What To Wear To That Formal Event (Which Is Probably A Wedding)


Please, wear clothing. [Flickr user violet.blue]

Does anyone else get insanely excited about planning outfits to wear to a wedding? Or other formal event? I’m going to assume that most of the events you’re getting a formal invitation to are weddings, because if you’re getting invited to a ton of awards shows and other galas…you probably don’t need this post.

I know it can be a chore, but personally, I love getting dressed up. I love seeing my friends wearing ties. I love having an excuse to not just be wearing sneakers and a ponytail. So it’s fitting that I get excited when I see the dress code printed on an invitation.

Firstly, I want to say to anyone planning a wedding, engagement party, or otherwise “official” event–have a frickin’ dress code! Otherwise you may be inundated with calls from friends going “Is this purple dress ok? But I also have this blue one I really like, but that one is longer. And I never wear the purple one. But what are you wearing?” and it will make you want to punch all your friends. Explicitly stated dress codes mean you don’t have to talk to anyone, which really is our goal right?

Now, on to what to wear once you know the code.

Do not wear a wedding dress (men, this goes for you too).  Unless the invitation says to wear white, you want to steer clear of any type of white dress, even if it looks nothing like the bride’s gown. Though this rule only applies for our “traditional” American/European wedding ceremonies. My cousin wore a white dress to a family member’s wedding and it was fine…because the bride was wearing a red and gold sari. Don’t wear a red and gold sari to an Indian wedding.

What you wear really depends on what it says on the invitation, and the season. Usually the couple will specify something like “Black Tie” or “Cocktail Attire” on the invite, which should give you an idea of what to wear. Here are the basics for that.

White Tie: You will never go to a White Tie wedding. We can pretty much guarantee this. But if you do, men should wear an evening tailcoat tuxedo with a white bowtie. Women should wear a floor-length ballgown and usually elbow length gloves, and really elaborate hair/makeup/clothing. Good luck shopping. (I would also like to note that a Google Image search of “White Tie” brings up the suggestions “Fred Astaire,” “Downton Abbey,” and “Obama.” Interpret that how you will.)

Black Tie: This is the most formal wedding you will probably go to, which has men wearing tuxedos (sans tails) and women wearing either floor-length gowns or more formal cocktail dresses (think darker colors, satins and silks, etc.). Think red carpet gala for clothing inspiration.

Black Tie Optional: This is most likely what the wedding you’re going to is, and IT SUCKS. PEOPLE, STOP PUTTING “BLACK TIE OPTIONAL” ON YOUR INVITATIONS. For men it’s fine; they either get to wear a tuxedo or a dark suit, which pretty much every man has. But for women’s attire, The Knot suggests “A long dress, a dressy suit, or a formal cocktail-length dress.” That is literally every possible clothing option, and it’s infuriating. You can’t go wrong with a nice cocktail dress in a deep color, though. But seriously, either put Black Tie or Cocktail Attire on your invitations, and stop the madness.

Cocktail Attire: This is what people most likely want when they say “Black Tie Optional” but they don’t know about it, so NOW YOU KNOW. It may also be written as Semiformal or Dressy Casual. This means a dark suit for men, and a cocktail dress for women, which is pretty much exactly what everyone thinks of when they think of what people wear to a wedding.

The main differences in these attire suggestions concern the time of day and the season. Most people do not host a daytime Black Tie wedding, because making women sweat in heavy satin dresses in the sun is a mean thing to do (on this note, according to Official Etiquette, tuxedos should never be worn before 6pm, but omg who cares anymore). So consider the information on the rest of the invitation. Is this going to be a winter wedding? Think darker colors and thicker fabrics. Outdoors in July? Lighter fabrics work better, in a brighter color or pattern. A blouse and skirt combo also works for this for women, and men can go for lighter fabrics and colors too in the summer, like light grey or blue.

There are a slew of others, from “Creative Black Tie” to “Evening Resort” to “Festive Attire.” Some may ask you to wear a specific color, or dress to a certain theme. Sometimes there are even costume changes. One person we know said it was tradition in his community to wear suits to the wedding ceremony, then change into jeans and t-shirts for the reception. When in doubt, ask! If a couple is asking for a specific, more non-traditional dress code, they’re probably ready to receive some questions about it.

A Note on Black for Women: Wearing black to a wedding is still a tricky subject. My mother-in-law enthusiastically told me to wear a black cocktail dress to my sister-in-law’s black tie optional wedding, but in many circles, black is an absolute no. “But UC!” you cry, “I have just the cutest black dress in the world, and I need to wear it because it makes my legs look fantastic and I need to bang one of the groomsmen!” Use your best judgment! If you’re running with a more traditional and conservative crowd, then perhaps not, but if it’s a chic evening wedding in the city, go for it! To be on the safe side, dress it up with colorful or sparkly accessories. You just don’t want to look like you’re going to a funeral.


6 thoughts on “What To Wear To That Formal Event (Which Is Probably A Wedding)

  1. I wore a black dress to your sister in-law’s wedding. I thought that it was ok. I don’t dress up a lot, and was excited to wear it!

  2. Pingback: How To Be A Decent Person At A Wedding | Uncommon Courtesy

  3. Pingback: Wedding Invitations | Uncommon Courtesy

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  5. I guess that I belong to the group who doesn’t need this blog. I attend about four white events (no, not weddings, but formal balls) every single year. My husband owns his tailcoat, along with black and white dinner jackets, two silk toppers (one collapsible, one not), opera cloak, scarves, gloves and all the other accoutrements. I have a wardrobe filled to the brim with ball gowns, evening dresses, evening separates, dinner dresses (with covered shoulders!), cocktail frocks, a genuine antique tiara inherited from my great-grandmother, shawls, stoles, about 40 pairs of gloves and a pile of handbags.

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