Black Tie Optional, Beach Casual or Semi Formal? What to Wear to a Wedding

So it's summer, which may mean you have one wedding to attend, or you may have a dozen. When I was in my mid-twenties I saw several summers in which a huge portion of my income was spent on bridal shower and wedding gifts, not to mention new dresses for wedding receptions. Sometimes it can be hard to know what to wear to a wedding; much depends on date and time, time of year, and the wedding and/or reception venue. Here are a few tips I've picked up along the way that have served me well as a perpetual wedding guest.

An afternoon church wedding with an evening reception: If it's possible, I recommend wearing a comfortable day outfit to this wedding and saving the cocktail dress for the evening reception. First, because I've never felt comfortable wearing a cocktail dress to a church--even if I do have a shawl or sweater--and second, it's physically more comfortable to be in day clothes for a long church service. I like to wear dress slacks with a very high heel and a beautiful blouse, paired with a jacket or sweater for the service. If the church wedding starts at 2 p.m., you will probably have time to go home (or to the hotel) to change into evening wear. Is the reception at a casual venue? Skip the cocktail dress and switch out your blouse for something slinky or backless for evening, and accessorize with some flashy earrings.

Wedding and reception at one venue: This is trickier, because unless the ceremony and reception are at the hotel you are staying in, you won't have time to change clothes. On the other hand, the reception will be more likely to immediately follow the ceremony; always check your invitation to gauge the time between the ceremony and the reception, as well as check the venue for each--these will be clues for your own dress code. In a situation where the reception immediately follows the ceremony, and they take place at the same venue, use the time of day and location as your guide. A late-morning or early-afternoon start indicates a slightly casual or daytime approach, while a late-afternoon or evening start should guide you to choose something more dressed-up.

Wedding Invitation Keywords: Occasionally the bride and groom will provide you with clues on the invitation which will help you choose your outfit. Unfortunately for us wedding guests, it's less common these days, so when in doubt--ask! Email the bride, or better yet her maid-of-honor as the bride is already fielding a thousand questions from every direction. But if your invitation contains any of the following keywords, you can use them to dress appropriately:

• Casual: If the invite says "casual" you are probably free to wear whatever you like, within reason. That is, skip swim trunks or the jeans you paint in. You probably can wear jeans, but it is a wedding so how about a pair of dress pants or a skirt with flats for her, and khakis with nice sandals for him? At least look nicer than if you were just going to hang around your house all day.

• Semi-formal or Dress casual: Do the festivities start in the morning or early afternoon? Guys: stick to the casual side of things with dress pants and tie (jacket optional); girls can get away with separates, as long as the skirt and blouse are appropriately dressy, or a cocktail dress. If the party starts in the evening, err on the side of dressy: jackets and ties for guys, cocktail dresses and heels for girls.

• Beach wedding: If the word "formal" does not appear on the invite, you are open to more casual options; if the phrasing "beach formal" appears, that changes things. A beach wedding invites you to dress casually and comfortably for the beach: khakis, a casual dress shirt, and sandals for him, a sundress and sandals for her. If the invitation reads "beach formal" you should consider taking it up a notch or two: a summer suit for him, an elegant summer dress for her.

• Black Tie Optional or Formal: For guys, black tie optional means either a tuxedo or a formal suit--dark, please!--and a tie. Women should choose something formal and appropriate for evening. Dark colors are traditionally preferred, but I don't see anything wrong with colors in elegant jewel tones (emerald, ruby, sapphire).

• Black Tie: If the invitation says "black tie," tuxedos are required for men. Required, I say! Ladies, consider something more formal than even your most formal cocktail dress. When in doubt, call the bride, the maid-of-honor, or even the venue to ask about attire. Tip: I sometimes check out a venue's website to see if they keep photo galleries online, and I check out what other weddings at that venue looked like to help me pick out a dress.

• White Tie: Please, drop me an email or comment if you've ever been to a white-tie wedding! I would be in heaven if I got to go all-out, White House-level formal at an event. Men will need a tux with tails and a white bow tie and white pique vest. Ladies should wear full-length ball gowns--don't skimp on the hairspray or the makeup! Go glam!

The Black vs. White Debate

When I got married I asked all of my bridesmaids to pick out their own black cocktail dress to wear. I have a closet full of bridesmaid's dresses that each bride promised me I would wear again. HA! Anyway, my mom told me that when she was young, black was considered a funeral color, and not something one would wear to a wedding. I had no idea! I've been wearing black to weddings for years. Either way, when it comes to weddings the only colors guests should not wear are whites, off-whites, and ivories. Just don't.

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Christina Uticone