cocktail attire, stick to a structured dress or a sleek black dress—you can never go wrong with an LBD."

Embellishments and additional features on an outfit can also help differentiate cocktail attire from semi-formal wedding attire. "A dress for a semi-formal wedding might not include any sort of beading or statement accessories," says Durham. "A suit and tie are also appropriate."

In recent years, the phrase "dressy casual" has risen in popularity for wedding dress codes. Think of dressy casual wedding attire wording as a spin on business casual. Dressy casual wedding attire is most closely related to semi-formal attire, and should be interpreted appropriately. Depending on the time of the event, choose an outfit that falls in between formal and casual. It's encouraged to wear darker, more formal hues for an evening fete, while light colors and fabrics would be appropriate for a daytime wedding.

Casual Attire

You might be tempted to think that a casual dress code means anything goes, but that's not necessarily the case. Casual wedding attire is one of the most relaxed out of all the dress code wording examples on this list, but it's important to remember that a wedding is still a formal event, after all, so there are some rules to keep in mind. "With the rise of backyard weddings, casual dress codes are common," Durham says. "But it's important to remember that you are attending a wedding, after all, and this kind of event requires a certain kind of outfit."

When you're choosing what to wear to a casual wedding as a guest, use business casual outfit ideas as a guide. "You can never go wrong with a navy blazer, a blue button-down shirt or khaki pants," Durham adds. "This will take you a long way. The minute you put on a tie and a pocket square, you will look fully dressed. Similarly, you can always opt for a dress with a nice neckline and simple accessories. Consider swapping sandals for a pump heel to dress it up more." Adds Coleman: "For women, I recommend wearing a sundress, a high-low dress or a jumpsuit."

Daytime Attire

Similar to casual weddings, A daytime wedding dress code also comes with more flexibility in terms of experimenting with trendy colors, patterns and fabrics. So, if you're feeling up for it, you can opt for a wedding guest outfit that you wouldn't normally wear. "Semi-formal and casual occasions come with a little more freedom in what you wear," explains DeLeon. "Avoid pinstripes in favor of a solid color or a less business-oriented pattern like glen plaid, houndstooth, or windowpane. And, while a classic navy or dark charcoal gray suit will suffice, consider switching up the shirt and tie for a floral camp shirt or knit polo instead." Even with more flexibility, though, Durham notes that there are a few wedding dress code rules to abide by. "Shorts, running gear and tennis shoes should be off-limits for a daytime wedding."

Country and Western Attire

Country and western weddings have recently entered the wedding attire chat. Whether you're attending a wedding in an open field, a barn or just a romantic, rustic-themed affair, this style may be more relaxed, but that doesn't mean you should be wearing shorts and sneakers either. It's the perfect opportunity for flowy dresses, breezy fabrics and earthy tones that would look so cute with a pair of cowboy boots. There's even a rise in boho-inspired elements in Western-inspired attire that you can find at retailers like Anthropologie and Refomation if that's more your style. "Western weddings are really one of the only chances you'll ever have to wear denim to a wedding," says Tres Dean, The Knot's Associate Menswear Editor. "This doesn't necessarily mean jeans, mind you—you can try a denim shirt or jacket and finish it off with cowboy boots, the ultimate western wedding accessory." I'll tip my hat to that.

Wedding Guest Guide to Colors

It's a question that stumps even the most stylish of wedding guests: What colors are okay to wear to weddings? One thing's for sure: It's best to steer clear of wearing white for obvious reasons. Colors like black can also be great (but you may want to avoid the hue if you're attending a summer beach wedding in Florida; take my word for it). Another hot tip: be sure to read the dress code carefully on the invitation or wedding website. The couple may request that guests wear or avoid a certain color palette. If you're still unsure, check out our seasonal wedding guest dress guides for a peek at some trending hues for the upcoming wedding date.

