As a New Yorker, the color black defines my style and identity. I know that's stereotypical, but it's the truth. Here, it's a part of the culture. It doesn't get dirty. It gives you a sense of uniform while still leaving room to play. And it easily translates to all kinds of occasions, including weddings.
I've only had the chance to attend three weddings as an adult, to all of which I wore black. For the weddings in New York City and Washington, D.C., I was perfectly in vogue. For the wedding in Ireland I was, well, not.
"We don't wear black to weddings here — black is for funerals," my Irish boyfriend's mother informed me after I noted that no one else was wearing the same color I was. The shocking information on my inappropriate color choice was told to me between the ceremony and reception, so all through dinner and dancing I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable in a dress that typically made me feel sexy and confident. Surrounded by women in pinks, yellows and purples, I wondered if people were gossiping about the American in black.
Ireland isn't the only culture that adheres to different "unofficially official" wedding-guest dress codes. Orthodox Jewish women, for instance, dress modestly every day, which holds fast for special occasions and weddings. Then there are Indian weddings, which maintain a completely different traditional style. What is the proper guest attire to wear to these different culture's weddings, and how can you ensure you follow it?
When I got back to New York, I asked a friend from Dublin about wearing black, still not believing it. "Yeah, that's a thing. We don't really wear black to weddings," she told me. Irish influencers, however, didn't have such a strong reaction. "I know years ago, black was a big no-no in the Catholic Church, as it was symbolic of funerals or a sad occasion," explains Irish model and creator of Style Me Curvy, Louise O'Reilly. "But nowadays, you have black-tie weddings and a lot more versatility." Sarah Hanrahan, Ireland's Social Influencer of the Year and founder of I Come Undone shared a similar view. "It's changed a lot in the last couple of years. Up until two or three years ago, there were a lot of floral, mid-length dresses with a small headpiece, a clutch bag and heels," she says.
Now, you may even see sweaters, skirts and even pantsuits. "Tailored suits for women wouldn't be uncommon," explains O'Reilly. "Jumpsuits, once a tailored fit, are certainly a new wedding guest favorite." Hats and headpieces are another traditional Irish wedding detail that's changing. "That would be more my parents' generation," says Hanrahan, "whereas now, it's seen as a little bit stuffy to wear a hat."
If black actually is acceptable to wear to an Irish wedding, what isn't? "A lot of people don't want to or don't think it's appropriate to wear floor-length ball gowns," says Hanrahan. "It can look quite similar to a wedding dress." Again, unless the invite specifies that it's black tie.
Black tights are also often seen as being too casual to wear to a wedding in Ireland — which is something else I wore and didn't realize was inappropriate. They're very popular to wear every day during the cold months, so for a wedding "you're expected to suffer [through the cold] or wear skin-colored tights," says Hanrahan.
My black dress and tights would have been more welcome at an Orthodox Jewish wedding, where the overall style is black tie. Orthodox Jewish women already have daily strict rules of attire. This modesty plays a big role in their wedding guest codes, as well — collarbones, knees and elbows are to be kept covered — but for weddings, their general rule of thumb is that the fancier you look, the better.
"It can almost look like an Oscars event," The Frock NYC founder Chaya Chanin tells me. "You could be underdressed and you might feel uncomfortable, but you could be the dressiest person there and you won't feel uncomfortable." Rooms are filled with lots of long, beaded gowns and evening cocktail dresses. "Ensembles are typically refined and elegant in design, ranging from conservative styles to modest frocks," further explains Fabologie founder Adi Heyman. The one big no-no is pants. "Unless layered, pants are largely prohibited," says Heyman.
As for color, black is not only acceptable, it's encouraged. "Black is typically what you'd see at an Orthodox Jewish wedding," says Chanin. She tells a story about a time she attended her cousin's Satmar Hasidic wedding, in which wedding guests typically wear black, navy and other conservative neutrals. Chanin instead showed up in a hot pink handkerchief hemmed dress with a cardigan. "It was a disaster. I stood out and it was quite embarrassing."
Though, that's not to say that at the more contemporary Orthodox weddings you don't see any color. "In modern Orthodox settings, women adhere to the dictates of modesty while donning bolder prints and brighter tones," explains Heyman. Floral, beaded and metallic details are popular trends among guests, though black remains the most popular for the same reasons it has always been popular — accessibility and versatility. "You can wear it to every wedding and put a different necklace on or wear different Jimmy Choos or do your hair differently," explains Chanin. "You'll always be safe in black."
Meanwhile, Indian weddings are best known for their bold, bright color palettes. "Traditionally, everybody wears much more color than a lot of cultures wear anywhere else in the world," says Indian fashion designer Payal Singhal. The only colors that are truly off limits are white, black and red. "On the day of [a Hindu] wedding, guests should be avoiding a red color because the bride typically wears a red langa," explains Indian fashion influencer Juhi Godambe.
Traditional Indian weddings feature entire outfits that you wouldn't see in other settings. There's the aforementioned langa, comprised of an ankle-length skirt and coordinating top, a sari and the salwar kameez, an Indian version of a three-piece suit. For an Indian wedding, most guests will wear one of these three attires, though Singhal notes that there has been a bit of a shift to make these styles more contemporary.
"You'll see more modernized versions of these three traditional silhouettes being worn," says Singhal. For instance, she notes that instead of wearing a salwar kameez, you may see someone in low-crotch pants and a crop top, or an embroidered skirt with a camisole instead of a langa. "In terms of the concept of the silhouette, it's still traditional," she says. "But within the concept, the outfits are becoming more modern." If you don't have or can't find any of the more customary outfits, you can put together an outfit that mimics them in shape.
Embroidery and embellishments are key factors at Indian weddings, as well. "Even if you wear a plain, solid outfit, you will always dress it up with jewelry or some kind of ornament, like a chunky necklace or a brooch," says Singhal. Accessories like chandelier earrings, bangles and maang tikkas are also popular among guests.
There is one rule that anyone in any culture should be expected to follow — no vulgar or revealing clothing. Otherwise, specific dress codes remain more unofficial than they are cut in stone. "We're about acceptance and welcoming others," says Chanin. "At the end of the day, come as who you are and what you're comfortable with and that's also okay."
No matter what type of wedding you're attending, do your due diligence and ask questions; whether that involves a Google search or rather a casual conversation with other guests, it's a key step to avoid making any faux pas. Ahead of a wedding this past month, Hanrahan explains that she shared an image of the dress she was going to wear in a group text only to discover that it was too similar to the bridesmaids' dresses. "Even if you haven't shared an image of what you're wearing, you're going to be asking questions like, 'Is this okay or is this not okay?'" she says. And if you're really, truly unsure about what's appropriate or inappropriate, the best people to ask are those actually getting hitched. After all, it is their day — they're the ones who invited you to join.
Homepage photo: @bhldn/Instagram