While you’ve probably heard to steer clear of wearing a white dress to someone else’s wedding, other elements of wedding guest etiquette might feel like a mystery. Eliminate the need to contact the couple before their wedding day with dress code questions asking, “What do I wear to the wedding?”

Finding the perfect outfit for any type of wedding dress code doesn’t need to be confusing any longer. We’re decoding what every wedding guest dress code means from dressiest to most casual. Black tie, cocktail attire, or dressy casual won’t have you thinking twice.

What is a wedding dress code? A wedding dress code is often listed on invites as a way to explain the overall style of their wedding. The couple has factored in elements like their wedding venue, location, season, and their own personal taste. Even if their invite says “suggested dress code,” think of it as a requirement.

If there’s one last bit of wisdom we can bestow upon you, wedding guests, it’s that it’s always better to be overdressed. Never be confused by a wedding dress code again.

Photo by Nola Fontanez

How To Pick The Best Wedding Guest Outfit

Scope out the wedding venue online. Is the space modern, trendy, vintage, or quirky? These are all cues that will help you understand the couple’s vision for their wedding day, as well as what fashion might be appropriate. Here’s an example: the couple is getting married at the newest sleek event space in town, with rooftop cocktails and no children in attendance. These are all hints that this is a dressy or formal affair.

Also, consider the time of day and location. Afternoon weddings and events with earlier curfews will naturally be more casual, while evening weddings are more formal. The same goes for a backyard wedding versus an indoor wedding in a banquet hall. Will the reception be moving to another swanky location? If so, it may be a fancier event afterparty and you’ll want to be dressed appropriately.

Dresses & photo via Mumu Weddings

Think of the season. Will you be outdoors? This will mean you might want to consider a shoe with a more substantial heel versus a stiletto. It is grassy, rocky, sandy, snowy? Embrace the elements in a more glamorous way than you would on vacation. This might also determine what accessories you’ll need. Stylish sunglasses, luxurious outerwear, or fashionable hats are totally appropriate style choices.

Feeling confident matters, not only for brides or grooms but also for wedding guests. So, while there’s no guarantee how late the reception will last, following the dress code guarantees you’ll be the best dressed, from cocktail hour to afterparty.

Dress Code: White Tie

White Tie attire leads the list in terms of formal and extravagant. The most formal banquets, events, and some weddings might make this dress code a requirement. Think of classic tuxedo jackets with tailcoats and matching pants. Pair a tuxedo and dress shirt with formal accessories: a vest or cummerbund, cufflinks, and a tie or bowtie. Floor-length gowns are required, but you can take it as far as voluminous ball gowns, gowns with small trains or capes, and regal accessories like jewels and gloves. For your easiest style inspiration, google photos of the Obamas at most of their White House events. Embrace the feeling of grandeur and opt for elegant fabrics, leaving no detail undone.

Pro Tip: To make your white tie or black tie wedding looks more stylish, find a designer tie with a modern print, or don a pair of glamorous elbow-length gloves.

Dress Code: Black Tie

If you get invited to an extremely formal wedding, it’s most likely going to be a black-tie affair. Floor-length gowns are a must, with a hem that falls at least to your shoes. Patterns, colors, sparkle, beading, and drama are all excellent choices in a gown. But, don’t be afraid to spring for a luxurious wedding pantsuit if that’s more your speed. And for men, a full suit is required, not separates, but a tuxedo with a tailcoat isn’t required. Feel free to play with the color and fabric depending on the season of the wedding. Is it a summertime wedding? Then a white dinner jacket is perfectly acceptable. Generally, steer clear of over-the-top suit patterns for a black-tie event, but you can opt for smaller pinstripes, muted plaids, or event tiny polka dots.

Pro Tip: If you don’t own a matching suit, make this event the reason you invest in something you love. In today’s fashion world, we deem colored suits perfectly acceptable for a black-tie wedding. Tones like burgundy, forest green, and navy have become the new neutrals. Take the time to get it expertly tailored so it’s a look that makes you feel your best.

Dress Code: Black Tie Optional & Formal Attire

Consider this “black tie light,” so when in doubt, default to black tie. It’s okay to choose one piece of the full ensemble and make it a little less serious. Instead of a tuxedo, a suit is still perfectly acceptable. Instead of a floor-length gown, a shorter gown is absolutely okay, as long as it’s still fancy in design or details. The mood we’re aiming for is elegant. If black tie optional or formal feels like a grey area, you can’t go wrong with an all-black ensemble. Most likely everything Margot Robbie has worn to a red carpet event would fall under formal wedding attire, so let her be your black-tie fashion inspo.

