40 Pieces of Etiquette Every Royal Wedding Guest Needs to Follow
If you're ever lucky enough to score an invite to a royal wedding (Princes William and Harry may have found their happily ever afters, but there are plenty of other singles within the British royal family), you're going to feel a lot more comfortable if you know the rules of what you should—and, even more importantly, what you should not—do once you get there. And no, we’re not talking about knowing which fork is the salad fork (though that’s important, too). Royal events come with their own set of rules—some of them obvious, others anything but. So that you don’t embarrass yourself on your royal pal's big day, here are 40 etiquette rules you’ll definitely want to follow.
1. If you forgot to RSVP to the wedding invitation, don't bother showing up.
While it stands to reason that you should never show up to any wedding—royal or otherwise—if you did not RSVP to let the happy couple know you'd be coming, don’t expect to show up at Westminster Abbey and watch the royal family scramble to make room for you.
In 2011, the King of Cambodia forgot to respond to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding invitation, and was left to watch the ceremony on television like the rest of us (not sitting alongside his fellow global royals).
2. No date? No problem!
If your plus one is more of a plus none, then there’s nothing to worry about at a royal wedding. So long as you let the bride and groom know in advance that you’re going stag, there’s no problem in turning up solo.
“Prince Harry and Meghan are known to play matchmaker, as they too were set up,” Meier explained, “and what better place to combine circles?”
3. Resist the urge to wear white, cream, or black.
This rule, too, is pretty standard and universal. But the Queen herself made a point of reminding guests on the invite list to William and Kate’s 2011 wedding—via a 22-page Etiquette Book issued by Buckingham Palace—that “Wearing cream or white is not appropriate. That must be left to the bride.”
“We steer clear of white because that's considered to be stealing the bride's thunder,” CNN royal commentator Victoria Arbiter told Us Weekly, though she clarified that since the wedding is a daytime affair taking place in the springtime, wearing a floral or other printed dress with a white or cream base is fine, just as long as the pattern overwhelms the base.
On the opposite side of the color spectrum, you shouldn't wear black either (unless it’s a jacket or accessory worn over a brighter color). “Black is considered a funeral color, so you wouldn't wear all black,” Arbiter added. “Victoria Beckham wore navy to Prince William and Kate's wedding and it looked very elegant and sophisticated, that was fine since she wasn't in black.”
For the men in attendance, “Navy or grey suits are customary at weddings, and garish waistcoats or ties should be avoided,” Lucy Hume, an etiquette expert and publisher of Debrett's Peerage, told Town & Country Magazine.
4. Keep your style British (as long as you are British).
Foreign nationals are permitted to wear outfits from any designer they wish. But if you’re a Brit attending a British royal wedding, then bear in mind that there’s a longstanding tradition of keeping things patriotic. Choosing an outfit from a British designer—and, for that matter, a gift from a British company—is very much recommended.
5. Wearing a fancy hat is expected, but it shouldn't be too elaborate.
Nothing screams “royal event” like loads of fancy headgear, and that’s because it’s a required part of the day’s uniform. According to the Evening Standard, wearing a full hat—not a fascinator—is standard for all female attendees. (The guess is that the tradition has biblical origins.) And while fashion fans like to have fun with their millinery, there are rules of etiquette that apply here, too.
“Wearing the right hat and not overdoing it is important,” was the simple advice written in Buckingham Palace’s Etiquette Book. (We’re guessing Princess Beatrice of York, seen above, didn't get the memo.) “Resist novelty elements or anything that will draw too much attention away from the bride,” Hume said. Equally important is making sure that the hat isn't so large or distracting that it blocks the view of those sitting behind you. Which is why Buckingham Palace instructed male guests that, “A top hat should be carried, not worn, inside the church.”
6. Bare legs are considered inappropriate.
Bare legs have never flown in the royal family, a fact that came to very public light when Kate Middleton brought pantyhose back into fashion in a big way when she first became an official member of the royal family. So if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a royal affair, you’d best follow the rules—lest you become an object of hosiery-shaming. “Wear tights,” Hanson told Town & Country. “[Former British Prime Minister] David Cameron's wife didn't wear tights [to the Royal Wedding in 2011], which was a bit of a shame.”
7. Showing off your shoulders is a no-no—and the same goes for your toes.
When choosing a wedding outfit, it’s always best to err on the side of a more conservative style. “Ladies must dress appropriately for church,” notes the Palace’s Etiquette Guide. “This rule includes covering one's shoulders, wearing a hat to cover one's head, and not wearing anything garish or to garner attention. It is the bride's day.” If you’re thinking, “Great, I’ll wear my favorite pant suit,” think again! “Pants suits are frowned upon,” according to the official guide.
