What To Wear to the Wedding: We Ask the Experts to Help us Decode Dress Codes

Who doesn't love a summertime wedding? The food, the booze, the overall merriment that goes with celebrating holy matrimony... But the dress codes that come along with all those summer wedding invitations aren't always so clear. 'Black Tie Optional'? Isn't masculine neckwear technically always an option? And 'Informal'--does that mean your go-to skinny-jeans-and-blazer combo is ok? Well, not exactly. On our quest to decode these oft-mystifying wedding dress codes, we spoke to three experts in the field of bridal etiquette: Rachel Leonard, the Fashion Director at Brides magazine; Kate Berry, the Style Director at Martha Stewart Weddings; and Sharon Naylor, the author of over 35 wedding books, including The Essential Guide to Wedding Etiquette and The Bride's Diplomacy Guide. Their helpful advice covers everything from proper accessories to appropriate hairstyles, and the ultimate wedding don'ts. Let's face it: No one wants to look out of place at an event, particularly when said event will result in photographs that will potentially be decking people's walls and Facebooks for generations and Timelines to come. Follow our expert guide to decoding wedding dress codes and you'll be perfectly wedding-guest dressed in no time, flat.
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Nora Crotty
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Who doesn't love a summertime wedding? The food, the booze, the overall merriment that goes with celebrating holy matrimony... But the dress codes that come along with all those summer wedding invitations aren't always so clear. 'Black Tie Optional'? Isn't masculine neckwear technically always an option? And 'Informal'--does that mean your go-to skinny-jeans-and-blazer combo is ok? Well, not exactly. On our quest to decode these oft-mystifying wedding dress codes, we spoke to three experts in the field of bridal etiquette: Rachel Leonard, the Fashion Director at Brides magazine; Kate Berry, the Style Director at Martha Stewart Weddings; and Sharon Naylor, the author of over 35 wedding books, including The Essential Guide to Wedding Etiquette and The Bride's Diplomacy Guide. Their helpful advice covers everything from proper accessories to appropriate hairstyles, and the ultimate wedding don'ts. Let's face it: No one wants to look out of place at an event, particularly when said event will result in photographs that will potentially be decking people's walls and Facebooks for generations and Timelines to come. Follow our expert guide to decoding wedding dress codes and you'll be perfectly wedding-guest dressed in no time, flat.
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Who doesn't love a summertime wedding? The food, the booze, the overall merriment that goes with celebrating holy matrimony... But the dress codes that come along with all those summer wedding invitations aren't always so clear. 'Black Tie Optional'? Isn't masculine neckwear technically always an option? And 'Informal'--does that mean your go-to skinny-jeans-and-blazer combo is ok? Well, not exactly.

On our quest to decode these oft-mystifying wedding dress codes, we spoke to three experts in the field of bridal etiquette: Rachel Leonard, the Fashion Director at Brides magazine; Kate Berry, the Style Director at Martha Stewart Weddings; and Sharon Naylor, the author of over 35 wedding books, including The Essential Guide to Wedding Etiquette and The Bride's Diplomacy Guide. Their helpful advice covers everything from proper accessories to appropriate hairstyles, and the ultimate wedding don'ts.

Let's face it: No one wants to look out of place at an event, particularly when said event will result in photographs that will potentially be decking people's walls and Facebooks for generations and Timelines to come. Follow our expert guide to decoding wedding dress codes and you'll be perfectly wedding-guest dressed in no time, flat.

When the Dress Code Calls For: Cocktail Attire

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Cocktail attire doesn't mean wearing the sexy LBD you'd normally reserve for a raunchy night of downing mix-drinks with the girls. "You can look sexy and flirty, but you don't want to look like you're on your way to the night club," explains Leonard. Naylor sees the 'cocktail attire' stamp as a time to have fun with a printed frock--but be wary of looking too formal or too casual: "It’s perfectly acceptable to wear a floral-patterned tea-length cocktail dress; just be sure [it isn't too] ‘look at me.’ Go for subtlety in any pattern you wear."

We recommend: Dress, Alexia Admor; Heels, Steve Madden; Clutch, TopShop; Bracelet, Eliot Danori.

When the Dress Code Calls For: Black Tie Optional

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This is easily one of the more confusing dress codes out there. Does 'black tie optional' allow you the total freedom of interpreting your own level of comfort? Well, yes and no. Berry puts it frankly: "I don’t like this. It’s weird and confusing. It's formal enough to go all out, but giving you an out if you don’t want to wear a gown." And Naylor suggests that to avoid being that person who "wrecks the group pictures with her ‘dress you wear to lunch,'" it's best to lean towards the dressier side--but avoid going overboard with embellishments, or "you'll look like the mother of the bride... from ten years ago." She recommends accessorizing with a chic chignon and metallic bangles.

