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3 Real Rules To Dressing For A Wedding

Short Dress, Yellow Flowers, Wedding

“But what, what, should I wear to the wedding?”

Is someone you know getting married? Your brother or your husband’s college roommate?  Your cousin, colleague, acquaintance, nanny? Always, people ask, what should they wear? Weddings are the Forest Of Fog And Terrors in the Land Of What To Wear. Like Candyland, if you will.

What are the High WASP feelings about wedding dress? Do we care most about, for example, what time white tie kicks in? No. That’s 6pm. And all other matters of formal tradition are answered here. But few resources will tell you you the most important rule. Here goes.

You should wear whatever your social ecosystem says to wear.

Otherwise known, heretoforth, as your “micro-culture.” Anyone with a better term I welcome you to the front of the room. Please write it on our white board. Thank you.

How so? What do we mean?

1. Determine what the bride, groom, and families want and comply to the best of your ability. What matters more than supporting the families taking this big step, after all? Voicing a contrary opinion, adhering to rules outside their personal system, is bad manners. No matter the ‘official’ code.

– Example: I’ve received two queries from readers puzzled by invitations requesting long dresses be worn at an afternoon wedding. It is an odd concept, but not scandalous, after all. The vision may be bourgeois, even declassé, but so are many long, happy marriages.

– Example: I attended a wedding where the groom wore a black suit, his bride a white smoking, and we all cabin-camped in fog so thick it dripped. The dress code was noted as something like Anarchic. These visions may be outré, but so are many long, happy marriages.

– Example: Groom in navy suit with lavender tie, groom in navy suit with green tie, dress code strictly Emily Post for 4pm at the yacht club. Divergent from last century’s traditions, but so are many long, happy, well, you say it. Contrary to popular belief, High WASPs believe more in respect for families, any families, than in a particular codification of behavior.

2. If the microculture doesn’t provide clear direction, i.e. bride is a tatooed printmaker living in Raleigh, Durham, her family are Southern Baptists, the groom’s family New York eclectic, choose the low-offense alternative. That may mean dressing to the standard code. It may not. So ask for guidance. This is not a time for renegade fashion unless your invitation source requests. Above all, support whoever invites you, or be prepared to deal with a long reparation process.

– Example: If you are friend of the tatooed bride – does she want you to reinforce her rebellious rockabilly aesthetic? Or bow your head to tradition and put on some pearls? If you have any doubt, just ask. If you come from an indirect culture, have the indirect conversation.

3. This What To Wear burden ought not to be borne by guests alone. If you are the bride or the groom, do what you can to give people the right clues. Weddings are about two people, and probably two families, merging cultures and traditions, in the context of a whole coterie of social and economic and aesthetic considerations. You cannot assume that everyone knows what Black Tie, Elegant Hoedown, or Stick It To The Man dress codes mean. In this context, setting an aesthetic that’s consistent across your Save the Dates (if you do them), your invitations (if you do them), and your wedding style itself, is actually a favor to the attendees.

I do not need to say, but I will, that we assume you won’t press your advantage. That those of us who are not Beyonce ought most likely to stop short of insisting all our guests wear white, and allow for personal expression. But establishing a predictable environment is not a bad idea.

– Example: My wedding was black tie. But I wrote in the invitation to one friend, “Dress For Fun!” As it turned out, he was the one man who wore a suit and  came up to me in some distress and asked me why I had sent that signal. He was right. I should have been more explicit. Do I remember anyone’s polyester peach taffeta from that night? Outfits that at other times, in other places, might have raised my eyebrow? No. I remember only that those who loved me wanted to belong to and support whatever I was creating. The same will be true in your community, of your loved ones. Help them out.

These High WASP rules aren’t as straightforward to follow as a 12-point matrix of colors, materials, timing,  lengths, and venues would be. This is not binary code, rather, an unspoken navigation of the mix and match that families, and society, ask of us. As is marriage. Which doesn’t come with a simple how-to either.

