Proper Manners: Wedding Attire Etiquette Rules For Guests And Participants

Are you attending or participating in a wedding and have no idea what to wear? Read ahead for attire guidelines for different types of weddings.

With contemporary weddings ranging from full-blown black tie affairs to casual backyard parties, it's tricky for guests and participants to sort out the etiquette guidelines on attire---especially since Emily Post didn't take "theme weddings" into account.

Etiquette, however, need not be simply a list of arbitrary "dos" and "don'ts." In fact, etiquette exists to make social interactions run more smoothly, and every etiquette guide includes a combination of common courtesy and specific rules. When there is no specific rule for a situation, one can always fall back on the general guidelines of common courtesy.

Common Courtesy for Wedding Guests and Participants

Why do we dress up for birthday parties, holiday dinners, and graduations? These are special events, so we dress accordingly, in clothes that differ from our everyday clothes. The same holds true for weddings. The wedding is an extremely special event to the couple and their loved ones. Dress to respect that fact and to celebrate their union. Even if you are not close to the couple, it is important that your attire not negatively affect the atmosphere of their celebration.


Often, the couple will indicate a style of dress on the invitation. Here are some common, modern phrases that one might find on an invitation:

Casual Attire

"Casual attire" is perhaps the most confusing of all dress indicators. To some people, casual means shorts and flip-flops; to others, it is a sport coat and slacks. When in doubt as to what exactly is meant by casual for this particular wedding, ask the couple or someone assisting with the wedding planning.

It is always better to err on the side of overdressing. Therefore, when an invitation states "Casual Attire," do not just show up in the same clothes that you might wear to a baseball game or for running errands on a Sunday afternoon. For men, slacks or khaki pants and dress shirts with or without ties are suitable; sport coats will dress up an ensemble a little more but is still in the realm of casual attire. A woman could wear a skirt or slacks with a blouse or a casual dress; avoid velvets, sequins, beading, and anything that looks too glitzy.

Theme or Theme Optional

When a couple is planning a theme wedding, such as a Renaissance event or a masquerade ball, often they will indicate whether guests should come dressed a certain way. Typically this is optional, especially for elaborate themes where the guest would have to spend a great deal of time and money to procure the right outfit. When in doubt, ask the couple or someone assisting in planning the wedding.

Cocktail Attire

When an invitation states "Cocktail Attire," guests should dress to look chic and elegant, but not quite formal. For women, cocktail dresses, high heels, and evening bags are appropriate; men should wear dark suits (but not tuxedos).

Black Tie Optional

"Black Tie Optional" means that male guests may choose to wear tuxedos and female guests may wear evening gowns, but this is not required. However, this does not mean that one may arrive casually dressed to a "Black Tie Optional" wedding. Guests who choose to not wear full black tie should dress as formally as possible---for men, that means dark suits, and for women, that means at least cocktail-length dresses.

Black Tie

When an invitation states "Black Tie," there's no way around it: this wedding is a formal affair. Women should plan to wear long evening dresses and heels; men should wear tuxedos.

However, what if the invitation doesn't indicate a style of dress? Then one must rely on the time of day for clues. Morning and afternoon weddings typically call for clothes that are dressier than "casual" but not formal. Light colors and materials are suitable. Men should wear sport coats, slacks, dress shirts, and ties; women should wear skirts, slacks, or non-formal dresses. For evening weddings, if no dress is indicated, one should dress as if for dinner at a very nice restaurant. Wear darker colors than for a daytime wedding, and beading, sequins, and fancier jewelry are acceptable. However, one should avoid formality---no tuxes or evening gowns.


Members of the wedding party are expected to pay for their own attire, although it is becoming more common that the couple will pay for all or part of this expense in lieu of the traditional wedding party gifts.

Participants in a wedding generally do not have much input as to their attire. The couple usually gives instructions to the male members of the party about what style of suit or tuxedo to rent or purchase. Traditionally, the bride selects dresses for the female members of the party.

However, some modern couples choose to select overall design and color schemes, and then leave the dress selection up to the participants. If you find yourself in this position, you and the couple should be in agreement about major style elements. Make sure that you understand the degree of formality and whether you should be shopping for evening gowns or simple sheath dresses. If you have any doubts, take snapshots of a few options that you like and allow the couple to make the final selection.

Finally, wedding guests and participants, take note that this wedding does not exist for you to be the center of attention. By all means, express yourself with your attire, but follow any style indications given by the couple, as well as general guidelines for taste and courtesy. Remember, a wedding is the couple's time to shine!

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