A Guide to Wedding Dress Codes and 8 Outfit Ideas That'll Work For The Big Day

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wedding dress codes universal
Paula Boudes

Yup, wedding season is finally here. As your BFF plans for their upcoming nuptials, you’re excited to get your hands on the invite and RSVP to attend their big day. But chances are that whatever invitation you receive during this wedding season, a dress code will be included.

While you know that you can’t rock your favorite sweatsuit or leggings, deciphering their dress code and figuring out what to wear can leave you feeling clueless. Luckily, we spoke to three wedding experts to get some insight on what we should and shouldn’t wear for the event of the year.

Meet the Expert:

  • Stefanie Cove is a wedding planner and founder of Stefanie Cove and Co. based in Los Angeles. She has over 15 years of experience planning events all over the world from weddings to brand dinners.
  • Emily Forrest is the director of communications for Zola. She has over 10 years of experience in wedding planning, including seven with the online wedding registry, wedding planner and retailer.
  • Lundyn Carter is a wedding expert and the founder of Laine London, a Black-founded and woman-owned business that rents designer wedding dresses based on inclusivity, sustainability and customization.

Types of Wedding Dress Codes

  • White Tie: This dress code is the most popular style on the list. It's a timeless option during wedding season. “While people still appreciate and embrace formality, we're seeing couples do this in a way that feels more modern, fresh and fun!" adds Cove.
  • Black Tie: A close second to white tie, black tie weddings are also extremely formal. “Typically, black tie attire is designated for an upscale, sophisticated location. This isn’t always the case though, so it can be really important as the guest to understand the ambiance of the venue if you’re concerned!” notes Forrest.
  • Formal:Formal dress codes may mirror a black tie wedding, but it gives you the choice to either play things up or down.
  • Cocktail: If the soon-to-be newlyweds opted for a cocktail dress code, you get to relax and take a more playful vibe with your fit—which is probably why it’s one of the more popular options these days. “Cocktail attire is a great dress code to bridge the gap between day and night! Many couples are choosing more ‘alternative’ times of day to host their weddings, and with so many different types of wedding venues out there, this dress code offers a happy medium between casual and black-tie,” explains Forrest.
  • Semi-formal: When it comes to semi-formal, it’s all in the name. Instead of going for a floor length gown (which would make you excessively overdressed), select a slightly shorter, sleeker fit that still veers more on the casual side.
  • Casual: A casual dress code may leave you feeling like anything goes. However, it's more about sticking to flowy silhouettes and brighter prints. “This dress code is all about being relaxed and wearing comfortable attire,” adds Carter.
  • Destination: If you’ve been invited to a destination wedding, pack your bags and passport. These tropical weddings are usually hot and humid, so selecting a fit that can help you beat the heat is vital.
  • Themed: If the couple is hosting a concept wedding, they are going to ask that you dress in a way that compliments and adheres to the overarching theme like the Roaring '20s, whimsical fairy tales or Hollywood glam. “In 2023, we are seeing that weddings are becoming more casual and fun! Classic dress codes such as cocktail attire, formal and black-tie still hold the top spots, however we are seeing more couples choosing to lean into a specific theme such as garden party or beach chic,” explains Forrest.

Now that you’re caught up on the different wedding dress codes out there, it’s time to dig deeper and find some inspo on dresses (or pantsuits) you can rock on the big day.

26 Gorgeous Wedding Guest Dresses with Sleeves (Whether You Want Extra Coverage or Extra Warmth)

1. White Tie


If your invite calls for white tie attire, you are in for a night of romantic elegance. Why? Because white tie is the most formal wedding dress code out there. In terms of formality, think of it as a red-carpet affair and go with a floor-length evening gown fit for the Met Gala.

2. Black Tie


For a black tie wedding, it's expected for guests to wear a floor-length gown, but you can also get away with a less traditional silhouette—like a chic pantsuit. “For women, a floor-length dress (or gown) is how Black Tie is traditionally interpreted,” Cove suggests. “From there, I think it's important to let the destination help guide you. For a winter wedding in the city, velvet comes to mind, and for a formal beach occasion, you can never go wrong with silk, lace and florals.”

3. Formal


If you want to partake in the super formal option, go for a head-turning gown. However, if you want to take the casual route, don a fancy midi length dress, or stand out with a statement-making pantsuit. “I would stick to a long dress, but it doesn’t have to be quite as formal as black or white tie weddings. A dressy pantsuit is also an appropriate and chic way for women to interpret this dress code—just avoid showing up in a short mini dress,” says Cove.

