A Complete Guide to the Levels of Wedding Formality & Dress Codes

Choose your wedding "type" or determine dress codes for invitations with this helpful guide.

We put together a guide to assist you in determining just what to wear for various dress codes for wedding events and what you can expect from the varying types of nuptials you can encounter, starting from the least formal and ending with the wedding that will embody the height of decorum.

real wedding photo by roey yohai studios new york city wedding cipriani 25 broadway wedding guests mingle at luxe colorful wedding
Photo: Roey Yohai Studios

You open your mailbox to see a beautifully decorated white envelope with your name written in calligraphy on the front: your family member, best friend, or college friend’s wedding invitation has finally arrived! You carefully open the delicate seal and slide the elegant card out, open it up, and read through the information.

Near the bottom, you notice the term “Black Tie Optional,” which makes you stop in your tracks. Black tie optional? Is that different than Black Tie? How formal an ensemble will I need to acquire? What does this mean for the etiquette of the day? What's the difference between formal vs. black tie?You’re not alone in your wondering: wedding formality and wedding dress codes can be difficult to decipher.

To help wedding guests who have been instructed to dress in a particular formality of wedding attire, we put together a guide to assist you in determining just what to wear and what you can expect from the varying types of nuptials you can encounter, starting from the least formal and ending with the wedding that will embody the height of decorum.

If the Invitation Says “Casual”: 

This is rare, but some couples are not invested in the fanciness of a vow exchange and would prefer for everyone to remain comfortable. Typically, this means the emphasis will be on the couple and the celebration, rather than the formality of tying the knot.

Casual Men’s Attire:

A button-down shirt and dress pants (a white dress shirt may be the easiest option).

Casual Women’s Attire:

Light-colored dress pants or longer skirt with a “business casual” blouse, or a summer dress; casual/every day hair and makeup.

If the invitation says “Semi-Formal” or “Cocktail Attire”: 

You’ll need to note the time of the event: darker colors for the evening and lighter colors if the ceremony starts before 5PM. Expect the couple to subscribe to most wedding traditions, but in most cases, prepare yourself for a playful reception full of a significant amount of lively dancing.

Semi-Formal or Cocktail Men’s Attire: 

A suit and tie, with a pair of comfortable dress shoes.

Semi-Formal or Cocktail Women’s Attire:

A cocktail dress or a formal blouse and skirt, and perhaps keep it shorter to match the semi-formal attire motif; hair and makeup can be casual – we recommend bringing a hair tie or a clip to be used toward the end of the evening.

If the Invitation Says “Beach Formal”: 

Presumably, this wedding will be on a beach and mostly, if not entirely, outdoors. While a beach day may feel casual, remember that the word “formal” has still be employed, so expect the same level of formality as a “Black Tie Optional” fête. Keep the environment in mind when you’re picking out clothing: think “upscale restaurant in Hawaii.”

Sunset-Toned Wedding Guest Dresses for Beach Wedding

Photo by Anna Gomes Photo; From Real Wedding: An Intimate, Sunset-Toned Destination Wedding in Los Cabos, Mexico

Beach Formal - Men Attire: 

A light-colored suit with a linen shirt, linen pants or khakis, and comfortable beach shoes – no ties required. 

Beach Formal Women’s Attire:

A formal summer dress that can range between knee-length, tea-length, and full-length with beach sandals; hair and makeup can be natural – we recommend beach waves!

Wedding Guests in Black Tie Attire at Outdoor Wedding Cocktail Hour

Photo by Lauren + Abby Ross; Planning & Design by Posh Parties; Venue: The Breakers; From Real Wedding: Tropical Winter Wedding at The Breakers in Palm Beach

If the Invitation Says “Formal” or “Black Tie Optional”: 

Typically, this refers to an evening affair wherein tuxedos are not required for gentlemen, but would be appropriate to don for this event. There has been a rise in this particular type of wedding in recent years: for many couples, it embodies just the right amount of decorum without being too over-the-top. 

Formal or Black-Tie Optional Men’s Attire:

A formal dark-colored suit or a tuxedo.

Formal or Black-Tie Optional Women’s Attire:

A dressy suit, long gown, or a dark-colored formal cocktail dress with high heels or dressy ballet flats; you can play with more formal updos and more dramatic makeup looks for this type of soirée.

If the Invitation Says “Black Tie”: 

This particular brand of nuptials will be very formal with a black-tie dress code – more often than not, it will start after 6PM and there is a sit-down dinner involved. This does not mean an absence of the usual merriment: dancing and other fun wedding activities will likely be included as well. 

Black-Tie Wedding Attire - Men: 

A dark-colored tuxedo, bow tie (often a black bow tie), cummerbund, and dark dress shoes.

Black-Tie Attire - Women:

A long evening gown in dark or neutral colors and high heels; hair and makeup should be formal for a black-tie event.

If the Invitation Says “White Tie”: 

When deciding on the highest level of formality, many couples may be deciding between white tie vs. black tie. This is the most formal of weddings, reminiscent of Victorian-era nuptials that were often considered to be the epitome of propriety. Think “state dinner at the White House” or award show attire – you’ll likely receive white glove service and you might need a refresher on proper dinner etiquette.  

White-Tie Men’s Attire: 

A dark tuxedo, a suit jacket with tails, a pique vest, and a bow tie with black dress shoes – white gloves are optional.

White-Tie Women’s Attire:

A full-length gown in dark colors and high heels; dark, dramatic hair and makeup – think “old Hollywood glamour.”

For more ideas and tips, get invitation wording examples, read more advice about wedding fashion, get answers to the question "is it okay to wear black to a wedding?" and see beautiful non-white wedding dresses.