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What Does “Dressy Casual” Even Mean? At Last, Wedding Dress Codes—Explained

Unsure of how to dress for a daytime, afternoon, or evening affair? Wedding experts break down dress codes.

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Resort formal

“Just because the wedding will be held on or near a beach doesn’t mean a fancy cover-up or flip-flops are appropriate,” says Anne Chertoff, trend expert for WeddingWire. “A summer dress or colorful cocktail dress are both great options for ladies, and a linen suit or khakis and a button-down shirt for the guys will be comfortable and chic.” Remember: You may be on the sand, so wear fancy flat sandals since it will be nearly impossible to walk in high heels.

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A morning formal

If the engaged couple is inspired by Prince William and Princess Kate (Middleton), who had a formal wedding in the morning, there’s a strict dress code for guests to follow, says Chertoff. Think Downton Abbey, where the men wear a cutaway coat with tails, a vest, and pin-striped pants, top hat-optional, says Chertoff. “Another option is a morning suit, an all-gray version of the cutaway coat, pants and tails, or a dark gray or black suit. Women shouldn’t wear a floor-length dress before the evening, but a tea-length dress, colored pantsuit, or skirt and top are quite formal for a wedding held early in the day.” Here are ways to dress so you look 10 pounds thinner.

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An afternoon wedding

Guests should look to the venue for clues on the dress code, says Marissa Rubinetti Sanders, divisional merchandise manager of David’s Bridal. “If it’s an outside venue, it’s most appropriate to wear a day dress such as floral chiffon print or a long, flowing maxi,” says Rubinetti Sanders. “If indoors, a short cocktail dress is appropriate, as is a little black dress that can be jazzed up with fun accessories.” Men can leave the tuxes at home, as they generally are not worn before 6 p.m., says Chertoff. ” Speaking of traditions, find out why brides stand to the left at weddings.

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Outdoor ceremony

For an outdoor ceremony, it’s totally acceptable for ladies to wear a jacket that complements her attire, says event planner Michael Russo of Michael Russo Event Planning & Design. “I’m not talking about puffy coats here! You can never go wrong with a shawl or pashmina.” If it’s raining on the wedding day, raincoats are certainly acceptable for both ladies and gentlemen, says Russo. “Also, carry a classy umbrella that is oversize and a solid color: white, black, navy, or beige. Any type of print can look a bit tacky.” (Find out the etiquette rules every bridesmaid should follow.)

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Dressy casual

According to Chertoff, if the wedding invitation reads “dressy casual” or “semi formal,” it’s the time of day that will help dictate your outfit for the wedding. “A cocktail dress or a dressy long skirt and top can be worn in a lighter color works for a daytime wedding, while the same in a dark shade is appropriate for an evening affair,” she says. “A man should wear a suit with tie, and depending on the season a lighter fabric and color in warm weather, and a darker, heavier fabric in cooler weather. A floor-length evening gown wouldn’t be appropriate at all.” Adds Russo: “Dressy casual is a form of attire that is a notch above casual wear, normally dress slacks and sports coat/blazer for gents and blouse and slacks/skirt or short dresses for ladies.”

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Black-tie optional

If the invitation indicates the wedding is “black-tie optional” or “black tie,” it’s appropriate for women to wear a long evening gown, says Rubinetti Sanders, especially if the venue is a ballroom or more formal setting. “The color of the dress doesn’t have to be black, but it should be suitable for a fancier affair.” “This is the host’s way of politely urging their guests to wear tuxedos and gowns to their event. However, gentlemen can wear a dark suit in black or navy, and still fit in and blend in nicely,” Russo adds. (Find out the secrets a wedding planner will never tell you.)

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Playing it safe

“If you are unsure of the dress code, it is always better to err on the side of caution and wear a dress that is modest but still fashionable,” says Rubinetti Sanders. “Consider the time of day and location of the wedding when selecting an outfit which will help ensure you are dressed appropriately. A tip that almost always works for any occasion is to select a simple dress and add your own personal style touches including jewelry, shoes, and outerwear to complete the look.” Also important: “Guests should always remember that they’re not the ‘star of the show’ so to speak, so they should keep their accessories complementary to their outfit, but not try to outshine the couple. It wouldn’t be appropriate to wear a tiara or over-the-top jewelry, for example,” adds Chertoff.

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On a budget

It’s no secret weddings can be expensive for the couple—and their guests. However, it doesn’t have to be! You can still wear something that fits your vibe and personality without breaking the bank. “Men who are looking for something a little more dapper, or suited to their personal style, can pick a suit in a fabric and color that they prefer,” says Chertoff. “And they can accessorize a suit or tuxedo with their favorite items, such as a colorful pocket square, a patterned tie, or themed cufflinks.” As for women, Russo says not to rule out online shops were you can rent a dress for the special occasion. “Many sites offer expensive designer dresses that you can rent, typically at steep discounts from its original price.”

Rachel Sokol
Rachel Sokol is a longtime contributor to Reader's Digest, tackling mostly cleaning and health round-ups. A journalism graduate of Emerson College, she's a former education writer, beauty editor, and entertainment columnist.