Shopping·14 min read

Our Guide to Wedding Dress Codes, From White Tie to Casual

Design: theSkimm | Photos: Neiman Marcus, River Island
April 28, 2023

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So you’ve been invited to a wedding. Now comes the inevitable double-check of the invite for the dress code. Maybe you’re a bit confused over what ‘glam cocktail’ actually means. Lucky for you, we’re here to explain the differences between dress codes, so you can show up confident in your outfit and ready to throw your hands up to “Shout” on the dance floor.

True to us, we’ve also found options ranging from classic and elegant to fun and flirty. Cheers to spending less time stressing over what to wear and more time celebrating love. 

White Tie

White-tie is the most formal dress code. Think White House dinners or charity galas. Though this type of occasion is more rare, it’s good to know that it means wearing a floor-length gown, with no exceptions. It also means pulling out your finest jewels and heels to accessorize. PS: These types of weddings are always evening affairs.


An off-the-shoulder gown worth the investment…

Splurge on this timeless number, and you’ll never have to worry about what to wear when you need a gown. The silhouette is lovely and flattering, with a fitted top and skirt that flares out below the waist. Plus, the beading on the back adds a little glitz and glam. It’s available in three colors and up to size 18. ($599, Nordstrom)

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A gown with sheer, floral-embroidered sleeves…

The detail on the sleeves is incredibly delicate, which contrasts perfectly with the tailored elegance of the body of the dress. The crepe fabric has a little stretch to form to your body, so tailoring might not be required. The navy color can be worn year-round, so it works for both a summer and winter wedding. It’s also shorter in the front with a slight train in the back for added drama. ($228, Nordstrom)

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An evening dress with an empire waist…

From the V-neck to the ruching at the bust to the ribbon-clad empire waist, it’s hard to get more classic than this. Plus, there’s a little flutter sleeve to boot. Go with the timeless navy or black, or expand your horizons to one of many color options. It’s great for those with fuller chests who want to wear a bra undetected. ($69.99, Amazon)

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We’ve arrived at black-tie, which is a little more counterintuitive than you might think. First things first, no, you don’t have to wear black. You should wear either a floor-length gown, fancy cocktail dress, or dressy pantsuit or jumpsuit. Traditionally, ankles should not be showing just like with white-tie.


A V-neck gown that comes in a range of sizes…

Similar to the dress above, this one has a V-neck, empire waist, and flutter sleeve. The slight dip in the back lets you show some skin without being too revealing, if you’re attending an event that calls for more coverage. Customers say to be sure to check the size chart before ordering because most people had to size up. ($69.99, Amazon)

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A jumpsuit with a sexy neckline…

If you’re looking for a way to stand out from the sea of formal gowns, opt for this black-tie approved halter jumpsuit. It has a plunging neckline and open back that are sure to set you apart. It also has a tie to accentuate your waist and straight legs for a timeless silhouette. ($165, Revolve)

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Fame and Partners

A matte satin slip dress that drapes just right…

Emphasize your neckline with the subtle and silky off-the-shoulder drape of this dress. It also has a sultry low back to help you show off a little. It’s available in a range of colors, and takes up to seven weeks to make, so consider the date of your event before ordering. Each dress is made to fit, so you shouldn’t have to worry about getting the wrong size, but if you’re not completely loving it, you can still return it. ($279, Fame and Partners)

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Formal or Black-Tie Optional 

When the invite says ‘black-tie optional,’ it’ll leave you wondering what that really means. The key here is in the ankle. It’s essentially the same guideline as black-tie, but showing your ankles is more acceptable. So opt for a floor-length gown to remain on the more formal end of the spectrum. FYI: an ankle-baring cocktail dress would be the most pared down option here.


A corset blazer that’ll accentuate your waist…

Not your average blazer, this one has boning in the middle to emphasize your waist, then flares out slightly at the bottom. If you have a fuller bust, it may be snug enough to wear without a bra. It still has some stretch though, so you’ll be able to dance the night away comfortably. Pair it with the matching pants for a full look. ($139.95, Eloquii)

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An ankle-baring gown in a splashy color…

If you’re ready to show off those ankles, try this ruched dress with an asymmetrical hem. It’s a one-shoulder style with plenty of stretch to move with you. Plus, it features a built-in bodysuit so you don’t have to add any shapewear underneath. Try it in the red to make an entrance, or go classic in the black. ($132.23+, Amazon)

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A maxi dress with a side slit…

Turn heads in this satin maxi with a pleated bodice and daring thigh-high side slit. As you walk, you’ll be showing off a little leg but still fully adhering to the dress code. The straps are adjustable, and it comes in eight striking colors. ($69, Lulus)

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Cocktail attire is the most popular wedding dress code, so if you’re picking from this section, you’ll likely get multiple uses out of your purchase. Choose a dress that’s either tea-length (hits at mid-calf), knee-length, or midi (which falls anywhere from right above the ankle to mid-calf). Feel free to choose something in a pastel hue or a not-too-bold floral pattern.