Bare toes can also be considered a bit too revealing. “Shoulders should be covered, hemlines should be on the conservative side, and closed-toe shoes,” Myka Meier, the Plaza Hotel's etiquette expert, told Town & Country.
8. Keep the traditional clothing color code in mind.
Gentlemen are usually expected to wear “morning dress” to royal weddings—which is limited to a black, navy, or gray single-breasted suit jacket with tails, waistcoat, pinstriped trousers, and a white shirt.
That doesn’t allow for much in the way of making a fashion statement, but just in case any gent on the guest list were tempted to buck the trend with a brightly colored tie or handkerchief, they should think again. According to Debrett’s, garish accessories should be avoided.
9. "See-through" is not a color, and should be avoided at all costs.
While the men are busy avoiding brightly colored ties and other distracting hues, something else the women need to avoid wearing is anything too sheer, gauzy, and/or transparent. Solid colors are the safest—and most respectful—bet when it comes to dressing appropriately.
10. High heels are encouraged—just make sure they're not too high.
Don’t make the same mistake that Victoria Beckham did at William and Kate’s wedding and go too high with your heel height. “Don’t wear huge heels,” etiquette tutor William Hanson told Town & Country. “It’s not practical as well as not being etiquette. Victoria Beckham wore huge stilettos [to William and Catherine’s wedding]. Now, they were going into Westminster Abbey—a church floor is not a smooth floor.”
11. Leave your tiara at home, please.
Speaking of headgear: Wearing a tiara if you’re anyone but the bride is a very bad idea—even if you’ve earned the right to wear one (or just feel like royalty). “You wouldn't wear a tiara to a daytime British wedding unless you were the bride," Arbiter explained. When speaking specifically of Harry and Meghan's wedding, Arbiter noted that, “Meghan may choose to forgo that tradition since it's not a hard and fast rule, but chances are the Queen will offer to loan her a tiara and if the Queen is offering to loan you something, it's rare that somebody would say no.” (Which takes care of the “something borrowed” part of the bride’s outfit.)
12. If you’ve been honored with an official title or designation, make sure you wear it correctly.
The British Honor System is one of the oldest and most complex in the world, with a range of titles and official designations awarded twice yearly (for the New Year and on the Queen’s official birthday) to any British or Commonwealth subject who has made a great impact or achievement in their particular field. Whether that means a knighthood or a damehood, or else one of the system’s lower-ranking titles like an OBE (Order of the British Empire) or an MBE (Member of the British Empire), royally-conferred honors like these usually come with a ceremonial medal—which, if you’re lucky enough to have one, you’re absolutely permitted to wear at a royal wedding. So long as you follow the rules, of course.
Soccer star David Beckham, OBE, found these rules out the hard way when he arrived at Westminster Abbey for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011 with his Order of the British Empire medal pinned to the right lapel of his suit; tradition dictates that all honors must be worn on the left lapel or over the left side of the chest. Happily, either he noticed the faux-pas himself or else was informed of it right away, as before the ceremony had even begun he had switched the medal to the correct side.
13. Be prepared to bow and curtsy.
When you're in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, it’s appropriate to curtsy and bow. “Americans are not required to bow or curtsy as the Queen walks by, but may do so out of respect,” according to the Etiquette Book, which included tips on how to do it correctly. “Ladies, place your right ankle behind your left ankle and dip at the knee, arms at your sides, and bow your head slightly. Gentlemen, bend your elbow and place your hand, palm in, at your waist. Bend slightly at the waist and bow your head slightly.”
14. Keep your hands at your sides (and definitely don't put them in your pockets).
The Palace's Etiquette Book is nothing if not thorough, even going so far as to tell guests what to do with their limbs: “Keep your hands at your sides when standing,” it advises. “Gentlemen, keep your hands out of your pockets. Europeans consider this act rude.”
15. There are rules about shaking hands (which is probably not surprising).
Follow all these rules correctly and you might be invited to meet a member of the royal family face to face—but even then, you can’t relax. There are rules surrounding the royal handshake, too. Handshakes should be not be too long nor too short, and firm, but not too firm—this is a wedding reception not a job interview after all, and you’re meeting a member of the royal family, not a prospective employer. However you choose to do it, though, maintaining friendly eye contact is a must.
