What to wear at a wedding: 13 tips from fashion and etiquette experts

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  • Wedding season is officially upon us and with it comes the dilemma of what to wear at a wedding.

    Weddings are no longer strictly formal events with a sit down meal, speeches and other wedding traditions – with many couples now plumping for a more relaxed day. It’s also no longer a given that the bride will wear a white dress, as post-lockdown weddings have seen a shift towards shorter dresses and suiting. 

    With the lines of expectation blurred, working out what to wear at a wedding as a guest becomes that bit trickier. There are a number of factors to consider when choosing your outfit. The most important of these are the dress code, the season, and the venue where the ceremony is taking place. All of these will have a big impact on what is, and isn’t, appropriate to wear.

    If you’re unsure whether or not your outfit is hitting the right mark, whether you can wear black to a wedding or if wearing white to a wedding is acceptable – our advice is to seek the advice of a trusted friend. If you’re close to the bride, you could even ask for her opinion. But realistically, if you need to ask, it’s probably not the correct outfit and a re-think is required. 

    What to wear at a wedding – according to etiquette and fashion experts 

    1. Do understand the dress code

    The dilemma of what to wear at a wedding is far easier to resolve if the invite specifies a dress code. The only caveat to this is that some dress codes are still open to interpretation. So if you’re unsure, ask the advice of the bride or other wedding guests.

    To get your outfit search off to a flying start, we asked Lucy Challenger, etiquette expert and founder Polo & Tweed, for guidance on the most common dress codes.

    • Black tie: “Black tie ranges considerably these days, from a little black number to a ball gown. General etiquette is for the most to elaborate according to the event.”
    • White tie: “Go for a long, formal evening dress. You should also consider wearing hair tied back or in a chignon.”
    • Cocktail: “This means cocktail dresses that are knee-length or there abouts. Heels are generally worn too.”
    • Smart casual: “Generally a blazer-type jacket, long skirt or smart trousers, shirt or blouse and flat shoes. Definitely no leggings, jeans or trainers.”

    2. …and do stick to it

    The happy couple will have specified a dress code for a reason. This could be because it’s appropriate for the venue their wedding is being held at, or because it matches their chosen aesthetic or look. Straying from the dress code has the potential to at best lead to embarrassment and murmurs among the other guests, and at worse cause offence. 

    “Not only do you not want to be the one person in a casual summer dress while everyone else is in ball gowns, but if your invitation specifically asks you to dress in a certain manner, it’s disrespectful to disregard the request.”

    3. Do dress for the season

    With hoards of photos being taken, you want to feel at your best when attending a wedding. And neither shivering in the winter or feeling sticky during the summer make for comfortable experiences. 

    “Dressing for the season is key,” says style expert and Fashion Editor, Joely Chilcott. “Weddings inevitably involve a lot of hanging around so wearing a skimpy frock to a winter wedding is going to leave you freezing cold and unable to enjoy the day. Invest in a well-fitting blazer  – it’s the perfect layering piece that will give you extra warmth for temperamental weather without overwhelming your outfit.”

    For summer weddings, we’d recommend a short sleeve dress in a lightweight or floaty fabric. Anything too form-fitting will feel restrictive. Cotton, linen and silk mixes are among the most breathable fabrics, but do have a frustrating tendency to crease. 

    Dorothy Perkins Ruched Sleeve Blazer

    Dorothy Perkins Ruched Sleeve Blazer |  RRP: £38 | Sizes: 6-22

    Use this blazer to add a pop of colour to your outfit at the same time as keeping you cosy. The pre-ruched sleeves make this a great choice for petities, and will give this otherwise smart piece a more relaxed feel.

    VIEW NOW – £38 | DOROTHY PERKINS

    4. Don’t wear all black 

    A colour traditionally associated with mourning, wearing black is widely considered to be an inappropriate choice of wedding attire. That being said, it’s not uncommon for more modern dress codes to allow black, or actively encourage guests to wear it. 