Most of all, do not use ‘etiquette’ as a way to make people feel uncomfortable. Not you, the guest, not you, the bride, not you, the groom, and not you, you over there, the bride’s mother. Why would one ever use a wedding, one of the most joyous events in the human canon, to make other people feel badly?

Bride: Brideshead Revisited. Accoutrements from upper left: Sugar Plum, Flickr, Wedding Graffiti, Style Me Pretty, Artfool, Flickr, Menlo Circus Club, Lynn Lugo, Lemontree, Weddings Unveiled

43 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this entry. Your thoughts on etiquette are always so put together with enough humor to prevent you from coming across as dry! Which is fantastic. This entry is so true – I will be having to figure out what my artist cousins will be wearing for our black tie reception when they cannot even afford new shoes! Woohoo! Its all about not having people be uncomfortable, so I may suggest dark suits a la young Hollywood at award shows… (And where they get those suits is none of my concern! Ha!)

  2. Ah yes it took me years to get over my father in laws refusal to wear a traditional morning suit. There he stands in our wedding pictures in a tweed jacket. I was so do hurt by his stubbornness

  3. I would like to add that the family giving the wedding should let guests know as soon as possible what the attire is. Particularly now that “destination” weddings have become so popular. There is this new etiquette or “non-etiquette” that seems to have emerged, which is that everything should be a surprise for the guests. Not cool, when you’re already making travel plans, etc. Nice to know what events are happening, what the attire will be, because I don’t like to scramble 6 weeks before a long distance wedding for my clothing.

  4. Wonderful, wonderful advice. Beloved has a friend that work a tux with shorts to his daughter’s formal wedding. He thought it was funny; his daughter was humiliated.

  5. The joke I always shared with my mother when I got married was that I was going to put “no polyester pantsuits” on the invitation. Coming from the ultra casual Midwest but transplanted to the deep South, I notice the regional differences in dress more acutely perhaps. I was struck when looking at a cousin’s child’s wedding pictures with my aunt and asked her if she saw anything odd about them. She did not, but I could not help but notice that the wedding party and parents were dressed in long gowns and black tie (for an afternoon wedding…oops) while the guests throwing rice were wearing khaki pants and plaid short sleeved shirts, capri pants and sweater sets? With the wonder of facebook, I have now discovered that even amongst members of the bridal party’s extended family it is now quite common to see multiple ladies wearing black pants in photographs with the bridal couple in full formal dress. As I haven’t lived there for 25 years, I think I missed this gradual shift downward in dressing for formal events.

    1. Oh I live in Wisconsin but had never been to a midwestern wedding before moving here… it’s true that guests dress mostly on the casual end of business casual when the wedding party is formal, which I (in a patterned silk dress) had a hard time wrapping my head around. We always have a great time, though.

      I think the regional difference has to do with disdaining dressing up in finery as frivolous. In the second and third generation it may be a distortion of blue collar pragmatism.

  6. Your last paragraph reminds me of the best etiquette advice I ever received. The lovely woman was was graciously taking the time to show my sister and I parts of New York we would never had entrance to otherwise. While having lunch at the Cosmopolitan Club I expressed concern that I did not know all of the ins and outs of how to conduct myself with everyone we were encountering. She replied “Just remember that manners are really about making people feel comfortable.” And I think its really true, when examine the root of all etiquette and rules on dress and conventions, really they’re about being comfortable and establishing a baseline for communication. At least, based on my limited experiences.

  7. Thoroughly enjoyed this post! It would be lovely if guests dressed to honor the bride and groom, showing respect for their special day.

  8. Our wedding was Black Tie, and a great time was had by all. Except.

    Except the one couple who were long-time, dear dear dear friends of my husband who later confessed that they did not attend because they didn’t own appropriate clothing, and didn’t know how to purchase the right clothing.

    I’m still sad that no one asked any questions and that staying away was the only solution they could think of. They have since become my dear dear dear friends and I wish they could have witnessed our wedding ceremony.