16. Do not attempt to buddy up to the Queen.
Just because you’ve been invited to sit in a room with the Queen doesn't mean that you’ll get a chance to meet her—and if you do, it should only be at her bidding. “Normal protocol suggests you shouldn't approach the Queen or ask her any questions,” Larcombe said. Myka Meier echoed this sentiment when she advised, “Enthusiastic fans beware: Never approach the Queen unless she approaches you. One should never touch the Queen unless she extends her hand to you.” And definitely don’t ask if you can take a selfie with her, no matter how much you’ve had to drink. Speaking of which …
17. If you do meet the Queen, know how you should address her.
If you do get the chance to meet the Queen, don’t make an idiot of yourself. “When you meet the Queen, she puts her hand out first and you address her as Your Majesty,” Broke-Smith said. “In conversation you address her as Ma’am, to rhyme with jam or ham, not palm.”
The Etiquette Book is even more direct with its dos and don’ts:
“Do not touch the Queen. Do not shake the Queen's hand unless she holds her hand out first to shake your hand. Do not speak to the Queen unless she speaks to you first. If the Queen addresses you first, answer her ending your first response with ‘Your Majesty.’ End your second response with ‘Ma'am’ to rhyme with ‘jam.’”
If you think you’ll have trouble controlling yourself from hugging Her Majesty, just remember how Australia's former prime minister Paul Keating was dubbed “The Lizard of Oz” by the press when he dared to place his arm on the Queen’s back.
18. A blender is a lovely wedding gift—but not the right gift for a royal couple.
Royal wedding gifts are a tricky topic: Buying a toaster for a couple who occupies a royal residence seems strange, and probably unnecessary. But showing up empty-handed feels rude. (This conundrum might explain the long list of strange gifts that other royals have received over the years, like the tandem bike Boris Johnson gave to William and Kate.) “For this kind of a wedding—for any kind of a royal wedding—it is considered a great honor,” Lisa Gaché, a manners expert at Beverly Hills Manners, told the Los Angeles Times. “In order to show or convey respect and that gracious feeling for being invited, the ante is a bit more.” She suggests that making a charitable donation of $500 to an organization close to the couple’s heart is appropriate. Even if you do decide to bring something tangible, “Don’t bring [the gift] to the wedding itself,” Hanson said, though he added that Markle being a divorcée when she added one more layer of complication to proper etiquette: “This is a second wedding for Meghan Markle. The etiquette in both America and Britain, especially Britain, is that you don’t normally ask for gifts, because it’s your second wedding. They’ve already got toasters and French presses, etc. It would not surprise me if they choose donations for charities instead." Which is exactly what they did.
19. Arrive to the venue an hour ahead of time.
What could be worse than arriving to the church after the bride has already started her procession down the aisle? In the case of a royal wedding: getting there after the Queen has made her entrance. According to Cosmopolitan UK, guests should arrive an hour before the wedding’s official start time to ensure that they’re not tripping over Queen Elizabeth II as they make their way in. “You don’t want to turn up after her,” Duncan Larcombe, the former Royal Editor for The Sun, said.
20. Don't just grab the first seat you can find at the church.
If you think that arriving to the church a few hours early will ensure you a front-row seat to the festivities, we’ve got bad news: “The seats are all allocated,” Larcombe explained to Cosmopolitan UK. “They are numbered to match the number given on the invitation.” And being that this is a royal wedding, tradition dictates that the royal family calls dibs on the right side of the church (whether or not it’s the bride or groom who is the official royal).
21. Mingle if you must—but (quite literally) know your place.
If you’re invited back to whatever reception or party follows the ceremony, it is acceptable to mingle and chat with the other guests right up until the royal couple arrives. As soon as the party officially begins, however, it’s expected that you should take your seat right away. For that reason, it’s standard practice to make yourself entirely aware of where your hosts have asked you to sit, so that you can find your way to your table as soon as it’s required of you.
22. Keep your hand gestures to yourself.
You might be tempted to give the groom a thumbs up or flash the bride the “OK” hand sign once they’ve said “I do,” but don’t do it. “Do not make any gestures with your hands,” the Etiquette Book warns. “In Europe, the ‘O.K.’ and ‘Thumbs Up’ hand gestures have very different meanings, and these hand gestures are extremely insulting and rude.”
23. Bring your smartphone if your must, but do not plan on using it.
The official Etiquette Book was pretty straightforward when it came to mobile phones: “Needless to say, turn OFF your cell phone.” Larcombe underscored this point to Cosmopolitan UK, saying that while guests will likely be allowed to have their phones on their person, “Under no circumstances are they allowed to use them.”
