ComScore

A Guide to Wedding Dress Codes and What to Wear for Each

Take the stress out of getting dressed

PureWow editors select every item that appears on this page, and the company may earn compensation through affiliate links within the story. All prices are accurate upon date of publish. You can learn more about the affiliate process here.

wedding dress codes guide 2024 UNI
Abby Hepworth for PureWow

Rule number one of wedding guest dressing: Comfort is key—eating, drinking and dancing all night long should not be hampered by your clothing. Rule number two: Don’t overthink it. Understanding wedding dress codes is not as complicated as you might think (unless of course you’ve been instructed to dress in “steampunk bourgeois” attire). To help wade through the confusion I’ve tapped a panel of experts who have seen it all, from ultra-posh white tie affairs to casual destination micro weddings. Below you’ll find a break down of every type of wedding dress code, with the specific expectations and rules guests are expected to follow, in addition to specific products I’d happily wear to any of the 14 weddings I have to attend in the next 12 months.

Meet the Experts

  • 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 ten 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. 
  • Kelsey Connely is the owner and creative director of Downey Street Events, a wedding planning and design company based in San Francisco. She’s worked as part of the design team for more than five years.
  • Sheila Sciocchetti is the general merchandise manager at Kleinfeld, one of the best-known, and biggest, bridal boutiques in NYC. She has worked in the bridal industry for nearly a decade.
  • Nicole Ettenhofer is the VP of growth & strategy for George Street Photo & Video, a national wedding photo and video company based in Chicago, with decades of experience capturing the biggest, best and most beautiful moments on the big day.

Types of Wedding Dress Codes

  • White Tie:  This is by far the most formal dress code one can pick, and is much stricter for men than for women. Women should wear floor-length gowns (the more formal the better), while men are expected to wear a black tail coat, white dress shirt and white bow tie.
  • Black Tie: A close second to white tie, black tie weddings are also quite formal. Again, floor-length gowns are best for women, although you could potentially wear a jumpsuit provided the fabric is fancy enough. Men are expected to wear tuxedos for black tie dress codes.
  • Formal: Formal dress codes may mirror a black tie wedding, but give you the choice to either play things up or down. Men should still wear a suit, but are not required to wear a tuxedo.
  • 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.
  • 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 allows for sundresses, skirts or pantsuits in more relaxed fabrics than cocktail or semi-formal. Men are not expected to wear a jacket or tie for a casual wedding.
  • Destination: If a couple has opted for a destination wedding, it’s likely the case that they want to lean into the location with attire. For warm-weather destinations that may mean opting for a tropical print or flowy silhouette, while a mountain setting could mean earthy hues or even cowboy boots.
  • Themed: If the couple is hosting a concept wedding, they are going to ask that you dress in a way that complements and adheres to the overarching theme like the Roaring ‘20s, whimsical fairy tales or Hollywood glam. Try your best to stick with whatever guidelines they have provided, but when in doubt you can always ask the couple to help point you in the right direction with an Pinterest board or other visual reference.

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. 

34 Summer Wedding Guest Dresses to Get You Through the Season in Style


1. White Tie

Betsey & Adam

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

J.Crew

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

Abercrombie & Fitch

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,” Cove says. “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.”

4. Cocktail

Reformation

“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 Formal

Hyacinth House

I 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

Abercrombie & Fitch

“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,” says Forrest. “Casual doesn’t necessarily mean jeans, so think more business casual or smart casual.” 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

Farm Rio

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. Little Black Dress

Showpo

OK, so this isn’t really a wedding dress code, but you know how the saying goes: You can never go wrong with a little black dress. Having a go-to style that can be dressed up or down to fit multiple dress codes is a great idea, especially on those occasions when you just feel like you have no idea what to wear. Use your accessories to add a pop of color or to switch up the vibes from casual barn wedding to hotel ballroom cocktail affair.

Three Things You Should Never Wear to a Wedding

Wedding etiquette has certainly evolved over the years, but there are still a few solid no-nos when it comes to wedding guest attire. Here, three rules you should always follow to avoid committing any major fashion faux pas.

  1. Avoid Wearing White at All Costs
    Wearing white as a guest to a wedding is 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),” Forrest says. “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!” 
  2. Don’t Go Underdressed
    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. Steer Clear of 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!”