    “Wearing black is more acceptable these days,” says Lucy Challenger. “But if doing so, my advice is to introduce a splash of colour.” This could be in the form of a patterned dress, bright accessories or even by wearing a black top with a vibrant skirt or trousers. 

    Lipsy Puff Sleeve Sweetheart Maxi Dress

    Lipsy Puff Sleeve Sweetheart Maxi Dress | RRP: £48 |  Sizes: 6-18

    Nailing a number of trends in one sweep, we love the sweetheart neckline and soft puff sleeves on this midi dress. The romantic floral print detracts from the black base colour.

    VIEW NOW – £48 | NEXT

    5. Do steer clear of white

    In most scenarios, it’s safe to assume that the bride will be wearing a white or ivory gown, and therefore guests should steer clear of these two elements. No one wants to be accused of stealing focus, or worse still, being confused with the bride by a distant relative or teh catering staff. “Never upstage the bride, so no full-length white dresses,” advises Lucy. 

    When shopping for a summer wedding, when the high-street is awash with floaty white pieces, finding something that it’s not white can feel like an almost impossible task. So, instead of discarding the idea of white altogether, instead choose an outfit that has a white base, but is adorned with an eye-catching print. “Florals or patterns are totally acceptable,” adds Lucy.

    Oasis Ivory Floral Print Pintuck Hanky Hem Dress

    Oasis Ivory Floral Print Pintuck Hanky Hem Dress | RRP: £79 | Sizes: 6-18

    A gorgeous choice for a summer wedding, the floaty chiffon fabric makes this dress a joy to wear. The addition of subtle watercolour florals adds just the right amount of interest.

    VIEW NOW – £79 | OASIS

    6. Do respect your surroundings 

    Most places of worship have specific rules around what is, and isn’t acceptable to wear. “In church, shoulders should be covered as bare arms are still frowned upon,” explains Lucy. “In Catholic churches women are expected to bring a shawl to cover their shoulders and arms. Cover your head/hair in a synagogue as well, and the same for an Arabic wedding.”

    If the person getting married is part of a culture, or practices a religion that you are unfamiliar with, take the time to chat to them beforehand about any traditions or expectations. This will help to avoid any missteps on the big day.

    Adrianna Papell Mikado Pull Through Wrap

    Adrianna Papell Mikado Pull Through Wrap  | RRP: £60

    A luxe way to complete your outfit, this gorgeous satin wrap pulls through itself to form a gorgeous gathering at the middle. Perfect for fancier occasions.

    VIEW NOW – £60 | JOHN LEWIS 

    7. Don’t show too much skin

    Following on from the above point, sticking to a more conservative outfit is usually a good move when deciding what to wear at a wedding. Weddings are long days, and can involve a lot of sitting, standing, and in some cases, running around after small children. For this reason, you don’t want to be worried about a wardrobe faux pas in the form of a wayward neckline or rising hemline.

    “A high neckline is obviously the most appropriate, but mid-neckline is fine,” says Lucy. “Just avoid anything too low cut or with a plunge. Dresses or skirts should not be ultra short, and covering the shoulders would be best. However this can be done with a cropped jacket.” You could always wear a jacket during the ceremony and meal, and take it off for the evening party.

    Never Fully Dressed Amalfi Frida Dress

    Never Fully Dressed Amalfi Frida Dress |  RRP: £80 | Sizes: 6-16

    This high-neck dress is perfect for wedding season. The pretty print, cap sleeves and ruffled hemline mean it’s demure, but far from frumpy. Team with orange accessories.

    VIEW NOW – £80 | NEVER FULLY DRESSED

    8. Don’t wear denim

    When we asked etiquette expert Lucy Challenger if you could wear denim to a wedding her resounding response was “absolutely not!”. Weddings are special occasions, and therefore it’s good manners to wear something more noteworthy than your trusted best jeans and t-shirt combination. Denim is never really acceptable in any incarnation, but light coloured, distressed or ripped jeans are considered the worst offenders. The only real exception to the rule would be a smart denim jacket worn over your shoulders at a casual wedding. 