24. Don't even think about snapping your own photos.
What happens at a royal wedding stays at a royal wedding—unless the royal family is the one releasing the information or images. When discussing the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's nuptials, Hume told Town & Country: “There will be no photography in Windsor Castle if they follow the precedent of the 2011 wedding ... And with any wedding, you shouldn't take photographs and release them before the official photographs are released.” "No pictures ever emerged from William and Kate’s party—anyone who broke this rule would certainly end up in hot water with the happy couple,” Larcombe said. (Not to mention being on the wrong side of the Queen.)
25. Disconnect from all your social media accounts.
Just like no one wants unofficial pictures being released from these lavish affairs, the official stance of Buckingham Palace when it comes to guests and social media is: “Do not take photos of the Queen as she passes by with your cell phone … Enjoy the moment instead of holding the camera in the Queen's face as she walks in front of you and trying to capture the moment with a photograph. Do not update your Facebook status. Do not tweet.” Got it?
26. If the invitation calls for black-tie for men, women should opt for a floor-length gown.
It used to be the case that all royal weddings took place in the evening, often with only a handful of guests. In fact, it’s only since Victorian times that royal weddings have become larger-scale, daytime affairs. (Queen Mary II, for instance, married her husband, William III, at 9 o’clock at night in her bedchamber.)
Nowadays, however, if there’s a daytime ceremony, there’s often a nighttime after-party—at which men are typically requested to wear black tie, which should be taken as a sign that women should wear floor-length evening gowns that cover the shoulders. Shorter, skimpier cocktail-style dresses are a no-no.
27. Don’t stand in a line (unless you’re told to).
At meet-and-greet style occasions, it’s commonplace for the royals to slowly make their way down long lines of invited guests or well-wishers. But at more relaxed affairs—like after-parties, receptions, and wedding drinks—guests standing in a straight line is seen as less acceptable. According to the BBC, the rule instead is to try to form more sociable semicircles with the other guests, and it’s likely ushers and royal staff will make subtle attempts to marshal guests into more acceptably-shaped gatherings.
28. Don’t turn your back on a member of the royal family.
It’s considered a gross breach of etiquette to turn your back on a royal, so turning away from the royal couple on their wedding day is a big no-no. If you must turn away, you should politely excuse yourself, or respectfully step backwards before turning around.
29. Dinner conversation starts on the royal right, then moves to the royal left.
Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton reportedly found out the hard way that royal protocol at the dining table dictates conversations start with the person sitting to the right of the royal during the first course, then switch to the left when the next course is served.
Reportedly, Hamilton found himself seated beside the Queen at a banquet, and had his attempt to make conversation shot down: "No," the Queen told him, "you speak that way first, and I’ll speak this way, and then I’ll come back to you." Do you really want your most memorable moment to be of getting scolded by the Queen?
30. Follow the Queen’s lead.
One of the strangest and oldest royal rules—which even comes into play on royal wedding days—is that dinner guests must follow the Queen’s lead when it comes to eating. And as soon as she is done eating, you’re done too—even if you’re the bride and groom.
This ancient tradition was born out of royal precedence and respect: if the head of state has finished their meal, then they should not be kept waiting while their subjects to finish theirs. But today, it has a more practical use: by basing the pacing of the different courses on the Queen alone, the royal caterers can ensure that everyone’s meals arrive perfectly cooked, at the perfect time, onto a perfectly cleared table. For her part, however, the Queen is reportedly aware that she alone is the meal’s timekeeper; rumor has it that she will often deliberately take her time to finish her plate if she notices other people at the table aren’t quite keeping up!
31. Don’t propose a toast (unless you’ve been asked to).
Raising a glass to the happy couple is a nice enough gesture—and after a glass or two of champagne, you might think it would make a nice impromptu addition to the royal wedding party, too. But such spontaneous moments are not at all encouraged.
Guests will be expected to drink to the health and happiness of the couple, but the person offering this toast will have been selected and told beforehand—and as impromptu as this moment might seem in the course of events, there are rules surrounding this, too. “The person to propose this toast must not be the father of either party (i.e. the bride or groom), but the most distinguished guest present,” who will have been told “some days previously,” according to one 19th century set of etiquette rules.
