Decoding Dress Codes
Updated: May 12, 2020
I recently received an invitation to a wedding that read "Attire: Dressy Casual". My initial reaction was, "Isn't that an oxymoron?"
Over the years, I've encountered dozens of creative, usually fun, but sometimes terribly unclear and subjective dress codes, including "elegantly formal," "razzle dazzle (which just reminds me of the Chicago musical)," "whimsical costumes," and "Denim and Diamonds."
I always remind my clients to think about their dress code from their guests' perspective. Unless the majority of your guests work in the fashion industry or in retail, they may not understand what you mean by, "Summertime Soiree." If they live in the rural South, they may not be really familiar with "Brooklyn Formal." If any of them are gender non-conforming, choosing appropriate attire for any dress code may be a frustrating experience. Knowing your audience is key when deciding what dress code you'll put on the invitation.
Also, try to stick to established dress codes rather than creating your own phrasing. That's not to say you can't have a themed dress code (like Game of Thrones inspired attire), but that you shouldn't make something up like, "Pleasantly Casual".
Here, I've compiled a list of dress codes to consider for your wedding along with what each one means. This is just a sampling of hundreds of dress codes that exist, but it's a good starting place. They are laid out from least to most fancy.
As a California boy myself, this is definitely my favorite. Sometimes referred to as the "anything goes" dress code, California Casual is totally laid back and allows for t-shirts, shorts, and sandals, or anything else your guests feel comfortable in! It's great because it puts very little pressure on your guests about what to wear. Generally, California Casual is appropriate for indoor and outdoor events.
Casual wear generally includes a nice pair of jeans along with a colorful daytime blouse for the ladies and a polo shirt or untucked button down shirt for the gents. Ladies can also opt for a summer dress. Beware, while casual dress code doesn't generally mean, "wear whatever you wear around the house or to the grocery store," it is often interpreted that way by guests.
Over on the opposite coast, casual is just a little more formal. Usually referred to as "resort casual", this dress code includes the same colorful blouse for ladies and the same polo or button down shirt for men (Tommy Bahama shirts are okay here) as the Casual dress code, but you'll want to choose khaki's or linen pants over jeans. Shoes optional for beach weddings.
Beach Formal was created for those weddings where you want things to stay elegant and classy, but you also need to consider the fact that you're on a beach in the sun and sand. Ladies should wear a mid-length to long sundress. Men should wear a sports coat and a nice shirt with khakis. Sandals may be worn by all.
I'd say this is the most common (or at least most traditional) dress code for weddings. For ladies, it includes a knee-length dress, a long skirt with a top, cocktail dress, or a pant suit. It's okay to keep your hair down for this. For men, a suit and tie are expected, but a sports coat is okay too. Be sure to style your hair. Semi-Formal may also be called "Dressy Casual".
This is probably the easiest one for the ladies, just since what to wear is in the name: wear a cocktail dress. Add a touch of jewelry and some light hair styling (half up half down and gentle blow outs are common). Men should wear a dark colored suit, simple tie, white or muted dress shirt, and black dress shoes and styling your hair is a must.
Black Tie Optional
Also known simply as "Formal," Black Tie Optional is a modern innovation for people who don't have tuxedos or designer ballgowns at the ready (aka, most of us). Ladies should wear a floor length dress, cocktail dress, or pant suit while men can sport a dark suit or tux without tails. There's a lot of wiggle room for both men and women here, so if you really want your guests to dress in a specific type of attire, stay away from this.
Now we're really starting to get fancy. Floor length evening gowns with heels for the ladies along with fully styled hair. Tuxedos (tails optional) and black bow ties for the gents. Add a little flair with French cuffs and cuff links. Now you're sure to have a wedding full of sharp looking guests! Just be sure you're not forcing anyone to refinance their home just to match your dress code.
The fanciest of them all and usually reserved for the rich and famous, white tie events include long evening gowns, tailcoats, white ties, and even gloves. I can't tell you much else, since I've never been fancy enough to attend or plan a white tie event.
Still, there will always be varying interpretations of what certain dress codes mean. For some men, semi-formal is tie-optional, while others would say a tie is mandatory. For some ladies, the idea of wearing anything less than a floor-length gown at a black tie event is unthinkable, while for others, it's the norm. You probably even disagree with me on some of the attire suggestions I made in the categories above. For this reason, I highly recommend putting a more detailed description of your dress code (with pictures!) on your wedding website. Not all guests will venture to look it up, but for those that do, they'll have a much clearer idea of what you have in mind.
When everything is said and done, remember that your dress code is a suggestion, not a strict instruction, and your guests are going to wear what they want to wear. Remember to enjoy your big day no matter what people are wearing. Not everybody is going to interpret your dress code the way you imagined, and that's okay! Celebrate this big life event with your friends and family instead of being the fashion police. It may seem awful now, but in five years, you'll be laughing about Uncle Billy wearing khaki shorts to your formal wedding. Probably...