We recommend: Dress, RED Valentino; Sandals, Calvin Klein; Clutch, Big Buddha; Cuff, J.Crew.

When the Dress Code Calls For: Informal

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How casual is too casual when dressing for a wedding? Leonard sees a patterned shift dress as a "fun," failsafe option for an informal yet momentous occasion. Naylor advises taking clues from the invitation and location of the 'I do's'--or better yet, just ask the bride-to-be for tips. For an informal dress code, "shoes make the look": Choose metallic flat sandals or wedges. But Berry warns against going too flashy: "You don't want to be more formal than the wedding couple." Amen.

We recommend: Dress, Anthropologie; Wedges, Kork-Ease; Clutch, Kate Spade; Necklace, Erica Weiner.

When the Dress Code Calls For: Black Tie or White Tie

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What's black and white and totally confusing? That whole black tie vs. white tie debacle. According to Naylor, the major difference between the two dress codes comes down to the accessories: "The one style element [in white tie] that’s a step up from Black Tie Optional is that ladies are welcome to wear elbow-length gloves in colors matching their dresses." She recommends looking in bridal shops for quality gloves that'll give your outfit that Grace Kelly/Audrey Hepburn vibe. Leonard thinks that a "fancy short cocktail dress" is appropriate for either white or black tie, while Berry feels it's best to go for the classic drama of a floor-skimming number. "Wear a long, formal dress," she informs, adding, "This doesn’t mean a maxi dress... it means a gown." Got it?

We recommend: Gown, Halston Heritage; Pumps, J.Crew; Clutch, Forever21; Necklace, Forever21; Gloves, Greatlookz.

When the Dress Code Calls For: Festive

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Festive dressing doesn't mean wearing a napkin Pilgrim bonnet (I know that's what you were thinking). This is another dress code that relies heavily on the location and date of the event. Leonard urges you to not dress too seriously: A festive wedding is most often "a lively, fun party," so look for a "printed dress made for dancing." And Berry elaborates on the fanciness of a festive event: "As a rule, you probably wouldn’t wear something you’d wear to the office." Look for "cocktail attire with a little more flair." Attending a New Year's Eve wedding? Naylor says it's pretty impossible to overdo it at "the ultimate festive event": "Think shine, in your dress, shoes, beaded clutch, and jewelry, and you’re all set."

We recommend: Dress, Alice + Olivia; Pumps, Madewell; Clutch, Alexander Wang; Earrings, Nadri.

When the Dress Code Calls For: Beach

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Ah, the beach wedding. It seems so romantic and exotic in theory, but dressing for this occasion can be trickier than you might expect. In an unmonitored environment like the great outdoors, there are other factors to think about that may affect choice of dress. Says Leonard, "Take into consideration the elements that could come into play (ie wind, sand, and heat)." A light dress with a longer hemline will help you avoid any wardrobe malfunctions, and bring a wrap (or jacket) if the ocean breeze picks up. As for footwear? Go with flats. "Ladies--do not wear spiky heels," advises Berry. "It’s not appropriate."

We recommend: Dress, Madewell; Shoes, ASOS; Bag, J.Crew; Bracelet, Alex and Ani.

And some ultimate wedding don'ts:

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So, is it ever ok to wear white to a wedding? The bridal expert jury is divided. Traditionalist Leonard says that it's never ok to wear white "unless it's described on the invitation as an all-white party." Berry says that, although more brides are choosing to wear different colored gowns, you still shouldn't don white "unless you know the bride absolutely does not care." White summer suits, however, are fine for men. Naylor thinks that wearing white is now considered A-ok, though it is best to dress your outfit up with color to "set yourself apart from the bride."

And leave the denim at home. "Don’t wear jeans to a wedding unless specifically asked to do so," explains Naylor. Berry feels pretty passionate about this wedding-don't: "I mean really, how old are you? You’re not a kid."

Some of Naylor's other don'ts?

Super short skirts: "You don’t want to be the wedding guests who gets photographed sitting at the wedding with a clear view up your skirt."

Sleeveless or strapless dresses to a religious wedding: "Some houses of worship won’t let you in the building if you’re showing skin."

And perhaps most importantly, never outshine the bride: "If you show up in a dress that costs 10x more than hers, with lots of sparkle, it makes you look like an attention whore. Sorry, but that’s what people will say behind your back, or to your face."