A simple guide to Wedding Guest Dress Codes
They’re intended to assist, to provide wedding guests with an indication of how to dress and what to wear, but some Wedding Dress Codes can do more to confuse than clarify. And many couples wonder whether they’re even relevant anymore.
In a quest to simplify the mysteries of Wedding Dress Code etiquette Tanya Bywater seeks the advice of a selection of ABIA’s Wedding Planners.
Do you need a Wedding Dress Code?
Even today, when expressions of individuality are largely celebrated, most experts agree that the Wedding Dress Code still has a place.
Admittedly, there does seem something a little antiquated about the idea of telling someone what to wear, but weddings are ‘traditional’ by nature, and vary vastly — from barefoot on the beach to glamourous evening affairs — so the general consensus is, if you want to create a certain look and feel they’re a good idea, and guests generally appreciate the guidance that a Dress Code offers.
“Letting your guests know what you'd like them to wear helps you maintain your overall wedding theme, and also helps them decide what they should wear,” confirms Kerstyn Walsh of Hire A Bridesmaid.
How do you choose and communicate a Wedding Dress Code?
“Start by looking at the venue you've booked to see what style of clothes might work — for example, formal attire may feel out of place on a beach,” Kerstyn suggests. “Then look at what you, and your wedding party, are wearing.”
Once you’ve considered the venue, your bridal party attire, the overall atmosphere that you want to invoke, and settled on a suitable style of dress, it’s important to describe it clearly to your guests, either on invitations, your website or both.
“It’s good to be specific,” suggests Trudy Croad of Lovebird Weddings. “Many don’t know how to interpret ‘formal’ or ‘relaxed elegance’.”
Terms like ‘Lounge Suit’ and ‘Black-Tie Optional’ can be equally perplexing and can leave eager-to-please guests scratching their heads. You’ll do everyone a favour by sticking to Well-Known Dress Codes (like those detailed below), or by providing a well-defined request.
Trudy recommends making your preferences unambiguous. “Use words like ‘Summer Dresses and Wedges’ or ‘Shirts, No Tie’,” she offers.
International event planner Nadia Duran also suggests, “create a mood board, which is uploaded on the website, that includes images to help guests visualise and understand what they could wear”.
In short, ask for exactly the style of attire you want and you’re more likely to achieve your vision, while making your guests’ outfit decisions easier.
Well-Known Dress Codes
From most formal to least, here’s a summary of the more recognised Dress Codes, and some hints to help you unravel the more ‘cryptic’.
This isn't a popular choice amongst weddings in Australia, however it is considered the pinnacle of formal attire. ‘White Tie’ dressing commands a tuxedo with tails for men, teamed with a formal white shirt, white vest, white bow-tie, pocket-square handkerchief and classic black footwear. You can accessorise with gloves and top-hats within this category too, though these are generally not ‘essential’.
Ladies should think full Cinderella, in the form of a floor-length evening gown, paired with heels, a coordinating purse and sparkling jewellery. This is also the ideal time to dust-off that tiara, or pull on those glamorous evening gloves, if you’re so inclined!
Marginally less elaborate, but equally elegant and well-defined, the Black-Tie Dress Code is a popular choice for couples seeking a swanky celebration.
Strictly speaking, it calls for a tuxedo, a black bow tie, black vest or cummerbund and black patent shoes for male guests and a formal, floor-length, ankle-covering gown with heels for ladies.
You’ll usually be fine to leave the vest out, swap the bow-tie for a classic black tie, or to go with a gown of a slightly shorter length, as long as you keep your look classy and sophisticated. This is especially true if the Dress Code is worded ‘Black-Tie Optional’, indicating a style slightly less formal, which gives men the option to wear a dark suit and tie in place of a tux.
Formal Suit and Tie
This isn’t necessarily a Dress Code you’ll see defined in ‘olde worlde’ etiquette books, however it is becoming a popular choice of wedding-dress codes in Australia. The proper British term is perhaps ‘Lounge Suit’ but, as that description seems to be especially befuddling to guests, we’ve opted for a simpler title. Dress Codes like ‘Black-Tie Optional’ and ‘Formal’ also fall loosely into this category — basically somewhere between ‘Black-Tie’ and ‘Cocktail’.
Essentially, a smart matching jacket and pants, with a shirt and tie, for men, and an equally chic ensemble for women, like an elegant dress or pantsuit, will suffice here.
One of the most popular Dress Codes, according to all of the Wedding Planners we consulted, ‘Cocktail’ implies dresses of around knee-length for ladies and a suit, or trousers and a blazer, with the option of a tie for men. “Guests almost have free-reign on the rest,” Kerstyn Walsh suggests. Kerstyn goes on to explain the difference between ‘Cocktail’ and ‘Semi-Formal’ dress. “Semi-formal is usually what they're wearing in American wedding movies — dressy and elegant,” she says.
Also referred to as ‘Dressy Casual’, the attire here is often dictated by the location and time of an event — lighter colours by day, darker by night and stylish flat or wedged shoes for ladies if there are lawns, or sand, to navigate.
Think a collared shirt with tailored pants, and the option of a blazer, for gents, and knee-length or midi dresses, skirts, and pantsuits for ladies.
While a ‘Casual’ dress code seems fairly straight-forward, our guidance here is more about what ‘not’ to wear. Unless they’re specifically encouraged, the likes of jeans, shorts, t-shirts, and tank tops should probably be avoided, as should thongs and runners when it comes to footwear.
Cotton trousers, with a collared shirt for men, and a summer sundress with wedges are fairly safe bets.
What do you do if there is no Dress Code? Or if you don’t understand the Dress Code requested?
It’s quite okay to ask the couple, their attendants, or their Wedding Planner, in the lead-up to the day, but don’t leave the question to the week before, when they’re likely to be inundated, experts recommend. A little research also goes a long way, so make use of the likes of Instagram and Pinterest and search the Internet.
“Do a quick Google search on the venue,” Nadia Duran suggests. “This will help give an understanding on the style of the place and location. Then make sure to check the weather forecast. This will determine what shoes and clothing you wear. Another option is to search on Instagram, to take a look at previous weddings held at the venue and what guests have worn.”
If, even then, you’re not sure dress up, rather than down, is the consensus.
“Always go a touch more formal than informal if you don’t understand the dress code,” Trudy Croad explains. “It is better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed.”
Click to read reviews of interviewed Wedding Planners: Hire A Bridesmaid, Lovebird Weddings or Nadia Duran, and visit the ABIA Directory for a comprehensive list of Wedding Planners and Coordinators throughout Australia.
Photography by Kats Weil