Spring is already here, which means wedding season is practically upon us. We know choosing the perfect dress to wear to a wedding can be difficult, so we’ve given you a foolproof method for choosing the right dress.
There are three categories of wedding formality that you’re likely to encounter: black tie, cocktail, and casual. The wedding invitation or wedding website should tell you what level of formality is expected, and as a polite guest, you should be faithful to their request.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each one:
Black Tie/White Tie: Full-length dresses for women and either a black suit or tuxedo (if white tie) for men.
Cocktail: A fancy dress that’s anywhere from knee-length to full-length. However, full-length dresses should be slightly less formal than what’s expected for a black tie event. Men can wear suits or a dress shirt and pants. Tie optional.
Casual: Sundresses or a classy top/skirt combo. Men should wear a button-down shirt but don’t need a tie. Pants can be more casual — no jeans, but slacks are ok.
This is just a rule of thumb, but women should generally avoid wearing pants to a wedding. Perhaps if you’re attending an edgy wedding on a rooftop in NYC with a pair of artists, you can get creative. But when in doubt, a dress is always the best bet.
Let’s Set Some Ground Rules
The first rule of thumb at all weddings is to never outshine the bride. This means two things: never wear white (if she’s wearing white) and never be more formal than the bride. For example, if it’s a boho wedding where the bride is likely to be wearing a simple sheath gown, don’t show up in a ballgown. You will be able to tell by the invitation, your knowledge of the bride’s style, their choice of venue, and their wedding website what the vibe of the wedding is likely to be.
Never outshine the bride.
Remember also that you don’t want to be the most distracting thing in any of their wedding photos. This day is for the bride and groom, not a random guest. Stick to quiet elegance unless the wedding calls for something else, and don’t wear any colors or prints so loud that they will ruin their photos.
Putting Together the Perfect Outfit
I always recommend starting by googling the venue. Is it a historic mansion, a beach, or a dusty ranch? This will dictate your attire as much as the invite’s request.
Choosing Your Dress
When choosing your dress, keep in mind that you want to look sophisticated, not sexy or slutty. Again, this is the bride’s day to shine, not your day to attract a hot groomsman. Keep it classy, ladies. This means staying away from high slits, plunging necklines, or super tight fits.
The style of dress is flexible and is ultimately determined by what’s flattering on you. (Read our guide on finding flattering clothing here.) Choose fabrics based on the weather and formality. Satin or velvet would be appropriate for a formal evening wedding. For a daytime casual wedding, cotton or linen would be more suitable.
A Black Tie Dress
A Cocktail Dress
A Casual Dress
Choosing the Length of Your Dress
For venues that involve dirt or a lot of walking on grass, avoid floor-length dresses no matter what the dress code calls for. It won’t look sophisticated if you have dirt or grass stains on the hem of your dress. Instead, stick to tea-length or ankle-length dresses.
With a beach venue, feel free to wear any length of dress you’d like, according to the dress code. Sand is unlikely to stain your dress, and you can pick up the hem to walk.
For venues that involve dirt or a lot of walking on grass, avoid floor-length dresses.
A formal venue like a hotel or a mansion is the best place to get dressed up. However, if you choose to wear a full-length dress, make sure the hem doesn’t touch the ground unless you have a train. The hem should hit about ½” - 1” above the ground at the front. You don’t want to trip while you’re walking, and you don’t want the hem laying on the ground when you’re standing. (Remember to take the exact shoes you plan on wearing with you to the tailor.)
Choosing Your Shoes
Tall stilettos should be avoided in general, as you’re likely to spend a lot of the evening walking and dancing. Short or block heels are a much safer choice. If you’re likely to walk on a lot of grass, dirt, or cobblestones, stick to flats or a block heel. If the venue is entirely inside, you’re safe with a short stiletto heel. For a beach wedding, stick to sandals or take your heels off for the ceremony. You don’t want to be wading through sand in heels.
Don’t Forget Layers and Accessories
If you’re going to an evening wedding, it’s a safe bet that it will get cold after dark. You don’t want to be stuck in an air-conditioned venue or outside in chilly weather without anything to warm up in. Start by checking the weather for the day of the wedding. If it’s going to be very cold, you can bring a nice coat. If the wedding is black tie, feel free to incorporate fur if you like.
A cashmere pashmina can be worn more casually over your arms or over your shoulders if you’re cold.
A light layer option (and my personal favorite) is a beautiful scarf or cashmere pashmina. This can be worn more casually over your arms or over your shoulders if you’re really cold. It’s more elegant than a coat for slightly warmer nights. You might also consider a light scarf if attending a beach wedding to prevent sunburn on your shoulders.
For bags, stick to a small wallet purse or clutch. You really only need room for lipstick, an ID, and your phone. You should also bring some cash to tip the bartenders.
Weddings should be a romantic, fun celebration of two people’s love for each other. By being perfectly dressed, you’ll be able to celebrate with the bride and groom without any embarrassment or awkwardness. Plus, you’ll have a great look to post on IG. Wedding perks, am I right?
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