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

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Have you started to hear wedding bells again? Because we certainly have. Now that they’ve been given the green light, couples who’ve spent the past year patiently waiting are leaping at the opportunity to go get hitched. And if someone you know is planning for their upcoming nuptials, you’ve probably been checking your mailbox, excited to get your hands on your invite and RSVP to attend their big day.

Chances are that whatever invitation you receive during this crazed wedding season will also have a dress code included. And while you know that you can’t wear your favorite sweatsuit or leggings (We hope!), figuring out what that dress code means and what you can wear for each can leave you feeling clueless.

We spoke to wedding planner Stefanie Cove to get some insight on what we should and shouldn’t wear for the following dress codes you’ll most likely come across:

  • White Tie
  • Black Tie
  • Cocktail
  • Formal/Black Tie Optional
  • Semi-formal
  • Casual
  • Tropical and/or Destination
  • Themed


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. “White tie attire has been around for a long time,” says Cove. “While people still appreciate and embrace formality, we're seeing couples do this in a way that feels more modern, fresh and fun! White tie is technically the most formal dress code - and is usually interpreted as a true ballgown for women.” 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.

Get the look: Marchesa Notte One Shoulder Hankerchief Gown


2. Black Tie

A close second to white tie, black tie weddings are also extremely formal. Typically, a black tie wedding takes place in the evening and even though it is likely expected for guests to wear a floor-length gown, 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.”

Get the look: BHLDN Therese Maxi Dress


3. Formal/black Tie Optional

Formal dress codes suggest mirroring that of a black tie wedding while giving you the choice to either play it up or down. If you want to partake in the black tie option, go for a head-turning gown. If you want to take the casual route however, you can 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 go quite as formal as with black tie or white tie. 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.”

Get the look: Norma Kamali Diane Gown


4. 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 most popular options out there. “Cocktail attire is a bit more casual and fun,” says Cove. “Women can opt for wearing shorter dresses - cocktail or 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 a smidge more comfortable, you also should not show up to the celebration 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.

Get the look: Mestiza Elia Jumpsuit


5. Semi-formal

When it comes to semi-formal, it’s all in the name. Instead of going for a floor length gown that would make you excessively overdressed, select something that‘s elevated and sleek but still veers more on the casual side compared to other more elevated looks. We suggest you go with a dressy mini or pantsuit, keeping in mind that you should go for darker colors in the evening and lighter and 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.” Noted.

Get the look: Allfos Isabelle Dress


6. Casual

A casual dress code may leave you feeling like anything goes, but that isn’t necessarily the case. “Casual says to me a sundress with nice wedges or short heels. So I would go for a pretty sundress that can be played up just a little with a pair of heeled sandals and simple, yet sweet jewelry,” Cove advises.

Get the look: Lulus Tiered Midi Dress


7. Destination

So, you’ve been invited to a destination wedding and need to pack your bags and break out your passport. If you’re headed to a tropical paradise, it’s probably going to be hot and humid so selecting something to wear that can help you beat the heat is vital. 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!”

Get the look: Reformation Elmer Linen Dress


8. 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. These kinds of weddings either request that their guests wear one color, like for an all-white or all-black wedding, or 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!”

Get the look: Dress the Population Leona Dress

9. What Not To Wear

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.

Wear white

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. Unless the invite has specified otherwise, you should select a fit in any other color, ensuring you won’t upset the bride and helping you avoid any awkward interactions.


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 at all costs, but selecting a dress that can be fancied up a bit with the right heels or elegant accessories is always going to be a recipe for success

A dress that looks like the bridesmaids

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.

Dressing for the club

Yes, weddings tend to be major parties come the reception, but don’t make the mistake of pulling out the dress you wore to the club a few weeks ago. Avoid any dresses that are way too short or show off too much cleavage. While you are supposed to celebrate at a wedding, you are going to be surrounded by children and family members. It’s best to keep things PG.