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Best-Dressed Guests: 5 Tips on What to Wear

Experts dish on the do’s and don’ts of wedding dress codes.

In the words of designer Tom Ford, “Dressing well is a form of good manners.” Attending a friend or family member’s wedding with the right wardrobe shows that you respect their big day—well-turned-out, yet ready to party. Striking the balance between looking fab but appropriate for the occasion isn’t always an easy task, though. We’ve gathered local experts to help you decode the dress code so you’re not stuck at the kid’s table.

Tip 1: Take a Hint

The first clue to nailing your outfit arrives with the invite. “Dress code should be communicated clearly to guests through the invitation, and guests should always follow the indicated dress code,” says Kelly Bollis, owner and creative director of Maven. Even if a couple hasn’t explicitly stated a dress code to guide their guests’ clothing choices, Bollis encourages guests to make every effort to dress up.

Though some traditional rules have fallen by the wayside, others continue to stand the test of time. Black was once considered too glum a shade to wear to a wedding, but today it’s acceptable. Thao Nguyen, owner and founder of Minneapolis clothing boutique Parc, urges guests to “stay true to your personal style.” Nguyen followed her own advice at a recent family wedding—she donned her signature staple (black), while taking cues from the wedding invitation’s pastel and floral design scheme for her 4-year-old Josephine, who wore a pretty lavender frock.

“Black is certainly acceptable for everyone except the mother of the groom,” says Rachelle Mazumdar, owner of Style-Architects Weddings + Events. “When in doubt, pull out your LBD and dress it up with jewelry.”

Another shade these style gurus see eye-to-eye on lies at the opposite end of the grayscale spectrum: white—and this time, it’s a big no-no. “Don’t even go there!” Nguyen says. Every expert agrees. “Absolutely no white dresses at a wedding, ever,” Bollis says. “A lot of guests think this tradition is going out the window due to new and modern wedding trends, but this rule still applies.”

“Only wear white if asked to specifically by the dress code,” says Sarah Trotter, lead consultant and owner of Lasting Impressions Weddings. “If the couple indicates they would like you to wear white to a wedding then it is not only OK, but it is expected.”

Tip 2: Match the Venue

Another factor to take into account is location, location, location. “Barn weddings usually attract a more casual clientele, while ballrooms are more formal, so be sure to step up the elegance there,” says Jennae Saltzman, lead planner and owner of Blush & Whim. “Beach weddings are relaxed and airy, so wear something to reflect that vibe.”

“If the ceremony is in a church, make sure to bring a shawl or cardigan to cover your shoulders,” says Kerry Hollenback, branch manager and event planner at the Simply Elegant Group. “If you know the wedding is going to be outside, make sure to bring the right shoes that allow you to walk on grass or gravel.”

Mazumdar reminds us that guests still need to dress up for outdoor weddings. “Informal weddings are not a place to wear anything you would wear to work or going out to lunch; these items are either too professional or casual-looking.”

Tip 3: Decode the Dress Code

And now for quite possibly the most challenging of decoding lessons: cocktail attire versus black tie. Or as Trotter puts it, “Girls’ night out vs. the Academy Awards.”

Most weddings are considered cocktail attire unless noted otherwise. “Women can wear a nice knee-length dress or, following the trends today, a nice jumpsuit. For men, a pair of dress pants, button-up shirt and tie is usually the standard for cocktail attire,” says Hollenback.

Time is of the essence. “If you are attending an evening wedding that starts at or after 5 p.m., the attire expectation is cocktail,” Mazumdar says. “Though etiquette states the typical cutoff is at 5 p.m., many dressier weddings are starting earlier.” Bollis describes cocktail attire as “casual elegance” while Trotter suggests thinking “a bit more fun and playful while still maintaining formality.”

When it comes to black tie, think tuxedos for men and floor-length dresses for women. Men, “you need to wear a tuxedo.” Mazumdar adds, “If you don’t own a tuxedo, then rent one—that’s the expectation.”

“You don’t need to look like you’re en route to the Met gala, but maybe the Oscars,” Bollis says. “Don’t forget the details,” advises Hollenback. “A pair of cufflinks [for men] and some amazing chandelier earrings work well for this kind of event.”

However, the reverse is true as well. “Don’t show up in a long gown and tux unless the invite reads ‘black tie,’ ” says Mazumdar.

Tip 4: Observe the Season

Consider the date of the wedding. Some colors are more appropriate for certain times of year, says Trotter. Choose lighter shades and fabrics in spring and summer and darker, more subtle tones and heavier fabrics in fall and winter.

We all know the bride will be refreshing the forecast on her weather app on the big day, but guests should be prepared as well. Bring an umbrella and a wrap if the weather looks dreary. And depending on wind speed, you may want to reconsider a flowy dress. If you go with one, “just make sure it is not too short or too full to avoid any wardrobe malfunctions,” says Mazumdar.

Tip 5: Dress Up, Feel Good

No matter what time of year, one piece of advice remains evergreen: It’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed.

When choosing a dress, be thoughtful. Some allover patterns can read too casual, where solid colors can be seen as classic, chic and less distracting. Avoid clothing that will draw unnecessary attention to yourself, or distract from the bride, says Trotter. “And more than anything, feel comfortable in what you are wearing.”

Wear something you can dance in, encourages Bollis. (After all, a good wedding guest is a participatory guest.) On that note, Hollenback urges women to always bring a change of shoes. “Most of us can’t last all night in the 4-inch heels we bought two days ago,” she says.

In the end, be thoughtful about your attire and wear it proudly. “The best-dressed guests are always confident in their choice,” Trotter says.

Go with your instincts. “If you are having doubts about the appropriateness of your outfit, err on the side of caution and pick another,” says Hollenback. If you decide to look further than your own closet, weddings can be viewed as a fun excuse to expand your wardrobe and hit the mall. Happy shopping! *

Fashion Faux-Pas (for Every Wedding)
Courtesy of Rachelle Mazumdar, Style-Architects Weddings + Events

Never allowed:

  • Jeans
  • T-shirts
  • Flip-flops (until dancing starts!)
  • White dresses or overall white outfit

What to Wear: A Venue Guide
Courtesy of Jennae Saltzman, Blush & Whim

Ladies: Sundress and wedges
Gentlemen: Casual trousers and boots with a jacket

Ballroom or Urban Hotspot
Ladies: Cocktail dress and a fabulous pair of heels
Gentlemen: Two- or three-piece fitted suit and loafers or lace-ups

Ladies: Flowy or maxi dress and gladiator sandals
Gentlemen: Linen or seersucker button-down with pants or shorts and boat shoes

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