4. Cocktail

Amanda Uprichard

“Cocktail attire is a bit more casual and fun,” says Cove. “Women can opt for shorter dresses like cocktail, midi lengths or a flirty pantsuit.” The formality of a cocktail wedding falls right in the middle of formal and semi-formal, so while you can switch out a ball gown for something more comfortable, you also shouldn’t show up in a sundress. Instead, go with a midi (or even a mini) dress that is both sophisticated and elegant mixed with a few fun elements—or a flattering pantsuit in a vibrant color.

5. Semi Floral


We suggest you go with a dressy mini or a pantsuit, but keep in mind that you should go for darker colors in the evening and lighter, brighter fabrics during the day. “Semi-formal is your chance to play around with bright colors, bold prints and flowy silhouettes,” says Cove. “And heels are fine, but if you are outside, I would recommend wedges or sandals to make life a little easier.”

6. Casual


“Believe it or not, a casual dress code is one of the hardest for guests to pin down because they’re concerned that they’ll be too underdressed. Casual doesn’t necessarily mean jeans, so think more business casual or smart casual,” says Forrest. When it comes to a casual wedding, reach for lighter materials and pastel shades that complement the celebration. Explore sundresses, flowy jumpsuits or even a nice pair of slacks and a crisp button down. Forrest suggests adding accessories like jewelry and snazzy sandals to elevate the outfit.

7. Destination


Every wedding is a case-by-case basis, but beachy cotton and linen sundresses or two-piece sets are going to set you up for success (and good times in the sun). Cove's suggestion is as follows: “I always have fun with these tropical and looser destination wedding attires—and designers today make this so easy. There are so many beautiful prints and florals to choose from and anything goes if you're comfortable enough to have a lot of fun and to endure warmer temperatures. If it's hot, less is likely more!”

8. Themed

Let Me Be

These kinds of weddings either request that their guests wear one color for an all-white or all-black wedding, or it goes in a more costume-y direction, like an art deco Gatsby-inspired celebration. It isn’t necessary for you to show up in a full costume (unless they have asked you to), but you should stick to the wedding’s theme with fun pieces that allude to the concept. “Nothing screams fun more than a theme! It's a great way to give your guests a little more flexibility with how they dress and usually, however a guest interprets the theme is completely fine!” says Cove.

Four Things You Shouldn't Wear to Any Wedding

Wedding etiquette has evolved over the years, but there are still some rules you should stick to in order to avoid committing any major fashion don’ts.

1. Avoid Wearing White at All Costs

Even though wedding trends have consistently changed over the years, wearing white as a guest to a wedding is still majorly frowned upon. Avoid any embarrassment and stick to colors that don’t fall into the white, ivory, cream or beige categories. “Colors are often a big debacle when it comes to wedding attire, but personally I don’t feel there are any color schemes that are off limits besides white (unless the couple has specifically asked attendees to wear white). The day is about the couple, and you don’t want to garner more attention than them so I recommend not wearing anything too flashy as well… unless the couple asks for it, of course!” adds Forrest.

2. Don't Go Underdressed to the Wedding

A general rule of thumb for wedding fashion is to err on the dressier side if you are unsure of what to wear. By no means does this mean you should wear a ball gown, but selecting a dress (or pantsuit) that can be fancied up a bit with the right heels or accessories is always going to be a recipe for success.

3. Don't Match with the Bridesmaids' Dresses

We've seen bridesmaid dresses evolve quite a bit over time, but there's still a pretty standard look for more traditional bridal parties. Think: Floor length, chiffon gowns in pretty much any color you can imagine. When choosing your outfit, avoid any dresses that have this overall feel. Even better, if you can find out what color the bridesmaids’ dresses will be, make sure to steer clear of that particular hue and you’ll get through the event without any fashion faux pas.

4. Steer Clear of Wearing Club Attire

Yes, weddings tend to turn into major parties at the reception, but don’t make the mistake of pulling out the dress you wore to the club a few weeks ago. Avoid wearing any dresses that are too short or show off too much skin. “While it's great to wear a dress that flatters your figure, it's important to avoid anything that is too revealing or suggestive.” says Carter. “Plus, weddings are usually formal or semi-formal occasions, so avoid wearing denim. It's important to dress up a bit and show respect for the event and the couple. Unless it’s a cowboy-themed wedding, leave the denim at home!”

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Anna Smutny covers a range of beats, from fashion and beauty verticals to home decor (and everything else in between). Coming from a background based in wedding and beauty content, she's worked with designers and beauty gurus alike, developing a trained eye for spotting industry trends a mile away. So whether you're looking for a dress to wear to your friend's wedding, are in need of some skincare recs or are simply searching for the perfect gift for your BFF, she's going to have an answer for that.

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Anna Smutny

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Anna Smutny covered a range of beats, from fashion and beauty verticals to home decor (and everything else in between) for PureWow from 2021-2022. With a background in wedding and...
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