Dress Code: Cocktail

Odds are you’ll definitely be invited to a wedding with cocktail attire. It’s one of the more popular choices for weddings because it lands between a little less formal and a little more dressy. And because the term “cocktail dress” is used widely in fashion to describe a fancier dress you’d wear out, let’s keep this explanation simple. Cocktail attire is a simplified version of formal with a slightly more playful spirit. In no way does this dress code mean “casual” of any kind. It’s swanky, so show up in an ensemble that looks like you match the formal energy of the wedding party. Shorter dress hemlines, patterned suit jackets, jumpsuits and pantsuits, and bold prints are celebratory while maintaining a dressed-up look. This is also the perfect time to sport an LBD, just keep your accessories elevated.

Dresses & photo via Mumu Weddings

Dress Code: Semi-Formal & Dressy Casual

Either of these dress codes gives you the flexibility to wear dressy items that lean a little more casual. It also means you can choose an element of your outfit that you want to dress down. Examples of this would be a fashionable suit paired with stylish sneakers or a silky dress paired with more casual heeled sandals. Linen, cotton, and knits that still look dressed up are all fair game for a dress in this category. If you’re confused about finding a look, think “fancy dress”, versus a fancy gown. Great places for this style of dress would be Reformation, Shopbop, or Moda Operandi to get your inspiration going.

Dress Code: Casual

A casual wedding is still a wedding, and in our opinion, a reason to dress your best. There’s no obligation to wear a suit, however, we’d highly recommend a pants, shirt and jacket combo, with the flexibility of not needing a matching set. If a jacket isn’t your thing or doesn’t accommodate the weather or destination, be sure to choose a dress shirt, slacks, and a tie that work together. Lover of bolo ties? Go for it! Sundresses, patterned dresses, or more casual materials like knits can all be worn as best suited for the season you’re in. Steer clear of denim, athleisure, ball caps, and streetwear.

Photo by Claire Eliza

Dress Code: Destination

Will you be attending a big city bash or a rural farmland wedding? Location is everything and will determine what type of garb is most appropriate. Going to Africa and the invitation says “Safari chic?” We’ve already got you covered. Otherwise, check the weather ahead of time to see what will be appropriate for the climate and region you will be visiting. Take note of our editor Claire’s Baja beach wedding that was ultra sunny, sandy, and a lively dressy event.

Pro Tip: take cues from other guests you might know who will be in attendance. Chatting with other travelers will help you gauge the overall vibe everyone else is going for. Sussing out the vibe means there’s no chance you’ll be underdressed.

Photo & Dresses via Shona Joy

Dress Code: Beachy

Within this category, you might find subcategories, like Beachy Formal, or Beach Cocktail. In general, fashion rules on the beach are a little more relaxed, just like that sweet salt air. Men’s and women’s shoes can be more casual in terms of style. Look for lighter colored loafers as well as woven styles that breathe, and for heels, lower heights that you could possibly wear in the sand. This might be your sign to spring for a pair of espadrilles. Accessories like sunglasses, scarves, shawls, and playful jewelry should still feel fashionable. And while women’s fashion provides endless options for sundresses, men can find breathable cotton or linen looks in lighter colors, and yes, even go sockless in their loafers.

Themed Wedding Attire

A wedding with themed attire says two things: the couple loves fun, and they are going to love it the more you play up their theme. We can’t lay out all the possible outcomes for this one, but we can give you the best piece of advice – make sure to fall in between the semi-formal to formal categories. Unless the theme is casual by nature, more is more. Examples could be: a decade theme (the 50s, 70’s, 80’s,) a holiday theme, a whimsical movie or character wedding theme, or even a color palette or a mood. If their theme is “all-white cocktail attire” then here’s your only exception to wearing a white dress!

Pro Tip: If the couple is having a theme, they probably explained this more in-depth on their wedding website! Check their site first before contacting the couple or family with your dress code questions.

Photo by Alex Tome

No Dress Code

As they say, don’t sweat the small stuff. Our best advice would be to take a peek at their venue and wedding location and to rack your brain on how formal or informal the couple might be. There’s never any harm in being overdressed for the occasion – but making the mistake of being underdressed might make you feel a bit out of place. If you hover around semi-formal or cocktail attire, we guarantee you’ll be adequately equipped, as well as show your respect for the couple and their day, as well as any photos you might be in!

Ready, set, get shopping! Here are our favorite places to buy wedding guest fashion & bridesmaid outfits.