  9. Give this woman a Pulitzer! Annnd a special-edition academic hood for misspelling “tattoo” [so proud of you!] [and which, oh yes, have sprung up in/on my family, two arm-long ones centered at the elbow, in vivid colors, on two MOST beloved people, there they are, deal with it, ok].

    1. …thank you for not writing “Raleigh-Durham” which is not a city, but an airport. Both cities are distinctly different, and neither have a significant Southern Baptist feel. And yes, I live in Raleigh.

  10. In some ways, this does make an argument for a return to commonly agreed upon dress codes for events, or at a minimum, agreed upon definitions. And no wimping out with “black tie optional”. I attended a morning wedding about ten years ago where one could look around the room and tell the bride’s guests from the groom’s just by how they interpreted the requested dress. I understand vague instructions about preferred dress are an attempt to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. No one would want treasured family or friends to not attend due to clothing issues. Unfortunately, the resulting vagueness leaves all of us a bit anxious.

  11. So much etiquette rests on common sense and thoughtfulness, rather than strict rules, doesn’t it, although those rules can be reassuringly useful. You’ve written such reassurance here — lovely!

    Meanwhile, as for dressing for weddings, I’m thrilled that my daughter’s husband-to-be wants me to help him pick out the suit for their small June wedding. Thrilled. What an honour and such trust. . . .

  12. “When in doubt, ask” is the best advice ever.

    I think people get caught up in worrying that betraying a lack of knowledge somehow shows a lack of sophistication.

    How on earth would you know what to wear to a Trendy Casual Pagan Festival and Pork Roast Wedding unless you ask?

  13. Lisa, very good thoughts on the wedding dress etiquite standards.

    An invitation to wear a long dress to an afternoon wedding, could be an opportunity to wear somthing long and flowy beacuse it is a a Rose Garden affair, etc.

    Art by Karena

  14. our wedding reception was hosted at an old maine sailing club (read: rustic) at the end of the summer. the cocktail hour started at 4pm and we invited guests to wear summer cocktail attire. and, like you, i don’t remember much of what anyone wore except that i remember there was a lot of colour. looking at the photos, they all looked gorgeous but more importantly, happy. as do we.

  15. Thoughtfulness and communication. The world would be a better place with more of this……

  16. My husband’s parents would have worn all black to our wedding if they could have done so without shopping or spending the bourbon money.

    RE: Midwestern casual. My husband and I attended a cocktail party last week where the attire was specified as “cocktail attire.” We were joking that cocktail attire in Milwaukee consists of jeans and a Packers sweatshirt because that’s what most people wear while they are drinking.

    Fortunately, everyone who came to the event was dressed quite nicely. Not as nicely as my husband and I, who were chosen to be interview for the host’s website (Patron tequila). I am convinced they picked us because we looked so sharp. And because we are quite entertaining. :)

  17. You have to tell us what the Stick it to the Man dress code involves.

    I always just wear black slacks, a cotton or silk shell and black jacket. But then everyone expects this of me. The eccentric minimalist. I will try to do better and ask next time.

  18. Henry James said that “the best manners are the greatest kindness.” That’s a good rule to follow. Be kind in your choice of dress. I’d love to attend a “Stick It To the Man” wedding. I’ve already been to the one where the bride had a flock of bluebirds tattooed across her exposed shoulders and an anchor on her right bicep.

  19. Agree with Lara on Communication. Our wedding was follwed by a reception which was noted on the (Crane)invitation. However my Southern friends thought since the wedding was at 11 am they should eat a full breakfast before and as a reception to them was punch and cookies. Thye missed out on a lovely brunch (but didn’t skip partaking of the open bar)

  20. I am a bit of a stickler for dress codes. Rural Australia is quite old fashioned and traditional in some ways. We had a black tie/dinner jacket wedding (not sure what it would be called in America). Almost everyone dressed appropriately. We had one Scottish guest who wore a kilt which is completely acceptable as black tie in Australia (but only if you are Scottish).

    I couldn’t agree more with the importance of guests making it very clear about dress codes, also tips about being inside or outside and if a bit rustic what type of footwear.

