Weddings these days have fewer and fewer fashion rules than in decades past, which can be great, but also makes things a tad more complicated. Many of today’s brides are passing on traditional gowns in favor of elegant pants or jumpsuits, the occasional groom skips the typical black tux for a pastel suit, and even bridesmaids are ditching the cookie-cutter dresses for something they can wear over and over again. This means guests *also* have just as much freedom with their styles.
But before you whip out any outfit and call it a day, there are a few things to remember while getting dressed in order to still be respectful of the ceremony and the people getting married. Some of the rules are pretty straightforward and easy to follow (e.g., what colors to avoid), while others require a little more outfit planning—like figuring out what the heck “beach-formal attire” means.
To make sure you really nail it on the big day (well, not *your* big day, but you know what I mean), we tapped Elaine Swann, lifestyle and etiquette expert and founder of The Swann School of Protocol, to give us the low-down on some spoken and unspoken fashion rules.
Keep reading for her advice about about what not to wear to a wedding, plus some stylish ideas about what you should wear instead. After this, you’ll be ready to handle any dress code request that’s thrown your way. Promise.
1. Don’t wear white.
…or off-white, or really, really pale blue. Swann says that lighter colors tend to photograph white, and knowing how your look will photograph is just a general thing to be aware of, BTW. Avoiding white should be a no-brainer, but it still bears saying—unless the bride has specifically requested that guests wear it.
Want to wear something close to white? Try a neutral!
2. Try to avoid wearing the bridal party’s colors.
Swann recommends that you stay away from colors that match the wedding (unless otherwise stated) so you don’t look like you’re part of the bridal party. How can you determine this? “You can tell what the color scheme for the wedding is from the invitation or the wedding website, which gives an idea of what direction the couple might be going.” If you’re still unsure, you can always ask the bride or a bridesmaid!
Wearing something printed can help avoid matching the bridal party, since, traditionally, most bridesmaids wear solid colors. (…Though some brides are opting for patterned bridesmaid dresses so it really depends!)
3. Don’t go *too* casual.
Even if the wedding has a more low-key dress code, I promise you: It is not that casual. Meaning no sweats, jeans, T-shirts—you get my point. “If you have to choose between being underdressed or overdressed, it’s always better to be overdressed,” Swann explains.
But she also insists that if you are truly baffled by the dress code and have no idea what to wear, you should absolutely reach out for help. “I encourage people to embrace that awkward moment and ask for an example from someone in the wedding party, whether it’s the bride, the groom, or the bridal party.”
If you are looking for something that skews more casual but is still fit for a wedding, go for any of the simple yet stylish outfits below which can easily be dressed up or down.
4. Don’t go too casual with pants.
So you wanna wear pants? Totally fine! Just make sure they’re dressy enough for the nuptials. Start with tailored trousers and a polished blouse, or make things easy for yourself by grabbing a matching blazer. Pant suits are a great way to go, or you can coordinate the color of your pants with your top, like this monochrome moment.
5. Cover your shoulders when applicable.
Is the ceremony taking place in a church or in an institution with a more modest dress code? Swann says, above all, it’s important to remember that weddings are a sacred occasion. Be respectful of where the vows are being exchanged, and you can always bring a shawl or sweater to cover yourself.
This simple ribbed cardi would do the trick.
6. Be aware of your neckline.
On that same note, I’m always here for a great cleave moment, but weddings are generally a bit more family-friendly, so it’s probably best to save your J-Lo-level Versace dress for a different occasion.
“Not only will the couple be there, but there may be extended family members, including grandparents,” Swann says. “You certainly don’t have to wear something that is old fashioned—you can stay on trend—but remember that part of the wedding itself may be a very religious occasion as well, so there is some modesty that could be expected.”
Not saying don’t do a deep V, just don’t be asking “how low can you go?” Here’s a plunge that should still work.
7. Avoid going overboard.
Even if the wedding is a ~dress to impress~ event, the last thing you want to do is outdo the people getting married! Prints and fun colors are definitely okay, but make sure you’re not taking over the spotlight.
“There’s a difference between wearing a cocktail dress that’s really cute for the club and wearing a cocktail dress that that’s meant for a wedding,” Swann explains. “The outfit you select should not draw too much attention away from the couple.”
A cowl neck midi is a chic choice.
8. Rethink the sparkles.
Along those lines, sometimes not outshining the couple can mean skipping something super glitzy—unless it’s specified, or if it’s a black- or white-tie affair. Of course you wanna win best-dressed guest, but you don’t want everyone’s eyes to be on you…and off the bride.
Instead of over-the-top sequins, try other textures like ruffles, lace, or plissé for a look that stands out, but doesn’t literally shine.
9. Don’t go against the dress code.
Yes, Swann confirmed that it’s *usually* better to overdress than underdress. But read the room: Don’t wear a tux or a ballgown to a backyard wedding—in that case, it’s better to keep it a little more low-key.
Swann also says the location has a lot to do with what you should wear. “For example, if it’s a destination wedding, then you know that you’d be wearing resort-style attire. If it’s going to take place at a high-end hotel, then that’ll give you an idea of the theme.”
The other indicator that helps determine your style is the time of day the ceremony is taking place. “Earlier in the day, you’re going to find that the attire is going to be less formal, which means more bright colors and flowy fabrics. Later in the evening is when you’ll get to that formal attire where you have black and gold hues, beads, and sparkles.” Of course, this is all generally speaking, but these are good guidelines to follow.
If you’ve got a beach wedding you’re attending this summer, here’s a cute option!
10. Skip the rips and holes, even intentional ones.
It’s usually wisest to save anything super distressed or with frayed edges for other occasions. But if you like the idea of showing a little unexpected skin, consider a stylish cutout. As Swann points out, you don’t have to completely forgo trends, either.
This style is the perfect mix of trendy yet appropriate. Plus, the breezy linen material will keep you cool during an outdoor ceremony.
11. Be strategic about your choice of shoes.
Comfort is important, especially if you plan on turning up on the dance floor. But wearing flip flops to the ceremony? Probably not the move, maybe unless it’s a casual, toes in the sand beach wedding. If you know there is going to be a long walk from one point to another throughout the festivities, Swann says comfy flat shoes (flip flops or otherwise) that you can slip in and out of quickly might be good to bring—but only for those in between moments!
Also, if the nuptials are happening on grass, Swann suggests wearing wedges or heels that have a thicker sole so you won’t sink in the ground when you walk. “Get that information in advance, and don’t feel as though you’re bothering the couple or bothering the party by asking these sorts of questions—they want you to be comfortable,” Swann says.
Consider any of the below shoes depending on the location and overall vibe.
Lauren Adhav Associate Fashion Editor I’m Cosmopolitan’s Associate Fashion Editor and write about any and all trends, major celeb fashion moments, and why wide-leg jeans are basically the best.
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