Levels of Wedding Formality: A Complete Guide

Choose your wedding "type" or determine a dress code with this helpful guide.

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.

Photo: Callaway Gable

You open your mailbox to see a beautifully decorated white envelope with your name written in calligraphy on the front: your 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? You’re not alone in your wondering: wedding formality can be difficult to decipher.

So, 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.

Men’s Attire: A button-down shirt and dress pants.

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.

Men’s Attire: A suit and tie, with a pair of comfortable dress shoes.

Women’s Attire: A cocktail dress or a formal blouse and skirt, and perhaps keep it shorter to match the semi-formal 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.”

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

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!


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. 

Men’s Attire: A formal dark-colored suit or a tuxedo.

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 – 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. 

Men’s Attire: A dark-colored tuxedo, bow tie, cummerbund, and dark dress shoes.

Women’s Attire: A long evening gown in dark or neutral colors and high heels; hair and makeup should be formal.


If the Invitation Says “White 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.  

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.

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

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