32. Don't get drunk. But do know the correct way to hold your champagne glass.
As lavish as a royal wedding may be, overindulgence is never appropriate. “Do not gobble up food and gulp up drink at the reception,” noted the Etiquette Book, “and for goodness sakes, do not get drunk.” Of course, a wedding just wouldn't be a wedding without a bit of bubbly, but don’t embarrass yourself by clasping your glass incorrectly. “There will be champagne flowing and you’ve got to hold the glass properly, by the stem,” royal etiquette expert Jean Broke-Smith said. “During the formal dinner a lot of people won’t know how to use a knife and fork properly, let alone which cutlery to choose from. You must eat from the outside in and if you have a mass of glasses in front of you, it helps to know which to use. With tea cups, lift the cup not the saucer and hold it very gently with your index finger and thumb, returning the cup to the saucer after every sip.”
33. Fold your napkin closed after you’ve used it.
In polite company, keeping a napkin in your lap is of course to be expected. But at the royal wedding banquet—and, for that matter, all catered royal functions—there are strict rules surrounding how you should use your napkin, too. First of all, it should not be removed from the table and placed in the lap until the Queen (or whoever the highest ranking royal present happens to be) has done so. Once it’s there, fold it in half down the middle. Whenever you have to use it, wipe your mouth into the crease, then fold it closed again to cover up any unsightly marks. Keep it off the table until the meal is over. (You might want to practice this one ahead of time, just to get the hang of it.)
34. Don’t ask the royal couple any personal questions—or get into a political discussion.
If you’re lucky enough to secure a conversation with the royal couple, then steer clear of personal and political questions. Personal questions are merely considered impolite, but political questions are to be avoided too because the monarchy are required to remain neutral heads of state. All around, it’s best if you keep the chitchat light, and confine your conversations to small talk—unless, of course, the royal in question directs the conversation another way.
35. Nobody will be catching the bride’s bouquet.
One of the highlights of a normal wedding ceremony is the sight of many of the single female guests vying to catch the bride’s bouquet. But if you think you’re going to be in with a shout of catching a royal bouquet, think again. At her wedding in 1923, the late Queen Mother—the wife and consort of the Queen’s father, George VI—established a tradition of leaving the royal bouquet on the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, as a tribute to those who have served in Britain’s armed forces. It’s a tradition that has endured ever since, so alas there’ll be no bouquet to catch.
36. Don’t start up another conversation with anybody else while speaking with a royal family member.
“In the presence of Royalty, it is considered highly indecorous to enter into any separate or independent conversation with other persons,” according to one 19th century guide to royal etiquette. The only permissible exception is “to give a direction to an attendant, or to make an observation or two, conducive to the purposes of the visit.”
37. Smile, smile, smile—then smile some more.
An estimated 1.9 billion people worldwide watched Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding ceremony in 2018, and with that many eyes on you, few things could be more embarrassing than a wardrobe malfunction, or something similar going wrong.
If something like that were to happen, though, you should be prepared to just laugh it off—no panicking, no getting upset, no dramas. Nothing that risks detracting from the happy couple. “If a heel breaks, or a button pops, or your hat topples,” Debrett’s explains, “simply remember that you’re there to celebrate the couple, as is everybody else, so smile!”
38. Just because you’re invited to a royal couple’s wedding doesn’t mean you’re BFFs.
You might think that an invitation to a royal wedding now means that you can now call their royal highnesses your friends. But before you send that Facebook friend request, to put it politely, they’ll let you know first.
After the ceremony is concluded, “wedding cards are sent round to those whose acquaintance the newly married pair are desirous of continuing,” explains one 19th century etiquette guide. Don’t receive a card inviting you to stay in touch? Then, to put it bluntly, don’t stay in touch.
39. Be prepared to keep partying for as long as the happy couple wants to.
Between the wedding itself and often not one but two receptions, a royal wedding is going to be a long day for the happy couple and their guests. And if the bride and groom decide to keep the party going into the wee hours of the morning, you’d better be prepared to celebrate right alongside of them. “You shouldn't leave before the newlyweds,” Hanson told Town & Country. “They will be the most senior members of the royal family in the room at that time.” In other words: Better get a good night’s sleep!
40. Mistakes happen (don’t worry—the royal family is used to them).
If you think you’ve made a faux pas, overstepped the mark, or broken one of the endless list of rules you’re expected to follow in all of this, don’t worry. For one thing, etiquette rules are not set in stone—they’re really just recommendations. And given how many people they meet on a regular basis, the royals see them broken to know things don’t always go to plan.
“You’re not going to be in trouble,” if you get something wrong, Debrett’s etiquette expert Lucy Hume told the Daily Mail. “Apologize if you feel you may have caused offense, but try not to panic, and stay calm.” As with any situation where a faux pas is involved, panicking often only makes the situation worse.