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By Invitation - Decoding The Dress Code
Written by Sacha Miller-Mcdonald   
Thank You CardNobody can dispute that words have different connotations for different people! Here's how to decode the wedding dress code.

I love weddings with a passion – the clothes, the vows, the celebration, the atmosphere – all of it.  The only thing I don’t always like about receiving a wedding invitation, is having to decipher the dress code.

Weddings, like all formal and traditional occasions, have a few traditional formalities that need to be observed. Of course, nobody can force you to observe these little fashion etiquette rules, but you’ll probably feel more comfortable if you do.  I like to think of it as the 'Spring Racing Carnival' theory – nobody can stop you from wearing an evening dress with a wide-brimmed straw hat and without hosiery, but you won’t be winning any 'Fashions In The Field' commendations if you do!

The basic, traditional rules of dressing for weddings are as follows:
1. Don’t wear white, as you may upstage the bride.
2. Don’t wear black, as it is considered rude and a little morbid.
3. Morning and afternoon weddings require demure, elegant clothing; perhaps a suit or elegant day dress.
4. Hats and gloves may be worn to formal daytime wedding ceremonies.
5. You may wear a floor length dress to an evening wedding, though not to a daytime one, unless you are a bridesmaid.
6. Elegant cocktail frocks are the best choice for an evening wedding.

But what about the old-fashioned dress code in the modern context?  Formal, semi-formal, informal, lounge suit, black tie, white tie – what does it all mean?

In order to decode the dress code, we need to take a few other factors into consideration.  What time of day is the wedding? Whereabouts are the wedding and reception to be held?  What relationship do you have with the bride and groom? What does the invitation look like? 

As a general rule, very few modern weddings are white tie.  Those that are require evening wear for ladies, and tails and a white bow-tie and cummerbund for gents.

Black tie signals a tuxedo and black bow-tie for gentlemen, and a formal cocktail frock for ladies.  If a black tie wedding takes place after 5pm, ladies may wear a floor length gown.  'Black tie' and 'formal' usually mean the same thing, though, depending of the time and location of the weddings, 'formal' can also mean a dark suit, collared shirt and tie for the gents, formal daywear for the ladies.

Informal, semi-formal and lounge suit also generally mean the same thing – lounge suit and nice tie for the men, and an elegantly pretty 'Sunday best' dress or suit for the ladies.

So how can we decode the modern dress code?

'Informal' can be the first stumbling block.  Unless the wedding is to be very, very casual, 'informal' still means a nice shirt with collar and perhaps a tie for the men, and a stylish day dress or similar for the female guests.  Very rarely 'informal' mean shorts, jeans or anything else made of denim. 

If you are unsure about 'informal', check with the bride and groom. Many a guest has been caught out by this particular dress code, and it’s easy to do!  Remember, just because a wedding takes place on the beach, in a backyard or a local park, doesn't mean it isn't a special occasion, worthy or taking time and trouble over.  It's also easy to fall into the trap (most especially, I’ve noticed, for the family and friends of the groom) of thinking that the couple are generally pretty easygoing, so there's no real reason to dress up.  Most couples, no matter how much they may shun tradition and formality in their day-to-day lives, tend to like a bit of fuss for their weddings.

If in any doubt, it's always best to err on the side of more rather than less formal.  Male guests can always remove a tie and loosen a collar, female guests can let their hair down and replace a shawl with a cardigan if they feel overdressed – but there's very little room for movement if you’ve dressed too casually in the first place.

Invitations with an 'informal' dress code require the most thought, as there are different types of 'informal'.  This is where your decoding skills will be handiest.  If the wedding is in the evening, the reception is to be held at a specialist reception venue, restaurant, or even somebody's home, 'informal' means trousers and shirt, with or without collar for the men, and something pretty but understated the ladies. 'Informal' on an invitation to a daytime wedding, with a reception to be held on the beach, in a backyard, or in a local park can have a wider interpretation.  Light coloured pants and open collared shirt for the chaps, and elegant daywear for the female guests. 

And a note for the 'informal' male wedding guest – shy away from those shirts that have graffiti, slogans or any text emblazoned on them.  I don’t care how well ironed they may be, they are absolutely not wedding wear!'

'Semi-formal' and 'lounge suit' codes are generally the easiest.  Pretty, floaty dresses or stylish shifts for the female guests, and a simple suit, shirt and tie for the men.  Style tip for male guests – avoid 'character' ties.  Save Bart Simpson, Wallace and Gromit, and the dad from Family Guy for the office Christmas party.

'Formal' means a (preferably black) suit and (preferably bow) tie for the men and a cocktail frock for the ladies.  Once again, male guest should avoid loud ties and those horrendous  white 'formal' shirts that have sleeves made from some lurid coloured print, generally worn with matching bow-tie.  Yuck.

