If you’re IN a wedding, your fashion choices are surprisingly easy. You choose a dress you love, rent the perfect tux, or wiggle into the suit or bridesmaids dress your BFF lovingly selected for you to wear as you support them on their big day.
But if you’re attending a wedding as a guest, your options feel a little freer — and with that freedom comes plenty of potential for faux pas.
If you’re worried about what to wear to your next wedding, refer to these expert tips on what’s okay to wear, what you should avoid, and why tradition isn’t always all that matters.
Think twice about wearing head-to-toe black
In most cultures, black is reserved for mourning. You may think black is chic, maybe black is even your go-to color, but if you’re going to a wedding that is more traditional in nature or if you know the couple is more conservative, black could be seen as an odd choice.
Avoid wearing white
This tip probably goes without saying, but the only person wearing a white dress at a wedding should be the bride. It’s her special day and her time to shine. While some people think it’s okay to wear a dress that’s white as long as there are plenty of colors involved — lots of colorful flowers or a vibrant lace overlay, for instance — there’s always a chance even that amount of white could be misconstrued.
No matter how much you love white, avoid wearing it to someone else’s wedding unless you want to be on the receiving end of dirty looks and maybe even some tears. The one exception is if the happy couple requests white, which leads us to…
Respect the dress code
Yes, we just told you not to wear black or white… but sometimes tradition is trumped by personal preference. It’s up to each couple to determine how they want their wedding to look, and some choose to think outside the box by asking guests to wear a specific style of dress or choose clothes in a specific color. These are usually disclosed in the wedding invitations, so guests have a chance to plan.
Couples have established dress codes that request:
- Masquerade dresses
- Pirate attire
- All black
- All red
- All men in floral ties
- Smart casual
- Garden party chic
- Kentucky Derby wear
- Beach formal
- Fancy ranch
- Decade-specific outfits like Art Deco, ’50s, or ’80s
- All t-shirts
As for the more common dress codes, here are a few of the ones you’re likelier to see you, along with quick explanations of what’s expected:
- Black tie: Formal wear that typically includes floor-length dresses, such as a ball gown, and black suits or tuxedos
- White tie: Even fancier than black tie with formal evening dresses and hair up as if you’re going to a royal event
- Cocktail: Dressed up but not as stuffy, with an abundance of knee-length dresses and darker suits but not necessarily tuxes
- Smart casual: No jeans, shorts, or t-shirts, but otherwise attire can be more relaxed, such as slacks with a button down and blazer (no ties required) and skirts, pantsuits, nice trousers, and blouses
If you’re able to conform to the requested dress code, it’s polite to do so. You’re honoring the couple's wishes, which is always a nice thing to do. Plus, you won’t be the odd one out when it’s time to take group photos and you’re the only person wearing red in a sea of blue.
Remember you’re the supporting cast, not the star
It’s okay to want to look good. You deserve to look and feel your best when you head to a wedding. For many people, this special event is a rare opportunity to put on a suit or pretty dress and get all gussied up. But that doesn’t mean you get to upstage the bride.
Outfits with statement-making details like long trains, tall hats, and tons of sequins are best avoided — though hats are totally fine if you’re attending a wedding in the UK or somehow scored an invite to royal I dos.
Dress appropriately and consider the venue
For a beach wedding, wear shoes that won’t sink down into the sand and consider the heat when deciding between wool and linen suits. For winter weddings, make sure you have warm clothes or a coat to wear over your fancy attire in case you have to wait in line to get in the venue or shared transportation isn’t climate controlled.
Stick to more casual get-ups if you’re attending a backyard wedding or other laid-back bash and dress up if the invitation specifies black-tie or another dress code.
Lastly, be respectful of religious venues that may have their own requirements. Female guests may be asked to cover their arms, heads, and/or cleavage, while men may be asked to don religion-specific headwear. Skimpy attire could draw the ire of clergy and guests alike, and no one wants to go up against an angry Auntie Ethel when everyone should be celebrating instead.
Don’t be afraid to recycle (and re-accessorize) your look
The more weddings you’re invited to, the more love there is to celebrate — and the more potential damage there will be to your wardrobe budget. Dressing up can be expensive. It’s okay to have one or two go-to suits, pantsuits, dresses, or other appropriate outfits that you choose time and time again. You can change up your overall look by:
- Swapping out your shoes
- Trying different ties and shirts
- Adding colorful accessories like a statement necklace or headband
- Using a belt or scarf to transform a dress
- Layering with a cute cardigan or lace jacket
Ask what the bridal party is wearing
You know what’s awkward? Accidentally showing up in a dress the same shade of lemon yellow that the entire bridal party is wearing and having everyone ask you to do bridal party things for the rest of the day. Skip the confusion by asking the bride what color her attendants will be wearing. Then you can choose something else and ensure you’ll spend the ceremony dancing and scarfing down cocktail shrimp rather than being pressed into service helping the flower girl to the potty or loading up the happy couple’s car.
Honor your own comfort level and personal style preferences (to a point). You were invited to this wedding because the couple loves you just as you are. While they might want their guests to fit a general dress code or avoid one specific color, it’s doubtful they want you to completely suppress who you are. If you’re expected to wear a dress and want to wear pants, go for it — and vice-versa.
Try to strike a balance between what makes you feel good and what honors the couple who is, well, being honored. If you’re on a budget, you can even mix and match work wear and dressier pieces to create a custom look that costs you nothing. For example, wide-legged trousers and a sparkly top could be the perfect choice for an evening wedding, especially if you have a silk wrap to ward off the post-dusk chill.
For more ideas, check out these recaps of actual weddings to see what guests wore, how reception themes come together, and why “rustic chic” really is different from “intimate waterfront.”