Ask the Wedding Maven: Understanding the Dress Code

By Azure Nelson, Published Sep 10, 2009

In this week’s column, the wedding maven deals with confusion over wedding dress codes. Dear Wedding Maven, I recently got a wedding invitation from a friend who is getting married at his parents’ house. The invitation said a cocktail reception would follow the ceremony. So, I assumed I’d be wearing a cocktail dress. Then, slipped inside the envelope was another note saying “please bring a swimsuit for later.” Lately, I’ve been getting invitations with instructions like “casual chic” and “festive fancy.” I have two questions: One, for this wedding am I supposed to dress like I’m going to a wedding, a cocktail party, or a pool party? Two, is there a dictionary somewhere that explains these terms? Signed Sartorially Challenged Dear SC, When I’m not sure what to wear I always choose an outfit that I’m physically comfortable in, and that I love. I also have a tendency to over-dress a little in these circumstances. My thinking is that if I know I look great, I won’t care so much that people in cut-offs are staring at my tiara. On the other hand, I always advise my husband to under-dress a little. That’s because I know he’s more comfortable that way. If he’s comfortable, he’s charming and no one will care what he’s wearing. As for what you should wear to this party, I’d probably go with black silk pants, and a fancy top. You’ll be dressed for the wedding and cocktails, but not overdressed for the swimming portion of the evening. Your date can wear a suit with no tie, or a sports jacket and tie. I agree that lately invitations have gotten a little confusing. There’s no official dictionary, but here are some terms that seem to be popping up lately. Black Tie or Black Tie Optional – Tuxes or dark suits for the guys, full-length, or tea-length dress for ladies. If this is a traditional group, than a cocktail dress will not really be considered formal enough. Please, keep in mind, you were invited to a wedding because these people like you. If you don’t have a black-tie dress, or your date doesn’t have a suit, just wear your nicest clothes. Formal – This is a little looser than Black Tie, here’s one spot for your cocktail dress. If your guy is fashion forward, he can funk it up a bit, or he can stick with the dark suit. Creative Black Tie – Hell if I know, but this term does pop up. The good news is, if you’re confused, so is everyone else. I’d recommend sticking with the outlines of black tie or formal wear. If it’s part of your heritage, this is a good place to throw in a regional or ethnic touch, cowboy boots with a tux, a kente cloth used as a wrap, a Nehru jacket or a sari could all be worn. Festive Attire, Festive Casual, Dressy Casual – This means they want you to look nice, but don’t want you to show up in a tux or dressed for work. You can keep this simple and go with the black silk pant ensemble mentioned above, or take it as an excuse to show a little flair. A shirt with some sparkle, dangly earrings, a fabulous peep-toe pump can all take a normal outfit into the festive category. For the guys, you can always wear the dark suit, but you can also go with a nice cashmere sweater or silk shirt and slacks. Informal – Technically, this is not the same as casual. Informal still means dresses and suits, but take a cue from the bride and groom and the location, they may actually mean casual. Casual – This is not the same as jeans. Nice slacks, sundresses, skirts, silk capris, things like that. Finally, if the invitation does not list a dress code, pay attention to things like place and time of day. Daytime weddings are generally less formal, as are outdoor weddings. Cocktail and black-tie dresses are generally not appropriate during daytime hours. If the wedding is inside, especially in a place of worship, make sure to bring a shawl or wrap for bare shoulders. If all else fails, consider asking the Maid of Honor or another member of the bridal party for a little direction. Do you have a question about wedding planning, traditions, or etiquette? Ask the Wedding Maven at

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