Female 'formal' wedding guests should carefully interpret the 'cocktail frock' advice.  'Cocktail frock' doesn’t mean 'cocktail bar', so no micro-mini dresses, plunging, navel length necklines, dresses that need double sided tape to stop your breasts from making a guest appearance, or anything else that is aggressively sexy. 'Formal' is a chance to stand out because of your panache and elegance, and not because your breasts came loose and started joining in the fun on the dance floor!  So leave the club wear at home.

Other wedding dress code tips are as follows:

1. Avoid Stilettos
If the wedding itself is on a beach or in a park, avoid stilettos or any other spindly heels, and fabric covered shoes. Nothing looks more awkward than a wedding guest slowly sinking into the ground, or more unattractive than grass or salt stained fabric on shoes.  Plus, it’s a waste of good shoes.

2. Keep checking the invite
Look at the invitation – if it was clearly specially made, and features a lot of a particular colour, then don’t wear that colour to the wedding – you may end up looking like a bridesmaid without a bouquet!  I know there are those who like the idea of matching the bridal party, but it really is best not to, as very few brides will thank you for it!

3. Check the invite again
Keep looking at the invitation, and if the wedding ceremony is to take place anywhere that has the words 'Saint', 'Temple', 'Our Lady of' or 'Blessed' in the title, then don’t wear strapless, off the shoulder or anything too short or see-through, as you may be asked to leave the church or temple.  This may seem archaic, but it's just the way it is, so if you don’t want to spend the wedding ceremony waiting outside, cover up. If your outfit does feature bare shoulders, wear a cardigan, jacket or shawl at the ceremony.

4. Informal means smart casual
Always remember – ‘informal’ equals ‘smart casual’, with the emphasis on the ‘smart’ part.  In other words, if you wouldn’t wear it to the office, don’t wear it to the wedding!

5. Assume formal if at at a reception centre
If the reception is at a reception house, or somewhere else that has been specially booked for this function (an art gallery, on a boat or ship, or a stately home, for example) but there is no dress code specified, then assume that it’s formal.  If in doubt, ask somebody before choosing your outfit, otherwise you run the risk of being the embarrassed (and worse, conspicuous) guest who thought that a wedding on the water was a good opportunity to give their new canvas loafers their maiden voyage!

6. Consider how well you know the Bride & Groom
Another factor to consider, is how close you are to the bride and groom.  If you are a distant relative, partner of a friend or colleague, or just don’t really know the couple very well, then dress conservatively – so, no floor length, no large, be-feathered fascinators, and absolutely nothing that looks ‘bridesmaidish’.  While I’m a huge advocate of the notion that one should never be afraid to stand out at any time, I also believe that weddings are the exception to this rule; weddings are the time for the bride, groom, and those closest to them to shine.

Similarly, if you aren’t a huge fan of the bride for any reason, avoid the overwhelming temptation to dress inappropriately.  If you’ve been invited to your ex-boyfriend’s wedding, and are feeling the tiniest bit sour-grapey, the prospect of wearing that skimpy number that he always loved you in can be wickedly enticing.  But don’t.  You’ll
end up feeling obvious and uncomfortable, especially when you run into his family. 

7. No Black or White
The old rules about not wearing black or white still apply.  White really is the bride’s colour, and you’ll be amazed how wearing a prettily coloured outfit will lighten your heart!

8. Weddings from other cultures
If you are lucky enough to be invited to the wedding of a couple who share a different cultural background to yours, make sure you ask about what is appropriate.  Some cultures believe that white is bad luck, some may require that you wear a head covering for the actual ceremony.  In some cultures, dressing to reflect their traditions and beliefs can be seen as a great compliment.  For example, the family of a traditional Indian bride may welcome the sight of female wedding guests wearing saris or selwaar kameez sets. As always, check with the bride, but occasions like this can be an excellent opportunity to expand your wardrobe horizons.

As with most fashion tips, there are a few points of etiquette that you should definitely observe in order to maintain your personal savoir faire.  After all, style is not just about what you wear, but how you wear it! For example, formal wear often means formal behaviour.  If the wedding reception is being held in a very opulent, dignified establishment, try to be a little aware of your surroundings. Mind your accessories too, especially at the ceremony itself.  For example, if you happen to be accessorising with a mobile phone, then, unless you are a neurosurgeon on call, then switch it off!  Similarly, if you are accessorising with a small child, and they happen to start squawking, wriggling, talking or crying, then take them outside.  No exceptions.

The bottom line when it comes to wedding guest-wear, is that if you can find an outfit (and I do believe you can) that is stylish, comfortable and appropriate, you’ll look and feel fantastic.


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