Bridesmaids dresses often get a bad rap for being overpriced or ugly, but they have one upside — those wearing them don't have to worry about whether or not they're dressed appropriately for the wedding in question. And as anyone not part of the wedding party who's tried to navigate the sometimes confusing world of wedding dress codes can attest, that's quite the silver lining. How's the average wedding attendee to know the difference between black tie and white tie, anyway? And does the "never wear white to a wedding" rule still hold in a post-Solange's-nuptials era?
In an attempt to demystify all the dress code descriptors we'll be sifting through this wedding season, we decided to ask the experts for their input. Senior fashion and accessories editor at Brides Shane Clark, editor-in-chief of Martha Stewart Weddings Amy Conway and stylist (and former fashion director at both Brides and Shopbop!) Elle Strauss all weighed in on the dos and don'ts for every dress code. Read on to hear their tips for nailing the look on your friend or family member's big day.
Sticking with a short or knee-length dress is a safe bet for weddings that call for cocktail attire, though erring against sexy is generally a good idea. According to Clark, "you'll definitely want to wear a pair of heels." Strauss adds that you should wear something you can dance in and notes that this could include pants if you pair them with a fancy top and elevated accessories. "There's no rule that women have to wear dresses to weddings," she says. "This is 2017."
Black Tie Optional or Formal
With this dress code, "you have options!" says Conway. Both long and short dresses can be acceptable in this context as long as you're making an evening-appropriate fashion statement, according to Strauss. When in doubt, check with the bride about what she thinks will work, and keep in mind that dudes will probably show up in tuxes or black suits. Your look should be fancy enough to keep up with them. "This is a great time to wear something really special," notes Clark.
The nice thing about an informal wedding is that you can almost certainly wear something you already own. The tricky part? There's not many set guidelines as to what "informal" really means. "It does not mean jeans, shorts, T-shirts, yoga pants, or anything else you'd wear to the grocery store," Clark claims. As for what is appropriate, Strauss recommends taking cues from the venue — if it's in a restaurant you might try a jumpsuit with bold accessories; if it's in a backyard, a sundress with wedges may be just the thing.
Semiformal or Dressy Casual
Think of this as an informal or casual wedding that's turned up one notch on the fancy scale. If you're still not sure what that means, Clark suggests letting the time of the event dictate your outfit and erring on the side of being slightly overdressed rather than slightly underdressed. "A cocktail dress or summer separates paired with heels and chic accessories would work," Strauss comments. And as far as Conway's concerned, "a little bling is good — you don't want to look like you're going to the office."
Black Tie or White Tie
As the most formal kind of wedding possible, black or white tie events can be intimidating. So how do you prepare? "Step one: don't panic," says Strauss. "You don't have to splurge like you're going to the Oscars." A floor-length gown or very formal cocktail attire will usually do the trick for a black tie event. "Hair, jewelry and accessories should all be suitably elegant," notes Conway. White tie weddings are very rare, but they are the pinnacle of dressiness — over-the-elbow white gloves on women and white tuxes with tails on men are welcome. This is a good time to remember that you can always rent a dress if you don't want to spend big on something you may never have occasion to wear again.
Seaside weddings obviously invite some level of informality, but it's a good idea not to go for a dress that's too much like what you'd wear for a summer Saturday at the beach with friends. Clark loves breathable fabrics like eyelet, chiffons, cotton or linen for a beach wedding, and Strauss notes that "espadrilles make for a sand-friendly shoe." Conway adds that keeping the weather in mind is a good idea, and advises bringing a coverup or wrap if you'll be by the water after sundown. Wearing your hair down or in low-maintenance waves will keep your hairstyle from being sabotaged by humid, salty sea breezes.
"Festive is basically cocktail with more of a theme," says Strauss. Taking cues from the venue, time of year and theme is key, as many "festive" weddings have a holiday bent (New Years' Eve is a common "festive wedding" date). "Think deep hues, sparkle, luxurious fabrics, and touches of fur and feathers in your accessories," says Clark. Events with this dress code are generally a good time to play with statement-making elements, but stay away from anything that feels too costume-y.
Plenty of traditional wedding rules have gone out the door, but there are still a few things you should avoid at most nuptials. Wearing white is one of them, unless the invitation explicitly states that the wedding will be an all-white party. Denim is pretty much always off-limits, too. Anything too low-cut, short or otherwise attention-grabbing should also be avoided, according to the experts. "Honor [the event's] importance with an appropriate outfit," Conway advises.