A complete guide to wedding guest dress codes, from white-tie to smart casual

As wedding season approaches, here is how to dress for any style of nuptials

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As the summer approaches, it also heralds the start of wedding season. Along with that sometimes comes the dilemma of what to wear.

Being asked to be part of a couple's wedding is an honour. However, it also comes with an unspoken set of rules, such as forking out gifts, and following the stated dress code. By definition, weddings are formal events, so if guidelines on what to wear are offered, they should be adhered to.

The role of the guests is to act as background against which the couple can shine, so take your cues from the bride even before the invitation arrives. If she is a jeans and T-shirt kind of woman, or goes all out in bodycon and heels, her level of dress will set the standard of sartorial expectations at the wedding.

The general rule is to dial up the glamour an extra notch, so if the bride is a fashion goddess, you will be expected to follow suit. While this may not mean a ball gown and diamond tiara, if you think your look is not dressy enough, it probably isn't.

With increasing numbers of couples choosing to personalise their weddings, from getting hitched on the beach, to writing their own vows, here are some general rules to help you nail the look, whatever the dress code.

White-tie

If you receive a wedding invitation stating white-tie as the dress code, then chances are you hang with high rollers, and will already be familiar with this level of formality. For the rest of us, white-tie is as upscale as it gets and must be followed, or you risk seriously offending your hosts.

Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds arrive at the In America: An Anthology of Fashion-themed Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Reuters

Although it may sound daunting, in reality, the strict parameters remove all the guesswork. A man should don full evening dress such as a white dress shirt, white waistcoat, bow tie, and formal shoes, while women should wear a floor-length evening gown that covers the ankles. Add a clutch and the best jewellery you own.

If buying a gown is out of reach financially, then perhaps think about renting one instead. A number of companies such as Designer24.com offer looks for a fraction of the price. A white-tie dress code is non-negotiable, so if you cannot muster it, then don't accept.

For an idea of what is expected, look to Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively at the 2022 Met Gala, who absolutely nailed it.

Black-tie

Beyonce and Jay-Z in black-tie attire. Photo Reuters

Usually reserved for evening weddings, this is still dressy, but less restrictive than white-tie.

For women, this can mean a floor-length gown, but there is also room to don a cocktail dress, or even an elegant trouser suit. Men should wear a tuxedo jacket with a cumberband (yes, this is still a thing) or black waistcoat, and shoes should ideally be patent black. They should also wear a bow-tie.

Black-tie optional

Black-tie optional: George and Amal Clooney at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival, and while only the bride should wear white at a wedding, Amal's dress hits exactly the right note for a formal event. Photo AP

Rather than a green flag to rock up in board shorts, this is instead the polite way of telling guests to relax a fraction. Men can swap out the tuxedo for a single-breasted dark suit, with white shirt and formal shoes. The bow tie can also be put away, and a subdued tie worn instead. For women, this means a cocktail dress and/or a gown, but feel free to have fun with your heels.

Cocktail

Here's when things really start to get fun, as you can don any cocktail dress that hits between knee to floor. If the wedding is in the evening, shorter is acceptable, but stick to dressy fabrics. Forget anything cotton, as it is not smart enough. Aim to look polished, so avoid patterns or crazy colours. Men, however, are still required to don a smart suit and tie, even if the wedding is outside.

Cocktail: for a performance in Cairo, Nancy Ajram wore the perfect black cocktail dress. Photo: Nancy Ajram / Instagram

Semi-formal or smart casual

The key to nailing this slightly ambiguous ruling is to consider where and when the wedding is taking place. If it is a daytime affair, lean to lighter colours, in perhaps a below-the-knee dress or an understated trouser suit. If the event is in the evening, take it up a notch with darker colours.

Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong'o always knocks it out of the ballpark, and looks amazing in this snappy dress that is part cocktail, part party dress.  Photo AP

Now is the time to pull out a shorter dress if that is your thing. Teaming it with dressy flats, or wedges is perfectly acceptable. Men, too, can relax, in smart trousers and shirt. As is also the case for women, think lighter for day, and darker for night. If in doubt, black trousers and a white shirt for an evening event will also be appreciated.

Casual or beach wedding

This typically applies to a wedding ceremony held on a beach, there is more room to have fun.

Casual wedding: in a backless, flowy dress, Lebanese-Australian model Jessica Kahawaty looks dressed for a beautiful beachside wedding. Photo: Jessica Kahawaty / Instagram

For the beach, think flowy, summery dress with flats, and a hat to protect from the sun, while men can opt for smart chinos and an open-neck shirt. Traditionally, trainers and sportswear have been a no-no at weddings, but now even those rules are changing.

Depending on the couple tying the knot, it is feasible to add trainers to a summer dress or to dark trousers. Play this one by ear, though, as many people hold wedding dress codes to be sacrosanct, and will not look kindly on nonconformists.

Finally, it is worth remembering that if there is no dress code, then it's best to double check on what is expected, as people may have a very different idea of what "smart" means.

If there is no satisfactory answer, aim for a smarter version of yourself. So whether the dress is fitted, flared or even prairie, it is better to look stylishly overdressed, than be the scruffy one in the corner. No one wants to be viewed as not having made an effort.

So, even if the shoes are pinching, the dress won't let you sit down, or the suit is too hot, smile graciously and wish the happy couple a long, joyous and stylish life together.

Updated: May 21, 2022, 1:15 PM
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