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Formal Wedding Attire vs. Semi-Formal vs. Casual? What to Wear to a Wedding

From black tie to casual, our wedding guest cheat sheet has everything you need to know about wedding attire.
The Knot
Updated Jul 16, 2020
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Has a wedding invite ever left you clueless about what to wear? Fear not, the info you need is likely there—you just have to know how to interpret the dress code wording. Whether it's black tie, white tie or something in between, here's a cheat sheet for deciding what to wear. 

Once you know the basics, it's time to put together your outfit. Even if you have something appropriate in your closet already, a shopping trip never hurts. (Store employees can answer any lingering wedding fashion questions you have.) That doesn't mean you need to spend big on wedding guest attire, though. Consider renting your ensemble from a site like Rent the Runway, which lets you search its inventory of designer items by various dress codes. 

If the invite says "white tie"

This is the most formal of all wedding dress codes (think state dinners and the Oscars).

He should wear:

A long black jacket with tails, a white pique vest and a bow tie. Formal black shoes and even white gloves are appropriate.

She should wear:

A formal, full-length ball gown. Glamorous makeup and dramatic jewelry and hair are appropriate.

If the invite says "black tie attire"

This is the next most formal wedding dress code and usually means the wedding is an evening affair.

He should wear:

A tuxedo. A black bow tie, cummerbund and patent leather shoes are also suggested.

She should wear:

A chic cocktail dress or a long evening gown. The couple, wedding party or close friends can help answer questions about the appropriate dress length.

If the invite says "formal attire" or "black tie optional attire"

Formal wedding attire can encompass black tie and/or white tie. Men can never go wrong with a well-tailored tuxedo, and women will always look glamorous in a gown. Some brides and grooms these days use the term "formal attire" to mean something slightly less formal than black tie. This means that a tuxedo might not be required for the menfolk, but the event is still formal enough for one to be appropriate. 

If you aren't sure how formal to dress, always choose the more formal option. You never want to be underdressed at a wedding. Plus,there are small ways you can deformalize if you feel overdressed. For example, men can take off a bow tie or cummerbund.  

He should wear:

A tuxedo or formal dark suit and tie.

She should wear:

A long evening dress, dressy suit or formal cocktail-length dress.

Get the full scoop on black tie optional weddings.

If the invite says "cocktail attire"

This is slightly less formal than black tie and black tie optional, which means no tux required for men and no floor-length gown required for women (unless you'd like to wear a long dress, which is popular for winter wedding attire). 

He should wear: 

A suit and tie. Lean toward darker hues in chillier months, and feel free to opt for lighter grays or blues in warmer weather.

She should wear: 

A cocktail dress or dressy suit or jumpsuit.

See our favorite cocktail dresses for wedding guests.

If the invite says "beach formal"

This suggests an elegant beach wedding—so dress to impress, but also dress for the elements (sun, sand and water). Anything you'd wear to a nice restaurant on a summer night is appropriate.

He should wear:

A summer suit with a linen shirt (no ties required), linen pants (or khakis) and sandals.

She should wear:

A formal summer sundress at tea or knee length with flat sandals. Makeup and hair can be natural.

Get more beach wedding fashion inspiration.

If the invite says "semi-formal" or "dressy casual"

Depending on the time of the event, you'll want to dress somewhere between formal and casual. Wear darker, more formal hues for an evening fete; opt for light colors and fabrics for a daytime wedding.

Keep in mind that semi-formal still has the word "formal" in the description. You still want to look elegant and sophisticated. Sure, women don't need to wear ballgowns and the gents can keep their tuxedos in the closet, but don't dress like you're going to a casual family barbeque. 

DO NOT wear shorts, sneakers or polos. No jeans or t-shirts. (Dressy jeans do not count as semi-formal wear.)  This is your relative or friend's special day. Dress to impress.  

He should wear:

A suit and tie, dark or light depending on the season and time of day. A dinner jacket and slacks can also work. Consider adding a little flair with an elegant pocket square or wristwatch. 

She should wear:

A cocktail dress or a dressy skirt and top. A well-tailored pantsuit or a dressy jumpsuit paired with tasteful jewelry is also an excellent option for a semi-formal wedding.  

If the invite says "casual" or "daytime"

Generally, casual means anything goes—but jeans, shorts and tank tops are probably not appropriate unless they're specifically noted as acceptable. For the purposes of wedding wear, assume business casual to be on the safe side.

He should wear:

Dress pants with a button-down shirt or polo.

She should wear:

A summer sundress or a skirt or pants with a nice blouse. Makeup and hair can be natural.

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