What 7 Wedding Dress Codes Really Mean

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Wedding season is officially upon us, and with it come many time-honored traditions. The bouquet toss. The cake cutting. The Cupid Shuffle. But before all that comes another, far more challenging tradition to navigate: figuring out what to wear in compliance with complicated wedding dress codes.

With couples thinking outside the box when it comes to their big day, wedding invitations are arriving adorned with a variety of increasingly creative dress codes. So if you're stumped by a request for "vineyard formal," "clambake casual," or "burlap sack boogaloo," your best bet is to simply ask the couple (or a well-informed member of the wedding party) for some guidance. But most of the time, wedding dress codes fall into one of the following categories. Here's how to dress accordingly.


Unless you know some extremely fancy people—we're talking classic Hollywood stars, old money millionaires, or actual royalty—you probably won't be receiving any white tie wedding invites this year (for comparison, the annual Met Gala is a white tie event). But if you do, this is as formal as it gets. For men, prepare to rent a pair of tails with the accompanying white vest and bow tie. For women, opt for your most elegant floor-length gown, expensive jewelry, and dramatic hair and makeup. And glam it up all you like, but err on the understated side; white tie is as classy as it gets, but it's not ostentatious.


Black tie is a tad less dressed-up than white tie, but only a tad. So gentlemen, break out (or go rent) your tuxedos. And ladies, wear an evening gown or your fanciest mid-length cocktail dress in a formal fabric. For men, a black bow tie (the aforementioned "black tie") and cummerbund is a nice touch, although tuxedo-and-vest combinations are acceptable.


In a world where tuxes and evening gowns no longer hang in people's closets as a matter of course, this contemporary dress code gives guests some leeway to get more or less fancy as they see fit. For men, black tie optional means it's not wrong to wear a tux, if you like—but if you'd be happier in a dark suit and tie, you won't be underdressed. Ditto for women, who can wear just about anything they'd sport to a black tie affair, within reason. (You'll probably feel overdone in an elaborate sequined evening gown, but an embellished cocktail-length number is fine.) Just make sure you're still dressed for evening; prints and most pastels will be out of place at a formal wedding.


Sorry, fancypants: This is the line beyond which tuxedos and evening gowns shall not pass. Guys can follow this dress code in a suit and tie; more daring and/or fashion-forward gentlemen might be able to push the envelope by switching out the jacket for a formal vest. Ladies, any party dress with a hemline from mid-calf to mid-thigh will work for you (although if the wedding ceremony is in a place of worship, you may want to avoid wearing anything that could scandalize the devout). And while cocktail attire usually indicates an evening event, meaning you should steer clear of flirty florals that might be more appropriate for afternoon, flowy maxi dresses or brighter colors are A-OK for summer weddings.


Afternoon country club or garden weddings will often have a "daytime semiformal" dress code. Men can wear a lightweight linen suit or dress pants-and-blazer combination in a light color, necktie optional. (And if you have a seersucker suit, this is the ideal occasion!) For women, this is a great time to wear a lightweight, light-colored day dress or tea dress—and if the invite says "garden," then consider it an invitation to break out your finest floral prints. Just keep in mind that both sexes should skip heavy formal fabrics, glitzy embellishments, or dark colors; save those for nighttime weddings.


The word "casual" on a wedding invite indicates a more laidback affair, but there's still a difference between wedding casual and casual-casual. Unless specifically instructed otherwise, jeans are a no-no, as are sweatpants, sneakers, and workout-wear. Men should wear a collared button-down or polo and chinos; a jacket isn't required, but it's a nice touch. And women have a lot of leeway at a casual wedding, with options ranging from slacks and a blouse to a sun dress.


And finally, if you see the word "island" on your wedding invitation, think tropical when choosing your outfit—no matter where the ceremony is taking place, and whether it's island casual, island formal, or something in between. For women, gauzy fabrics, juicy colors, and sand-friendly shoes should be on the menu (think flat or wedge sandals, not stilettos). For men, the same lightweight suit or sport coat you'd wear for a daytime semiformal wedding will do, but skip the necktie. And opt for loafers or a pair of nice boat shoes, without socks, in lieu of lace-up dress shoes.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.