Dress Code Decode for Weddings – What to wear?!

As a guest, when you first receive a wedding invite, as well as “can I actually make it”, the next thing you often wonder is …”what on earth will I wear?!”. Often, I’ve wandered into town, around the shops, looking for the perfect dress.  I’ve eventually resorted to borrowing poorly-fitted clothes from mates, or wearing something I feel less than average in… sigh…

Unfortunately I can’t help you pick a dress or suit out, but I can certainly help you decode the rabbit warren that is wedding dress codes. Most of the time, couples don’t explicitly state what the dress code is on their invitation. So you need to decipher the dress code yourself.

How to tell what the wedding’s dress code is – even if the couple didn’t tell you

The rule of thumb: what sort of wedding invitation did they send? An invitation that is formally crafted is an indication that the wedding you’ll be attending will also be formal. An invite with casual wording will call for a nice, but casual outfit.

Still not sure? Here’s some other dress code hints:

  • The location of the wedding. Church = formal. Beach = informal.
  • The time of day dictates formality. White and black tie weddings are usually held after 5.00 pm. (So if the ceremony is at 3 – in theory the dress code is cocktail attire. In practice, many NZ weddings are held at 3, so read into this one with other cues).
  • A floaty dress that easily gets caught in the wind may not be appropriate for an outdoor wedding…
  • High heels should be avoided at a garden or beach wedding, as these easily sink in the grass or in the sand. Stick with wedges or flats.
  • A breezy dress will help keep you cool in a hot location.
  • A more dressy and tailored outfit can be used in a wedding held indoors, such as a five-star restaurant or a country club.
  • The invitation usually reflects the colour scheme and theme, so it gives a good indication of what colours to avoid – unless you want to be mistaken for a bridesmaid!

It’s pretty vague, unfortunately, because every couple, wedding location and their dress code expectations are different.

Clothes you shouldn’t wear to a wedding

  • Anything white is discouraged especially fabrics that do not have prints.
  • Anything dark during a daytime wedding – if you must wear a black dress, brighten it up with your accessories
  • Jeans – just don’t!
  • Anything too revealing or sexy. Nip slips are awkward enough without a professional photographer to capture the shame.
  • Anything with tears, stains or holes (unintentional or otherwise).
  • Anything too small or too big.
  • Wearing anything strapless or sleeveless can be a no-no to a religious wedding ceremony. If you opt for a strapless dress, a wrap should be brought to cover bare shoulders.

Now we’ve figured out(-ish) what sort of level of dress code the couple are expecting… if the couple was thoughtful enough to include the dress code on the invite – what do the different levels of dress code mean?

Dress code levels: what do they mean?

If you’re lucky enough to get a couple who’ve indicated their preferred dress code on their invite, thank your lucky stars. You can quit playing Nancy Drew on the invite and just go straight to the wardrobe and panic there.  Here are some guidelines about each of the different tiers of dress-code, with some commentary on the New Zealand interpretation.

White Tie Dress Code: the most Formal attire

Evening dress, or white tie is the most formal of the dress code levels, and indicates that females will be expected to wear a ballgown. Men wear top hat and tails.

As per the name “evening dress”, this dress code applies to events beginning after dark (Consider it 6pm, if you want a definite time!).  There is an equivalent formal attire for daytime events – morning dress.

Take you inspiration what you might’ve worn to Prince William & Catherine’s wedding. If your invite wasn’t lost in the post like mine was.

Black Tie Dress Code: Semi-Formal Attire

Hermatige Dress in Lilac
Hermatige Dress in Lilac

Funny enough, most kiwis would consider Black tie formal attire. However Black tie is really known in etiquette circles as semi-formal, but still indicates that a female should wear a cocktail dress with a hemline ending below the knees, or reaching the floor. Men should be in a tux.

If you’re worried that you’ll look a bridesmaid in what you’ve picked to wear – that’s probably a good indication that the dress is suitable for black tie. Most bridesmaids dresses fall within this category.

Often the region will influence how formal people will dress. For example, in Dunedin, what some people consider formal attire is really smart casual or cocktail and therefore really considered informal in other regions.

Note: Wearing anything strapless or sleeveless can be a no-no to a religious wedding ceremony. If you opt for a strapless dress, a wrap should be brought to cover bare shoulders.

Examples of More Informal Attire (that’s still suitable for a wedding)

Cocktail Dress

Cocktail attire tends to be the default dress code for most weddings. This beautiful structured panel dress from Max is a good example.  There can be a bit of overlap between the more formal black tie and the less formal smart casual dress codes, but what sets the Cocktail Dress code apart is the length and fabric type.

Below is another example, a beautiful tulip dress from The Iconic:

Cocktail dress allows for higher hemlines (i.e. above the knee), but suggests more structured fabrics.  Beads or sequins should be avoided, or at least minimal. Men would wear a dress shirt, dress pants, tie and blazer. If you can get a tie on my husband, good luck.

Smart Casual

Lavender Bay Mini Dress from Bec and Bridge
Lavender Bay Mini Dress from Bec and Bridge

Smart casual is perfect for a small, informal wedding or a garden wedding.  A dress with a floral design or plain colour would be perfect.  For the men, a dress shirt and dress with tie optional. Please don’t wear jeans.

Dress code dilemma? Fancy faux-pas?

Are you still struggling with what to wear? Post your troubles below and I’ll help where I can.

6 thoughts on “Dress Code Decode for Weddings – What to wear?!

  1. Great advice, just what I need as have a wedding to go to next year, lol love the part about “jeans-just don’t” wish I could wear my jeans, so used to them and so comfy, guess I better go dress shopping then 😉

    1. It’s what you feel comfortable in aye – If it’s a casual wedding you *could* possibly get away with black jeans – make sure they’re fitted and brand new, and dress up with heels. Otherwise consider it an opportunity to buy a new dress 😀

  2. great advice – when I cam back from the UK I was really unsure what to wear, as over there its formal with hats – where as here hats are not common at all….

    1. Yes we are definitely not as formal in NZ – I love wearing a fascinator but I feel a little out of place when I do.

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