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Breaking Down the Wedding Attire Dress Codes

How to dress for whatever’s written on the invitation.

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Photo: Cushnie et Ochs

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Planning a wedding can be taxing, but being a guest comes with its own set of difficulties, such as decoding the ever-confusing dress code. Okay, maybe this is a tad less stressful than throwing the actual event, but the struggle to get your attire right is very real.

Dress code descriptions can seem like an enigma wrapped in a mystery, often topped off with an “-optional” or “-chic” for extra uncertainty. Room for interpretation comes with the territory, of course, but you want to hit as close to the appropriateness-mark as possible. Below, a breakdown of the dress code terminology, with suggestions on where to shop for each. Consider this your wedding season cheat sheet.


White Tie

A model wearing a blue and purple formal gown
ML Monique Lhuillier Tena Gown ($130 to $150 rental)

Oh you fancy, huh? As dressed up as it gets, this is the attire of state dinners and the Met Ball. Full-length gowns are a must, and darker colors are the safest bet. Feel free to go all out with glam hair and makeup, and add super-statement accessories like shoulder duster earrings or elbow-length gloves.

Brands to Shop: Your best bet here is to start with Rent the Runway (to borrow) or The Outnet (to buy at a discount). Look for brands like Marchesa Notte, ML Monique Lhuillier, Theia, Badgley Mischka, and Stella McCartney.


Black Tie

A model wearing a teal formal silk gown
Cushnie et Ochs Zahara Draped Silk-Charmeuse Gown ($698)

A long evening gown in a dark, neutral color is your most appropriate option. Proceed with caution with regard to prints and bright colors, which can totally work as long as they are polished-looking and not overly flashy.

Brands to Shop: Needle & Thread, Parker Black, Halston Heritage, Christian Siriano.


Black-Tie Optional

A model wearing a formal black gown
Halston Heritage Embellished Cutout Crepe Gown ($218)

All of the above Black Tie criteria are still appropriate, with the additional options of a chic cocktail dress, a dressy suit, or separates. The “optional” part really just leaves room for less formal touches like undone, messier hair or fun makeup colors, like this spring’s bright shadows.

Brands to Shop: Self Portrait, Nanette Lepore, Fleur du Mal, Cushnie et Ochs.


Semi-Formal/Cocktail

A model wearing a red orange cocktail dress
Dee Elly Ruffle Halter Dress ($65)

You can have a little more fun with this one: a flouncy cocktail dress, a jumpsuit, or an LBD accessorized with sexy extras are all acceptable attire for a cocktail fete. Just be sure to pair with dress shoes — definitely leave the daytime flats at home. Your look should be one that moves seamlessly from afternoon to nighttime.

Brands to Shop: Rebecca Taylor, Maria Lucia Hohan, L’Agence, Cinq a Sept, A.L.C.

Dressy Casual

A model in a blue cocktail dress
Badgley Mischka Layered Crepe Dress ($187.50)

Somewhere between formal and casual, the attire for this code depends largely on the time of the event. For an evening reception, opt for a cocktail dress or dressy separates, keeping colors darker and more formal. Choose lighter colors and fabrics (linen, poplin, etc.) for a daytime affair.

Brands to Shop: Keepsake, J.Crew, French Connection, Topshop, Zara.


Beach Formal

A model wearing a long floral dress
Likely Rosy Dream Barada Dress ($198)

This basically means beachy with a dressier spin; a floaty maxi or a formal mid-to-tea-length sundress is ideal for oceanfront weddings. The dress code’s nod to location typically means to be conscious of the elements — meaning switch out your stilettos for sand-friendly flat sandals, and pack a sun hat, sunglasses, and/or a shawl to protect from potentially harsh rays.

Brands to Shop: Reformation, Endless Summer, Ulla Johnson, Zimmermann.

Festive

A model wearing a navy and pink sequin dress
Dress the Population Navy and Pink Shawn Sheath ($50 to $65 rental)

One of the most puzzling of the wedding attire terms, festive essentially means adding a shot of personality to your look. Try a jumpsuit, a bold print dress, or eccentric accessories (think Sophia Webster-type heels). Often, if the fete falls around a major holiday, couples will encourage you to dress “festive” with that specific vibe in mind.

Brands to Shop: Jill Jill Stuart, Cynthia Rowley, Alice McCall, Alice + Olivia, C/meo Collective.


Casual

A model wearing a casual floral dress
J.O.A. Cold Shoulder Wrap Dress ($95)

Sure, this is laid-back, but you're still attending a wedding, so unless specially mentioned as appropriate, jeans are a no. The same goes for shorts, T-shirts, and tank tops. A sundress and flats or a pretty blouse with a skirt or pants will assure you’re low-key but still high-class.

Brands to Shop: Cooper and Ella, JOA, ASOS, BB Dakota.