Scenic City Weddings

Breaking down the wedding dress code

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You've sent back your wedding RSVP, you've booked your hotel room and you've bought a gift. Now you're set…to figure out what a black tie or semi-formal dress code means.

The last thing you want to do is show up under or overdressed on the big day, so it’s important to understand what these descriptions actually mean.

If the wedding invitation doesn't explicitly say how guests should dress, take note of the season or month during which the wedding occurs, or the time of day the event is held, says Nancy Mitchell, owner of The Etiquette Advocate in Washington, D.C. All of these can indicate the event's dress code.

“Most wedding invitations give you some kind of clue about guest attire,” says Mitchell. “If you know the couple pretty well, sometimes that can help determine the style, too.”

Traditionally, guests should not wear white, unless they know the bride is not wearing white, says Akilah Easter, owner and operator of Chicago-based EtiquetteFemme. If guests need more clarification on the event's style of dress, Mitchell advises asking the mother of the bride or groom or the maid/matron of honor.

Here's a breakdown of dress codes you might see on a wedding invitation:

White tie

White tie is the most formal dress code. While it's rare for weddings, it's typically seen in diplomatic circles, explains Mitchell. For men, a coat with tails, white shirt, white tie, white vest and formal patent shoe is standard. Women should wear a ball gown, ideally with long gloves.

Black tie

Evening weddings and black tie designation often go hand in hand, as black-tie events only occur in the evening. Men should wear tuxedos and women should wear formal dresses, usually in darker colors.

Black tie optional/formal

This designation means men have the option of wearing a dark suit instead of a tuxedo, but either is appropriate, Mitchell says. Men can opt for a bow tie or necktie. Women should wear a formal or cocktail dress or dressy suit.


A cocktail dress or a long dress that's not an evening gown is recommended for women, according to Mitchell. Men should wear a suit and tie. When considering dress lengths, Mitchell recommends women stick with knee length or just above. “It's not the time to be really shockingly bare," she adds.

Dressy casual

This dress code often means “the couples wants guests to be comfortable, but this is not a barbecue,” says Mitchell. Men should wear a collared shirt and nice jacket while women should opt for a dress or skirt and top combination, and colors and patterns are acceptable. Easter recommends a jumpsuit as a great, trendier option. “You can have a little more fun with these looks,” says Mitchell.

Summer casual/beach

Wedding guests should be aware that this designation doesn't mean something they'd wear poolside, Mitchell notes. Rather, this style of dress refers to summer-weight suits and no tie for men. Women can wear patterns, florals, bright colors and have fun with sandals. Linen or cotton blends and pastel colors are acceptable for this type of dress.

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