ASTR The Label

A midi dress with a smocked bust…

Perfect for a fall wedding, this dress is a standout thanks to the silky satin fabric. The smocked bust ensures it’ll fit just right, the ruffle lends a flirty touch, and the midi skirt is sure to flatter. Pair with your strappiest heels to dress it up. ($68.97+, ASTR The Label)

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A slip dress with lace details…

It’s never wrong to stick to something simple, even if the dress code is a little more lenient. This is a classic satin slip dress with a pretty V-neck adorned with lace detailing. It also has a cutout for an exposed back, and pairs just as easily with heels as with sandals for a beach or outdoor wedding. ($278, Reformation)

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A satin dress that comes in many different colors…

If you’re looking for a wardrobe staple, may we suggest this beauty? It comes in 11 colors, ranging from emerald green to hot pink. The neckline is an elegantly draped cowl with side slits for movement when you walk. You’re sure to wear this number on more than one occasion. ($168, BHLDN)

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A cowl neck midi dress you’ll want to wear over and over…

In our opinion, a cowl neckline is one of the best. It’s extremely elegant and works for any bust size. This dress also has a faux-wrap style that gathers in the prettiest ruching on the side. We’re not sure what more you could ask for, other than adjustable straps and more than 20 colors to choose from, of course. ($44.99, Amazon)

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For a semi-formal wedding, the most important thing to take into account is the time of day. These are often brunch or midday weddings, which make them more casual. Wear a dress that hits at the knee (or slightly above), or a skirt and top. Mostly all colors and  prints are appropriate.

Neiman Marcus

A skirt set in a gorgeous floral print…

Obsessed is an understatement. Make a statement in this fancy tube top and matching skirt. The light floral is romantic and appropriate for a spring or summer wedding, plus the top has a smocked back for the perfect fit. Both pieces are available in sizes 0–14 and would look great worn separately after you’ve wowed at the wedding. ($250, Neiman Marcus)

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Saks Fifth Avenue

A leopard mesh midi dress…

Yes, you read that right. This dress features a feisty animal print that’s sure to turn heads. It has a square neckline and flattering ruched fabric that’s exceptionally soft and cool to the touch, so you’ll be comfortable all night long. It comes in sizes XS–5XL. ($129, Saks Fifth Avenue)

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A sheath dress with a bow…

This hot pink number is all about romance. It’s sleeveless with an embellished chiffon bow to complete the high-neck look. It fits close to the body at the bust, but then flows out, hitting just above the knee. It’s a great way to play with color while keeping the style of the dress relatively modest. ($148, Nordstrom)

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Festive as a dress code has really only emerged in recent years, but don’t let it intimidate you. Think bright, bold colors or large-scale patterns, playful accessories, and leaning into the party atmosphere. Have fun with it. 


A maxi dress with a loud print…

Farm Rio is changing the game when it comes to festive resort wear. This is perfect for an island destination wedding, and features various fruits splattered across an ombré sherbert background. It’s delightful. It also has adjustable tie straps and comes in sizes XXS–XL. ($240, Nordstrom)

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River Island

A fringe mini dress if you really want to stand out…

Hello, wow-factor. This shade of green is enough to set you apart on the dance floor, but you’ll also shimmer thanks to the ankle-length fringe. It has a sweetheart neckline with adjustable straps, and also comes in black if the fringe alone is enough of a statement for you. ($185, River Island)

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A wrap dress that looks like a sunset…

Yellow, blue, green, and pink combine in this dress to make one party-ready outfit. It has a pretty cowl neck, side slits, and criss-cross straps in the back. Pair with colored sandals or heels and bright accessories to really lean into the festive vibe. ($46.75, Asos)

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Finally, the casual wedding. This is usually a beach or outdoor wedding, where taking into account the weather and location is important. Will your heels get stuck in sand or grass? Opt for a summer sundress in a breezy knit or linen fabric, and most often stick to polished sandals.


An off-the-shoulder linen dress that screams beach wedding…

Linen was made for the beach. This midi option has a little off-the-shoulder flutter sleeve and a slit to show a little leg. Choose from the blue-and-white fruit-themed pattern or punchy cherry red. No matter what you decide, you’ll be sure to stay cool in the summer heat. ($248, Reformation)

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A long-sleeve mini dress for when it gets cool at night…

Depending on where you are, it can get a bit chilly when the sun goes down at an outdoor reception. Come prepared with sleeves. The bodice is smocked with a tiny, playful cutout, and the bottom is tiered and flirty. The micro floral print will fit in at every venue. ($198, Revolve)

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