7 Wedding Dress Codes and What They Actually Mean

You’ve checked “yes” on the RSVP card. It’s been signed, sealed, and delivered. Now, it’s time to say yes to your wedding guest dress…or pantsuit, skirt set, etc. However, before you add to cart, do yourself a favor and double-check your invitation for a mention of the wedding dress code. Not all nuptials are black-tie affairs, and you want to ensure your going-out look is appropriate for the occasion.

If a dress code isn’t specified on the invitation, you can generally gauge the type of soiree — and, therefore, how to dress for the wedding — based on the reception venue. Stylist and content creator Kennedy Bingham, (whom you might know as Gown Eyed Girl on Instagram) says this is especially true for “casual” dress codes. “It’s hard to do white tie formal if you’re doing a backyard bbq,” she quips.

Still, if you’re unsure what to wear to a wedding after Googling the hall, we recommend searching the geotag on social media to see what others have worn in the past. And if you’re still puzzled — Bingham breaks down the many categories of wedding dress codes below to help you pick out the perfect ensemble.

Casual Attire

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What it means: While Bingham would go as far as to say that a “casual” wedding could be on the same tier as a night out or fancy brunch, you should still approach it with grace. “I wouldn’t go so far as to break out the basketball shorts and flip-flops,” she tells InStyle.

What to wear: For a daytime casual wedding, Bingham recommends an airy linen set or an easy button-up and dark beige shorts. For a nighttime casual wedding, opt for longer pants or a dress. “Wear something you’d wear meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time,” Bingham says. “It may be a casual wedding, but you still want to look nice for the happy couple!”

Cocktail Attire

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What it means: Cocktail attire can be tricky to navigate. Bingham describes it as “what Bond Girls dress in the first time James Bond spies them from across the restaurant.” It falls somewhere between semi-formal and fully formal.

What to wear: Bingham says either a sleek suit or dress that falls knee length or lower is a safe bet when you’re dressing according to cocktail wedding dress codes.

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Formal Attire

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What it means: The upside of formal weddings is that they generally aren’t as strict as black tie affairs when it comes to guest attire. The downside is there isn’t much guidance on what to wear other than to avoid anything casual because, well, it’s a formal event.

What to wear: Bingham says long dresses in deep colors like mauve, emerald, or navy are most often associated with formal weddings. “Fabrics like silk and crepe are always great [and while] a full tux isn’t necessary, a crisp suit and tie are recommended!

Semi-Formal Attire

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What it means: In short, Bingham defines a “semi-formal” wedding dress code to be “just a notch below cocktail.” You want to look nice like you’re going to a fancier restaurant for dinner, but in a way that’s a little less buttoned-up.

What to wear: As far as fabrics go, Bingham says traditional fabrics like silk are still in play, but you can bring your hemline shorter than knee length if you like. “I’d also recommend a suit over a button-down and pants, but feel free to experiment with colors and fabrics,” Bingham adds, noting if you want a suave open collar look, you’ll want to ditch the tie.

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Black Tie Attire

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What it means: In one word: Fancy. You’ll want to pull out all the stops for this one — heels, gowns, full tuxedos, the whole nine.

What to wear: For the dress wearers, Bingham says a black-tie wedding dress code calls for something floor length. “You shouldn’t be able to see more than the toe of your shoe when you walk,” she tells InStyle, adding that suit-wearers are expected to swap for a full-on tux. “Since it’s black and not white tie you can opt-out of the cumberbund if you’d like, but it’s highly encouraged.”

Black Tie Optional Attire

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What it means: You’re still fancy, but suit-wearers have some leeway.

What to wear: According to Bingham, black time optional means virtually nothing if the plan was always to wear a nice dress. Instead, black-tie optional is essentially calling out suit wearers. “It means a tux and bow tie is encouraged but not necessary,” Bingham says. “Formal suits and ties are acceptable.”

Beach Formal Attire

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What it means: A popular wedding dress code in coastal towns, Bingham describes the concept perfectly when she says the couple is essentially saying, “We want you all to dress to the nines, but we also acknowledge that we’re going to be on a literal beach.”

What to wear: If you plan to suit up, Bingham suggests opting for a light color and linen fabric instead of wool-grey. Bright dress colors, she says, are also welcome, including burnt yellows, soft pinks, and fun oranges.

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