Photo: Bella Bridesmaids Allentown/Rhinehart Photography
Along with the date, time, and location, wedding invitations include one other important piece of information:
A dress code that indicates what the couple wants you to wear!
As a wedding guest, you should always aim to look appropriate for the wedding, and the way to do that is to follow the wedding dress code.
The more formal the event, the more important it is to follow the fashion rules. But there are so many different formal levels of dress that it’s not easy to remember exactly what each entails.
From semi-formal to white-tie, here are the seven levels of formal wedding attire to help you figure out what to wear to your next formal wedding.
The Levels of Formal Wedding Attire
Photo: Bella Bridesmaids Los Angeles/Anya Kernes
There are seven formal wedding dress codes, and some have much stricter rules than others.
Here’s a look into each formal dress code, starting with white tie (the most formal) to semi-formal (the least formal):
We sometimes refer to white tie as “full evening dress.” This dress code calls for a classic tailcoat tuxedo with tails in the back, a crisp white dress shirt, a white bow tie, and patent leather dress shoes. Guys can even accessorize with gloves or a top hat!
As for dresses, a full-length evening gown is a must, but it can’t just be any dress. It should be something special!
Just be mindful not to upstage the bride. A couture ball gown would be a great choice for a white-tie charity gala. Yet, you should probably steer away from the ball gown for a wedding, just in case the bride wears one.
Check out What to Wear to a Wedding When the Invite Says “White Tie” for more details!
Photo: Bella Bridesmaids Philadelphia/Photodelphiastudio
Black-tie weddings are a little less formal than white-tie events, but they’re still super fancy!
The standard is a tuxedo with a cummerbund, a black bow tie, and patent leather dress shoes. While it may be tempting to want to deviate a bit to show your personal style, it’s best to stick with tradition.
There is a bit more flexibility when it comes to black-tie dresses. Of course, floor-length gowns are the ideal choice, but if you’ve got a stunning cocktail dress, that will work too. You can even get away with an evening-wear pantsuit if you pair it with elegant shoes and sparkling jewelry!
Learn more about the black-tie dress code in Black Tie Wedding Attire Dos and Don’ts.
Creative black-tie attire is essentially the same as black-tie, but with one twist:
The addition of unique, playful accessories.
Consider wearing a whimsical printed tie or a patterned cummerbund beneath your tux. Add novelty cufflinks to a white shirt, or wear brightly colored earrings or a statement necklace.
A statement-making minaudiere or an eye-catching clutch bag is another great way to work some personal style into a creative black-tie look.
Black-Tie Optional (aka “Formal”)
Black-tie optional, sometimes just called “formal,” means that you can wear a tux if you want to, but a dark suit is perfectly acceptable. You'll fit right in in a dark gray, navy, or black suit with a tie, dress shoes, and a perfectly pressed shirt!
Any wedding guest dress suitable for black-tie or creative black-tie is suitable for black-tie optional as well. Both floor-length dresses and cocktail dresses are appropriate options.
Cocktail wedding dress attire is formal, but there’s no need to wear a tux — a suit and tie are all you need!
As for dresses, cocktail dresses with knee length and shorter hemlines are standard, but there are other options. For instance, a slip midi dress or a chic jumpsuit with a pair of heels are all great choices for a cocktail attire wedding.
Read What to Wear When the Wedding Invite Says “Cocktail Attire” for more ideas!
Photo: Bella Bridesmaids Philadelphia/leahmiessler_photo
Festive isn’t a wedding dress code that you see all that often. That’s because it’s usually reserved for celebrations around the December holidays.
In terms of garments and silhouettes, the festive dress code follows the same rules as cocktail attire but with a fun, festive touch.
Pair a suit with a jewel-toned dress shirt, or add a dark floral print tie or pocket square. Choose a dress, a handbag, or shoes with sequins and sparkles for some added glitz!
Semi-formal wedding attire isn’t that formal at all. In fact, it’s only slightly more formal than “dressy casual attire.” When you see this wedding guest attire on an invitation, it simply means that the couple wants you to look nice!
You’ll be good to go with a button-down shirt and dress pants for a daytime event. For the evening, top it with a blazer for a slightly more dressed-up look or opt for a suit with or without a tie.
Shorter dresses and simple cocktail dresses are best for an evening wedding, but for the daytime, you can even get away with a dressy skirt and top.
Dress shoes are a must for all formal dress codes. So whether you choose to wear a dress or a jumpsuit, pair it with elegant heels or a super-dressy flat.
When wearing a tuxedo for a black-tie or white-tie event, keep it classic with patent leather dress shoes. For less formal dress codes, you can accessorize with a pair of stylish leather loafers or oxfords.
Take Time for Grooming
No matter what outfit you choose to wear, make sure your hair, makeup, facial hair, and nails complement your look. The goal is to be sure your overall appearance is neat and put together from top to bottom!
Tips for Choosing Formal Wedding Attire
Photo: Real Bella Weddings: Mary and Josh/Lela & Lyla Photography
With the exception of white-tie, which has super strict rules, other formal wedding dress codes have some wiggle room.
When deciding on a wedding outfit, be sure to choose one that’s appropriate not just for the dress code but also for the venue, the time of day, and the season.
Consider the Venue
The more upscale the venue, the more formal your look should be. For example, say you’re heading to a beach wedding that calls for cocktail attire. So you could opt for a little black dress with wedge heels over a heavily embellished, beaded dress with skinny stiletto heels.
Think About the Time of Day
Consider the time of the event as well, as evening events usually skew dressier than daytime events. For example, a tux makes sense for a black-tie optional wedding at night. Meanwhile, a suit is more appropriate for a black-tie optional celebration in the early afternoon.
Factor in the Season
It’s always best to dress for the season, especially if you’re heading to an outdoor wedding where the weather might be a factor. For a black-tie winter wedding, a long sleeve velvet gown is a gorgeous look. But a lightweight chiffon or satin dress is a better choice for a spring or summer wedding.
Discover the perfect dresses for your besties in our collection, featuring hundreds of swoon-worthy, modern bridesmaid dresses.
There are many variations of formalwear, from top hats and tails to beaded evening gowns to cocktail dresses to suits and ties.
There are lots of options to choose from when deciding what to wear to a wedding. However, no matter the dress code, choose a look that makes you feel ah-ma-zing!
Unless you attend formal events on a regular basis, this upcoming wedding is your chance to pull out all the stops and enjoy an evening looking your absolute best.