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Decode the Wedding Dress Code

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Photo Credit: Brian Dorsey Studios / Created by: Tantawan Bloom

Most of us have encountered the challenge presented on a wedding invitation: deciphering the dress code. If you don’t know your “semi-formal” from your “black tie optional,” here are some guidelines to get you started.

Black Tie

This is a formal wedding but more flexible than its white tie counterpart. As a guest invited to a black-tie wedding, you should opt for a formal gown in a neutral color. You can also wear a chic cocktail dress or a long evening gown. Be sure to check with the wedding party or bride to see how formal they would like guests to dress.

The most important part for women to remember is that they should stay with formal dresses regardless of length. When in doubt, picture what would look appropriate next to a tuxedo.

Formal and Black Tie Optional

An invitation that states the dress code is formal or black tie optional can leave things feeling a bit ambiguous. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a challenging look to put together! Men can attend in tuxedos within the black-tie dress standard or in dark suits. Since men are given the option to dress somewhat less formally, women can select anything from a long dress to one that falls more into the cocktail dress category.

The look is still intended to be formal, so it is better to air on the side of slightly overdressed than under. Don’t shy away from having a little more fun with the accessories, such as a statement necklace or an attention-grabbing shoe.


The time of day will help you to decide whether to dress more formal or casual. If the ceremony and reception are later in the evening, consider wearing darker formal hues. If it is a daytime wedding, then more vibrant and light weight fabrics are the perfect fit.

In some cases, the “casual” even releases guests from the traditional suit and tie requirement. Men can wear slacks with a collared shirt, while women may choose pants and a blazer or a pencil skirt and a blouse. The important part, again, is not to aim too informal — and this means jeans, no matter how nice, are simply a no.

Dressy Casual

Dressy casual is the first point where jeans may be an option. However, they should be in good repair and not overly worn or faded. Additionally, they should be dressed with dressier items, like a sharp blazer or fancy blouse. Shoes should remain on the more formal side.

Beach Formal

A beach wedding doesn’t automatically equal a laid-back affair. It can be elegant, but dress for the elements — sun, sand, and water. Think of dressy summer wear, like a sundress that falls to knee- or tea-length. Pair it with shoes that you can wear on the beach, like flat sandals or espadrilles.


A daytime wedding is typically less formal than an evening affair. This means, unless specific attire is requested, it is often appropriate to lean casual, such as an outfit that would be suitable for a country club or similar environment. You can often take cues from the environment in which the ceremony will take place. A church wedding followed by an indoor reception may suggest a more formal approach than a garden wedding with an outdoor reception.

When in doubt, you may want to consider asking for more information. Try not to call the bride or groom, as they have enough on their plate. Instead, see if a member of the wedding party can provide the clarity you need. Often, they have a good understanding of what the couple is going for and can provide you with an overview or what is being requested.

—Valerie and Stephanie Chin

valerie and stephanie chin val stefani designersEstablished in picturesque Southern California, Val Stefani is the inspiration of sisters, Valerie and Stephanie Chin. With their youthful perspective and creativity, these sisters continue to successfully walk the fine line between modern aesthetics and classic styles. Both sisters serve as Co-founders and Creative Directors at Val Stefani. Valerie and Stephanie formed their vision of Val Stefani while working at the celebrated Moonlight Bridal house. They believed that the industry needed a brand that embraced the needs of the 21st Century bride. Valerie and Stephanie have met these challenges with their creative styles and refined designs, along with a meticulous attention to quality and detail. Each Val Stefani gown exemplifies unparalleled contemporary glamour with a touch of vintage beauty.

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