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Cocktail Dress or Evening Gown: Deciphering the Wedding Dress Code

As I plan my wedding, there’s so many little details to consider that I never even knew about! Well, fortunately, my girl, Heather from Shutterfly, reached out to me with a few helpful tips about wedding dress code. She offered to share her insights with my readers, and since I’m sure some of you might be as clueless as I am, I took her up on the offer! Here’s what she has to say:


Have you ever received a beautiful wedding invitation with a dress code on it, or one without, and wondered: What am I going to wear? You’re not alone. While you’ll gladly honor the couple’s wishes when celebrating their big day and while the dress code may be written in the finest calligraphy: Black Tie Affair, or printed in a slight cursive: Cocktail Attire; what do they really mean? In addition to the season, destination and venue, the general guidelines below should be taken into account when selecting wedding day attire:

  • Casual: Usually reserved for outdoor, beach or morning events, a floral or lighter colored knee-length sundress, pant or skirt suit are perfectly acceptable. Take note of the venue, and pair your shoes accordingly. If it’s outside or on the beach, sandals may be a better option than heels.
  • Cocktail: More sophisticated and tailored, knee- or slightly above the knee-length dresses or skirts usually in darker blue, black, gray, or deep-jewel tones.
  • Semi-formal: Perhaps the most common type of requested attire, semi-formalwear can range from a conservative cocktail dress to an evening gown that extends below the knees. Usually for late afternoon or evening events, stay with the season’s darker shades. A dressy pants suit is also acceptable.
  • Formal: Reserved for evening affairs, formalwear dictates floor-length gowns – or more refined semi-formalwear.
  • Black-tie Optional: Anything from formalwear to black-tie.
  • Black-tie: The finest affair, black-tie attire calls for sophisticated floor length gowns, although not required, over-the-elbow gloves, and more glamorous hair, make-up and jewelry.

Although deciphering the dress code is much easier when it is provided, what do you do when you receive a wedding invitation without the dress code listed? Don’t fret, clues are everywhere. Just a few indicators to help determine what to wear when attire isn’t specified on wedding invitations, include:

  • The Paper. As a rule of thumb, the thicker the paper, the more formal the affair. If the invitation is thicker than cardstock, then you can expect a semi-formal/formal occasion. Additionally, the more elaborate the printing method also means more formal. Most couples who desire black-tie optional or black-tie will make sure to include it.
  • The Wording. If the language is formal then a formal wedding is to be anticipated. If it’s cutesy or casual then cocktail or casual attire may be more appropriate.
  • The Time of Day. Morning and afternoon events generally call for lighter color casual or cocktail attire, while evening events call for darker cocktail or semi-formalwear.
  • The Venue. From a backyard soiree (casual) to country club (cocktail or semi-formal) or five-star resort or private mansion (formal to black-tie), dress according to the venue.

With these general guidelines in hand, answering: What am I going to wear, is easier than ever. Although it may not be considered as taboo now as in the past, but wearing a white dress is simply a no-no. Just to be on the safe side, even though the invitation may say casual, avoid wearing jeans, shorts or anything too revealing. After all, the focus is to be on the happy couple and not the guests.

Author Bio: Heather Hewitt is a seasoned writer and guest author who enjoys connecting people with thoughtful products, services and ideas as they relate to crafting, photography, gift giving and personal expression.

Arelis Cintron

Wednesday 6th of March 2013

these are great tips in deciphering what to wear ... I have a few this year to attend and am still undecided on figuring out what I can wear.

Janeane Davis

Wednesday 6th of March 2013

This was a good article because the dress tips are good for all affairs. I know you are wedding crazy now, and I am so happy for you, but some of us old married people get invited places and need these dress tips also.