What to Wear to a Wedding by Location

While the wedding dress code may be listed on the invitation to give you a better idea of style, there is another clue to help you pick out the perfect fit: the venue. Different locations and destinations call for different kinds of attire to match the vibe. What you wear to a Key West wedding is much more casual than what you'd wear to a French Chateau. Don't worry; I've got your back. Below is a list of our wedding guest attire guides based on some popular wedding venues to make shopping a little less stressful.

Backyard Wedding Attire

Backyard weddings are super trendy at the moment, and so is the dress code. Regardless of whether it's a "Father of the Bride" formal or a laidback Spring affair, still plan for lightweight fabrics, midi dresses or slacks with a button-up shirt. Oh, and be sure to check your footwear before you head outside, backyard weddings could mean uneven grass, so opt for block heels, loafers and sandals with sturdy soles

Barn Wedding Attire

For those attending a barn wedding, cotton mini dresses, bold patterns and dusty earth tones are the vibe. Aim for casual elegance that will look good from the ceremony to line dancing under the stars. And yes, it's also a great opp to dust off your favorite cowboy hat and boots that normally wouldn't work for a formal wedding.

Beach Wedding Attire

Beach weddings are comin' in hot (literally). Consider this your sign to ditch the heavy gowns and formal tuxedos for breezy linen button-downs and flowy maxi dresses. If the wedding is directly on the beach, you may want to wear a sandal or shoe you can easily take-off so you can put your toe in the sand while walking to and from the ceremony.

Castle Wedding Attire

Attending a castle wedding is the dream. If you are so lucky to receive an invite, take me as your plus one first of all. Second, expect the dress code to range from formal to black-tie attire. This could also be one of the few types of weddings that require white-tie attire. Plan on dressing your best with a tuxedo and floor length gown. (Did I mention this may be a great time to channel your inner Bridgerton?)

Country Club Wedding Attire

Country club settings are typically filled with manicured lawns and elegant reception spaces, so be prepared to elevate your wedding guest game with attire that's classy yet stylish. You can't go wrong with a classic suit and tie or a midi or floor-length dress with a pair of strappy heels. Oh, and don't be afraid to get preppy with it.

Courthouse Wedding Attire

Courthouse weddings are the moment right now. And you'll want to match that city-chic energy with your attire. While it is a civil ceremony, the location requires a look that is a bit more formal than dressy casual. TLDR: A sports coat and slacks, a dressier sundress or a sophisticated jumpsuit were made for this setting.

Destination Wedding Attire

We all want to step off the plane to our bestie's destination wedding in style. However, the destination can play a big role in the attire you pack in your carry-on. You could be headed to a destination wedding in tropical Tulum or the snowy Colorado mountains. There are a few questions you'll want to ask yourself before you jet off, and luckily we thought of them for you.

Outdoor Wedding Attire

What's not to love about an outdoor wedding? (Spoiler alert: nothing.) If you find yourself RSVPing yes to an outdoor wedding, then you'll of course want to find the perfect garden wedding attire to go with it. Think light pastel hues, khaki pants, airy fabrics and floral prints.

Vineyard Wedding Attire

Lush vines, incredible views and some delicious vino are the ingredients for an incredible winery wedding. Whether you're attending nuptials in Napa Valley or Tuscany, the wedding dress code will likely fall between semi formal cocktail attire and formal attire. Keep your color palette neutral and let your accessories do the talking (A glass of bubbly counts, right?)

What to Wear to a Wedding by Cultural Tradition

If you're struggling with what to wear to a wedding based on cultural traditions, you're not alone. You want to be both respectful and stylish. To do so, it's very important that you do your research in advance. Different cultures have different ideas of what is appropriate and inappropriate. For instance, bright hues and multiple outfits are often encouraged for Indian wedding guest attire, or men could be asked to wear a kilt at a traditional Scottish wedding. If you are hesitant about whether something is okay to wear, don't roll the dice; this is an instance where you would want to reach out directly to the couple so they can guide you in the right direction.

Sarah Hanlon contributed to the reporting of this article.

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