How to De-code the Dress Code

Amanda Donaho Photography

Amanda Donaho Photography

So you are going to an event and you aren’t quite sure what to wear or what the dress code means? Fashion trends are always changing throughout the seasons. When attending a wedding, it can be confusing to guess what exactly to wear. What is considered casual? What exactly is black tie optional? Wait, does black tie optional exists? Why is it optional? This is a guide to help you clarify the dress code for weddings. A few things to consider before you event start thinking about clothes. First, the dress code is there for a reason. If your aren’t sure look at your invitation it should be mentioned. If you can’t find it ask the host. Usually the host(s) have considered the type and level of event they want to hold and with that come the dress code. You wouldn’t consider wearing a sun dress to the Met Ball or a suit to your barbecue party? The event was carefully planned down to every detail so please respect your host by dressing accordingly.

A few other things to think about while deciding

  • the weather - check to see how hot or how cold it will be you will want to dress accordingly

  • the venue - is the ceremony outdoors down a gravel pathway, you might want to consider your footwear. If it is near the harbor, I suggest layers as it will be breezy and cool at night

  • the event - what type of event is it? An art gala is a great time to experiment and have fun with silhouettes. A church wedding isn’t the time for a romper but maybe a memorial day party is.

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To play it on the safe side, think business casual. This means no jeans, shorts, tank tops, or flip flops. In the summer you can have fun with maxi dresses and linen materials. In fall think chinos, dress pants, or more relaxed dress or separates.


Casual dresses or skirts are acceptable to wear. Keep in mind that the dresses and skirts shouldn’t be too short, anything shorter than right above the knee is considered inappropriate. Pants and a nice blouse is a great choice for separates. You can pair your outfit with nice and more comfortable sandals, flats, or short heels. A length appropriate romper or jumpsuit could be a good idea as well here. Exposed bras or bralettes, cheeky skirts or rompers would be disrespectful.

  1. Maggie London Amelia Floral Dress | 2. Lenita Red Striped Satin Dress | 3. Thrive Together Yellow Maxi | 4. Maisee White and Tan Jumpsuit


Dress pants should be worn, or khakis and chinos for a more relaxed style. Wear a button-down shirts or polos to match your choice of pants. As for footwear, you should wear dress shoes or boat shoes. Boat shoes, like Sperry’s, can be considered appropriate since they are more dressier than your everyday shoe. Linen pants or summer suit would be great for a summer wedding. If you are thinking about shorts consider asking your host first. In the winter you could layer or swap the dress shirt with a sweater. A vest could be a great choice as well.

  1. Strong Suit Dagger Trousers | 2. J.Crew 484 Chinos | 3. 1901 Check Dress Shirt | 4. J.Crew Slim Ludlow Shirt

Cocktail Attire

Cocktail Attire is described as in between casual and formal. If you are wearing something more casual, you are able to dress it up with the accessories or consider a more formal silhouette or fabric choice.


You should wear a cocktail dress, keeping in mind the length to be right above the knee to tea length. In addition, you can wear a classy jumpsuits as they are becoming more popular and pair it with a set of statement earrings. Flats or heels should be worn with your outfit. For summer a more elegant maxi dress or bright colors would be great. For fall and winter consider layering up with a shawl or pashmina scarf. Sleeves or heavier weight fabrics would be a good choice as well.

  1. Ted Baker Raspberry Ripple | 2. Jaclyn Yellow Lace | 3. Keepsake Love Light Jumpsuit | 4. Ted Baker Skater Dress


You can’t go wrong with a nicely matched suit and tie. Depending on the season, darker shades should be worn in the colder months. Lighter grey or blue suit is appropriate for warmer months. A linen suit would be appropriate for an outdoor summer wedding as well, while you’d want to stick to wool or wool blend in the winter.

  1. Canali Sienna Classic Plaid Suite | 2. Ted Baker Jay Trim Fit Suit | 3. Ted Baker Jay Trim Fit Suit | 4. Bonobos Slim Fit Solid Cotton Separates

Formal & Black Tie Optional*

Formal and “black tie optional” are the same thing. The reason for the asterisk is I don’t think black tie optional should be used and recommend my clients against it. If a black tie, essentially a tuxedo is optional then you are asking guest to dress in formal attire. Most guests won’t buy or rent a tuxedo if given the options. The rule: “it’s better to overdress then under dress” always applies and you are always welcome to dress better then invited. For our sake I’m going to use formal attire.


Longer evening dress or fancier cocktail dress should be worn, although midi or tea length would work as well. The dress you select should be more elevated then previous dresses, think finer fabrics with more details. Heels are the best option to match with your outfit. Jewelry is a great accessory to style for formal attire.

  1. Kay Unger Strapless Maxi Romper | 2. Katie May Titan On-Shoulder | 3. Margaux Teal One-Shoulder | 4. Eliza J Floral High/Low Dress


Darker colored suit and tie is acceptable, if a tuxedo is not worn. Guys have it a bit easier, darker colors such as black, charcoal and navy in the cooler months and lighter colors such as gray, bankers blue, and khaki in warmer months. Add a bit of personality with your suit color, tie or pocket square choice.

  1. Express Chianti Suit | 2. Boss Hutson/Gander/We Trim Suit | 3. Boss Halven/Gentry Tuxedo | 4. Beckett Outfit

Black Tie

Evening wear is the most acceptable choice of clothing for black tie. This means that the wedding or event is going to be fancier than most.


Long, full-length evening gown with a pair of heels. Think of sophisticated embellishments or patterns and stick with darker colors from black, navy, charcoal, burgundy, or forest green.

  1. Zuhair Murad Hibiscus Tulle Trumpet Gown | 2. Tadashi Shoji Lace & Crepe A-line Gown | 3. Sachin & Babi Topanga Bodice Bow Back Gown | 4. Morgan & Co. Mesh Evening Gown


Black and dark blue colored tuxedo or dinner jacket is the most popular paired with a black bow tie how ever a white two or three piece would be fitting as well. Bow ties are the only kind of ties that should be worn. A white collared, button-down shirt should be worn underneath the tux with a cummerbund although are less popular. Patent leather shoes is the best option to wear with a tuxedo for the evening. Option accessories include bowler, homburg, or boater hat.

  1. Hart New York Fit Tuxedo | 2. Midnight Pin Dot Tuxedo | 3. Express Performance Tuxedo | 4. Ted Baker Josh Trim Fit Mohair Tuxedo

White Tie

Also known as “full evening dress,” this is the most formal attire for a wedding, and isn’t very common. You can find inspiration from styles at an event like the Oscars. The dress code for white tie is much stricter and follows etiquette guidelines from the 18th century. You can typically see this at state dinners, galas, or high society events.


For women this means formal, full-length evening dress with more ornate detail and embellishments with heels should be worn. Makeup and hair should be done accordingly. Consider wearing nicer jewelry. A tiara, pashmina, coat or warp are nice option as well. Long gloves are popular but not mandatory.

  1. Mac Duggal Long Sleeve Lace Gown | 2. Patbo Beaded Ruffle Mermaid Gown| 3. Marchesa Notte Strapless Tulle Gown | 4. Mac Duggal Metallic Jacquard Dress


For the gentlemen the guidelines date back to 18th century and consists of a black dress tailcoat with a starched white shirt, a Pique waistcoat and the distinct white bow tie. High-waisted trousers accompanied by patent leather shoes. Some appropriate accessories include a top hat, white gloves, cravat, white scarf, a pocket watch, and boutonniere.

Long, black jacket with tails should be worn with a white pique vest, white button-down shirt, and white bow tie. Formal dress shoes are required.