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.
sarah hanlon associate editor the knot
by Sarah Hanlon
sarah hanlon associate editor the knot
Sarah Hanlon
Associate Editor
  • Sarah is an Associate Digital Editor for The Knot, with special focuses in fashion, pop culture and wedding trends.
  • Before joining The Knot Worldwide, Sarah was a contributing writer for Bravo at NBC Universal.
  • Sarah has a degree in journalism and resides in New York City.
Updated Jul 20, 2021
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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 code, it might be hard to decipher exactly what the to-be-weds envision when it comes to the attire. Plus, with the rise of creative wedding guest attire suggestions (like "dressy casual" or "beach formal"), you might be stumped when it comes to interpreting what they mean. And while more 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.

To help you find the best wedding guest outfit, we're breaking down exactly what wedding attire wording means. We tapped industry experts to define the most common wedding dress codes, from black-tie to cocktail and casual wedding attire. In this fashion cheat sheet, you'll also find tried-and-true styling hacks that'll help you decode the invitation if you're not sure what certain terms look like on the rack. Brush up on the basics of wedding dress codes below, and use this guide to find an outfit that's perfect for celebrating the couple on their big day.

In this article:

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 pm," 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 cummerbund, but today there are plenty of great formal options at any budget."

Attending a wedding with a black-tie dress code is a great opportunity to elevate 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," 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 midi or knee-length 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 imply 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, choosing what to wear requires careful consideration. "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 still stuck on what formal wedding attire looks like, you can never be too overdressed. When in doubt, a dark, well-tailored suit or a simple long dress are safe choices. But, if you're feeling adventurous, you can experiment with trendy jumpsuits or 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 elegant look is always a reliable 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 you're choosing what to wear to a cocktail wedding, a suit and tie with a crisp black or white shirt with dress pants is a no-fail choice. You can also wear a short formal dress or an elegant jumpsuit with jewelry.

Beach Formal

Fashion rules tend to be a bit more lenient for beach weddings. Whether you'll be heading to the tropics for a destination celebration or you're attending a classic summer wedding, it's important to dress for the elements. "If you're going to a wedding on the beach, opt for a linen dress shirt and slacks with a blazer, or a sundress with a straw hat or bag since that fits the aesthetic," explains Durham.

As with most outdoor weddings, consider your shoe choice wisely. You might want to swap stiletto heels for wedges or thick sandals, especially if you'll be walking on sand. And for nuptials that'll take place in warmer climates, shorter skirts and light, airy fabrics like linen and cotton will help you stay cool while keeping in line with the preferred wedding dress code.

Semi-Formal or Dressy Casual

Semi-formal wedding attire may seem like one of the tricker dress codes to nail. And, since semi-formal and cocktail 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. Some examples of what to wear to a semi-formal event include a midi dress, a chic jumpsuit or a wrap dress. For cocktail attire, stick to a structured 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 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 too. Think of this 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 fête, while light colors and fabrics would be appropriate for a daytime wedding.

Daytime or 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 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 event requires a certain kind of outfit; Shorts, running gear and tennis shoes should be off-limits for a casual wedding."

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 and khaki pants," Durham adds. "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."

A casual 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."

Ultimately, what matters most is that you feel confident in whatever outfit you choose to wear. As long as your attire abides by the preferred wedding dress code, you'll look (and feel) your best as you celebrate the happy couple.

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