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is the Most Popular Wedding Dress Code?

Cocktail and semi-formal dress codes are definitely the most popular at the moment, according to Connely and Sciocchetti. They’re also the most versatile, giving guests the option to wear fun colors, interesting silhouettes and even pants or a jumpsuit.

What Is the Difference Between Black Tie and Formal Dress Codes?

These two dress codes may feel interchangeable, but one is actually far more specific than the other. “While both typically require attendees to wear formal attire, for black-tie events, men typically dress in tuxedos,” explains Ettenhofer. “For men, at a black-tie event, tuxedos are a must!” says Connely. “But for a formal affair, a man’s dress code is slightly less formal than a black-tie wedding. A tuxedo is not required but can still be worn if preferred.” As for women, the difference between the two is a bit more subtle. For black tie, women are expected to wear floor-length gowns, which are also completely acceptable for formal dress codes. But formal can also include tea-length and cocktail dresses. “The key here is ensuring the fabric and style still feel luxe,” says Connely. “For example, silk or crêpe fabrics would be appropriate for a black-tie wedding, but you wouldn't want to wear a material like linen or cotton.”

What Is the Difference Between Cocktail and Semi-Formal Dress Codes?

According to Connely, cocktail attire is regarded as more formal than semi-formal. “Cocktail attire includes suits for men and structured short or midi dresses, jumpsuits or pantsuits for women.” She again stresses the importance of fabric choices for cocktail dress codes, so lean toward satin finishes, silk, tulle or embellishments over cotton or matte crepe. As for semi-formal dress codes, our experts note these are typically reserved for daytime weddings and fall somewhere between casual and formal attire. Per Connely, “This could mean trousers and a dress shirt for men (no jacket) and dresses, jumpsuits, rompers or skirts for women in a more casual material.” Sciocchetti further clarifies, “Men are still required to wear a suit and tie to a cocktail event. At a semi-formal event, he can opt for a dress shirt and slacks with the option to wear a tie. Semi-formal gives the man a bit more flexibility instead of being forced to wear a suit.”

Are There Any Colors Guests Should Avoid Wearing to a Wedding?

All of the experts I spoke to agree that the only color that is fully off limits for guests is white, and that includes shades of cream and off-white. “Former ‘rules’ of avoiding red, black or overly bright colors have been cancelled out by the idea that guests should wear something they feel comfortable and beautiful in,” says Connely. “There are no colors to avoid unless the couple dictates otherwise,” adds Sciocchetti. “As long as it fits within the dress code, your wedding attire can be an extension of your personal style!”

If you’re feeling unsure about your attire or think the event may lean toward those old-school rules (and you don’t want to bother the couple with your questions), our experts do have some fool-proof options and advice. Per Connely, “As long as the dress code does not specifically say ‘black tie,’ you really can't go wrong with a cocktail style midi dress or slip dress. No one will question that this style feels appropriate, and on the flip side, you won't feel overly dressed up.” Sciocchetti suggests using context clues from the venue or invitations themselves to help infer what you should wear. “I suggest reviewing the wedding venue. A chic barn wedding may influence a less formal dress. Consider wearing earthy hues and floral prints.” As for color, navy is a great alternative to black—it’s seasonless, versatile and inoffensive.


unnamed

Editor

Abby Hepworth is an RRCA-certified running coach who has worked in fashion for over 10 years. Want to know what shoes are in this season? She's got you. Need recommendations on...

purewow author

Our editorial team works with a variety of writers and experts across all fields to produce thoroughly researched stories that resonate with you. Our mission is to be that...

Why You Should Trust Us

PureWow's editors and writers have spent more than a decade shopping online, digging through sales and putting our home goods, beauty finds, wellness picks and more through the wringer—all to help you determine which are actually worth your hard-earned cash. From our PureWow100 series (where we rank items on a 100-point scale) to our painstakingly curated lists of fashion, beauty, cooking, home and family picks, you can trust that our recommendations have been thoroughly vetted for function, aesthetics and innovation. Whether you're looking for travel-size hair dryers you can take on-the-go or women’s walking shoes that won’t hurt your feet, we’ve got you covered.