    This was an interesting post. Thanks Lisa.

  21. I remember when I got married that my sister kept trying to make it more formal like hers was.

    We were getting married at a friends vacation home in the middle of nowhere. People were going to be camping out in rv’s and tents and frankly as long as they had clothes on that were reasonably clean I didn’t care what they looked like.

    I did tell the family to wear something comfortable but nice that they would want to wear for pictures then bring something more casual they could change into right after the wedding pics were done. It turned out to be a little warm that day so everyone did just that…except for me. I was going to wear that dress all (well almost all) night long!

    It was perfectly us and the men that attended still talk about what a great wedding it was. Even my sister came around and thought it was perfect.

  22. One thing I’ve learned is if the wedding is outside and near water you need to arrive with a wrap or jacket, even in August.

    Nobody may care if you have to run back to your car to drag that old jean jacket out because it’s chilly, but the photos will remind them forever.

  23. for me, the last two weddings I attended were my sisters’ weddings (and I only have two sisters!) Second marriages, both. Honestly, my primary consideration after climate was that I was going to be photographed, more than I would like, at both weddings. To tell you the truth, one photograph is more than I would like. So anyway, after climate, I was more concerned with choosing a dress that would look good in photographs than anything else.

    And I still say a lady should wear a dress to a wedding.

  24. & p.s. I didn’t wear black to either, but being a native Bay Arean (is that a word?) I do think black is OK to wear to a wedding, as long as the dress has a “light” feel rather than a funeral feel.

  25. Arachna – Thank you.

    Worthington – I like your idea about the probably thrifted black suits mingling with the dinner jackets of other guests.

    Tabitha – You just have to wonder what he was thinking. What calculus was involved.

    Kathy – Surprises are best when carefully meted out. Surprise me with the cake, the music, not with what I’m standing on or how cold it’s going to be:).

    Jan – Yes, that’s the thing. If they had just talked, probably the dad would have backed down from his joke. And if not, well, there’s more there than just a unique sense of humor.

    Mom on the Run – I suppose as long as it’s accepted convention in the Midwest, no harm done. The problem would come if they invite a set of people from out of town, might want to have a local in charge of communicating local habits:).

  26. V – I bet it is some kind of solidarity around the factory heritage of the area. In an anthropological sense, that is.

    Nicole – Thank you. At their best, that’s what etiquette and manners are about. At their worst, they are about establishing hierarchical dominance and excluding the have-nots.

    Candy – Honor and respect are two fantastic human capabilities. Thanks!

    Louise – Well that’s it, exactly. How sad that wedding etiquette doesn’t include ASK! It should. Human conventions that baffle us and prevent coming together are just dumb.

    Flo – Ooops. I suppose it’s to be expected that I don’t know how to spell tattoo:). But if someone I loved had tats I’d rally round. I’m just going to leave the misspelling there, to remind myself to check my assumptions.

    Marion – Well, of course:). People call San Francisco SFO. Um, not. And I hear quite wonderful things about Raleigh and its creative community.

  27. DocP – Agreed upon definitions would be helpful, I agree:). And if not full definitions, at least a process for further clarification which is deemed “Appropriate” by all. I am thinking this is perhaps one of the good uses of wedding websites.

    mater – Thank you. Oh how much fun to go suit shopping. Such trust indeed.

    Patsy – “I think people get caught up in worrying that betraying a lack of knowledge somehow shows a lack of sophistication.” And that’s it, I’m sure. Can I come to the Pork Roast Wedding?

    Karena – Thank you. The long dresses you’d want to wear in a garden would be very different than the ones for a swanky affair in a large ballroom, no question.

    girltuesday – I think the wording, “summer cocktail attire”, combined with the rustic sailing club location, would perfectly communicate to guests the range of clothing they were going to feel comfortable in. And comfortable is such a large part of happy. As of course, is love:).

    Lara – Thank you. I agree.

