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Wedding Style Report: Common Dress Codes, Decoded

Can anyone besides the bride wear white to a wedding? What does "festive" really mean? Is black tie always formal? As a style expert, these are questions I get asked on a regular basis and a topic I recently covered on an episode of The Nate Berkus Show (airing in May). With peak wedding season on the horizon, we thought it would be a good time to give you a prep course in event-wear etiquette.

Here are eight common wedding invite dress codes and what they all mean, exactly.


This seems to be an invite trend of late but an enigma to most people. To me, "festive" means anything goes. Think cocktail party, bold colors, and funkier styles that you wouldn't try for a more formal event. Just have fun with it! For guys, try a fun tie!

"This is the time to break out the ties with the fun patterns or something that goes with the theme," says celebrity event planner Samantha Goldberg. "For example, if you're going to a college reunion, wear a sports-themed tie. It makes the suit less stuffy."

Black Tie

This would be on the more formal end of the spectrum. Think tux for guys and typically long dresses for the gals.

"It also means etiquette-wise that the hosts are requiring this for attire," Goldberg says. "You could maybe get away with a bow-tie or a more formal suit, as opposed to a tux."

If the invite says "Black Tie Optional," Goldberg suggests guys go with a nice dinner jacket, instead of a tux. "It's comparable to formal business attire," she says.


If it says "Cocktail," the hosts most likely want you dressed up, but that doesn't necessarily mean a suit and tie. "A guy can get away with nice jeans and a nice jacket or sport coat," Goldberg says. If you want to add a tie, try a skinny version in a fun color.

For the ladies, this typically means a knee-length dress or one that hits just below the knee. You can never go wrong with a classic LBD or try something a little sparkly, depending on the setting.

White Tie

This is considered the gold standard in formal dressing, Goldberg says. "This requires use of a black coat with longer tails, along with a white fabric vest, white bow tie, and a white winged-collar shirt," she adds.

Ladies should opt for a longer ball gown, often with added accents like opera-length gloves.


Everyone's definition of casual is different, but remember no matter what, this is someone's wedding you are going to. Whether it's a garden wedding or in someone's backyard, "Even for the really casual weddings, you should look fashion savvy and not like you threw something together based on what's clean in your closet," Goldberg says. "It doesn't mean you can show up in cut-offs and scuba gear."

For guys, try a pastel polo shirt with flat-front pants, and for the ladies, a nice sundress with sandals is suitable.

Beach Wedding

Goldberg says destination weddings are on the rise so what to wear to them has become a popular topic of conversation.

"A linen suit is a fab look for a beach wedding. Toss the tie and maybe add a fun straw hat," she suggests. You can usually follow the 'resort formal' rules, which means no shorts, no jeans, and no cargo pants.

Gals can always go with a bright and colorful printed sundress and of course, a hat and sunglasses are apropos add-ons.


When it comes to formal, think business attire. A suit and tie for the guys, and a cocktail dress for the gals. But when you're out shopping, think chic, not cubicle.

"You don't want to look like you just came from the office. Look for a more stylish suiting option such as the slim styles from Calvin Klein," Goldberg says.


People know some of the basic 'wedding rules' like you should never wear white unless instructed by the bride (some cutting-edge brides are putting their bridal parties in white!) and you should avoid wearing the same color dress as the bridal party.

Generally, colors like red are off-limits too, or anything that can be perceived as too sexy or risqué, although that also depends on the location and style of the wedding. If your red dress is understated, simple, and doesn't show too much skin, it may be OK… just avoid anything that's red, skintight, and overly-sexy—it'll look like you're trying to upstage the bride!

Photos Courtesy of Style Me Pretty