  28. The gold digger – If you both look sharp and are entertaining I imagine you should get all kinds of perks:).

    Susan – Hehe. I did just make that one up.

    Jo-De – I believe the time has come for us, for society, to specify a proper way, i.e. a way to ask without embarrassment, or else a generally understood place and process for additional information.

    Charlotte – Did the bridesmaids match the bluebirds?

    Mardel – Thank you. I suppose stick it to the man would involve revolutionary gear however one wishes to interpret that concept:).

    Gablesgirl – It’s all about communication. I didn’t state on my invitations that we were having a sit down dinner, and some people thought the cocktail food was dinner. Oops. They sure had a lot to eat that night, but it’s better than not enough.

  29. A Farmer’s Wife – I think that tight-knit rural communities probably can rely more easily on standard codes. It’s the weddings calling guests in from everywhere, and perhaps to a place only a few know well, where this becomes more difficult. Your wedding sounds wonderful. Kilts are always good:).

    Carla – Good for your sister, coming round:). And giving that kind of guidance to the family sounds as though it made for lots of comfort. Wonderful.

    GingerR – Ha! I agree. And location details for outdoor weddings are really important.

    That’s not my Age – I’m sure it’s on its way:).

    rb – I’m always inclined to put a dress or a skirt on for weddings. Unless it’s outside in the cold, in which case I might just surrender to the elements.

    Terri – :).

  30. Requests like “Dress Festive” or “Dress for Fun” confuse me. I mean, does the bride think I am going to dress morosely? I’ve seen black worn by female guests and recently attended a wedding with all bridesmaids in LBDs. But for a summer garden wedding, I’d still prefer to lighten the look, if only by wearing a shawl over the black.

    I will decline an invitation that calls for swimsuits.

  31. I was once invited to a wedding that was specified as “island casual.” Guests took their direction from the invitations, wearing mostly shorts and sundresses for events over the weekend, which was fine….except that the wedding party was dressed to the nines at every single event, and so all of the guests–even though they had followed instructions–felt terribly under-dressed and uncomfortable all weekend. I had more than one conversation with different guests where we discussed how baffled we were. So I would say to all brides: DO NOT tell your guests not to dress up and then take the opportunity to dress up at every turn. It’s your show regardless, and making people feel small won’t make people happy for you.

  32. Duchesse – Bwahahahahaha, as they say:). Your comment highlights the fact that traditional dress codes feel somehow unfestive.

    Dru – The goal ought to be everyone feeling as comfortable and celebratory as possible, I agree.

  33. The Southern women in my life have always taught me that good manners and/or etiquette should be about making others feel comfortable, as a good hostess does.

    Are you sure you are not Southern? :-)

  34. Hi,
    My daughter is getting married in Nov 2011 and my former wife (daughters stepmom) is in the wedding party. My girlfriend is not in the wedding party, what should she wear and is there a color also that should be worn. I’am stressing over this Thank You for your help
    Mark Rogers

    1. Mark, I can imagine this is a stressful time. The first thing would always be to call your daughter and ask her:). “Hi honey. X was just wondering if you have any preferences about what she wears to your wedding?” But that might not be possible at this time, maybe feelings are too close to the surface. In that case, play it safe. From an etiquette perspective, no black, no white, no red, and don’t wear the colors that the wedding party is wearing – if they are matching each other. If the divorce is still raw, and since your daughter clearly feels love for her step-mom, she will most of all not want her step-mom to feel hurt. Which would also imply that your girlfriend ought not to flaunt her charms. Of any sort. Not to say she should attend in a paper bag. But there is such a thing as a safe outfit, and this is the time to wear it. Not too revealing, not too stylish, not too creative or outlandish. Safe. Restrained florals are always good in these kinds of situations. Navy blue, same thing. Gray silk satin. Tan linen. Your girlfriend doesn’t have to go all the way to dowdy. But now is not the time for statements of anything except, “We are here to celebrate and support you, dear daughter, on your wedding.”

      I hope you all have a wonderful time. Congratulations on the marriage of your daughter.

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