    Instead, we’d recommend swapping your jeans for a pair of tailored trousers in a colourful hue. For winter or high-summer weddings, opt for rich, jewel-tones like green, pink and blue. Spring or in-between season celebrations call for pretty pastels. 

    Warehouse Pique Utility Pocket Wide Trousers

    Warehouse Pique Utility Pocket Wide Trousers | RRP: £42 | Sizes: 8-16

    The wide leg shape and belted waist make for a really flattering fit, drawing the eye to the smallest part of your frame. Team with a printed blouse for a chic look.

    VIEW NOW – £42 | WAREHOUSE

    H&M Silk-Blend Trousers

    H&M Silk-Blend Trousers | RRP: £79.99 | Sizes: 6-14

    Silky and slinky, these printed trousers will instantly elevate your look. Part of H&M’s premium collection, the quality of the fabric accounts for the higher price.

    VIEW NOW – £79.99 | H&M

    9. Don’t dress as a bridesmaid 

    One of our top pieces of advice is to ask the couple what colour their bridesmaids will be wearing ahead of the big day.  “Sometimes the wedding invite will follow an overall theme and if this is a colour then best to avoid it, as it could match the clothing worn by the wedding party,” explains Lucy.

    Brands such as Ghost, Whistles and Monsoon all have dedicated bridesmaid ranges, which, while could be worn by a guest, are better to bypass for risk of ending up matching. For the same reason, choose midi dresses over floor-lengths, as most couples favour a full length style for their bridesmaids. If you’ve fallen in love with a dress that’s long, no problem. Enlist the help of a seamstress or dry cleaner to adjust the hemline for you. 

    10. Don’t go too garish 

    Much like steering clear of white, you don’t want to be accused of trying to steal focus by wearing something too bright or garish. Sequins really catch the eye, and are not an appropriate choice unless the dress code or theme requires them. “If you’re unsure and want to blend in rather than stand out, stick to neutral tones or pastel colours,” advises Lucy.

    It’s all about balance, so if your dress is really bright and heavily patterned, then team it with low-key muted accessories in tan or cream. If you’re a fan of a stand-out accessory, then temper these more attention-grabbing pieces with clean lines and understated colours on your outfit.

    New Look Pink Gingham Open Tie Back Midi Dress

    New Look Pink Gingham Open Tie Back Midi Dress | RRP: £27.99 | Sizes: 6-18

    From a distance, gingham dresses can appear all once colour, only revealing the detail once you’re up close. This pretty pink shade is a great choice for spring and summer weddings.

    VIEW NOW – £27.99 | NEW LOOK

    Zara Printed Midi Dress

    Zara Printed Midi Dress | RRP: £29.99 | Sizes: XS-XL

    The combination of green and cream work beautifully together here, for a pattern that sits on the right side of eye-catching. Top with a crisp blazer.

    VIEW NOW – £29.99 | ZARA

    11. Do consider dress alternatives 

    Dresses are the traditional answer to what to wear at a wedding, but if you feel more comfortable in trousers or a jumpsuit than a dress, then go for it. In most cases they’re a more practical choice, especially if you have small children to look after. “Jumpsuits and two-piece suits make a great alternative to a dress and are super chic for modern sophistication,” says Joely.

    Suits or co-ords that are sold separately are great if you’re a different size on top than on the bottom. You’re likely to get more wear out of them after the wedding too, as they can easily be mixed and matched with casual pieces in your wardrobe. 

    Phase Eight Linda Frill Jumpsuit

    Phase Eight Linda Frill Jumpsuit | RRP: £125 | Sizes: 6-2o

    We love how this jumpsuit gives the appearance of a separate shirt and top. The tie waist makes it easy to add definition to your waist.

    VIEW NOW – £125 | PHASE EIGHT 

    H&M Double-Breasted Jacket and Tailored Bermuda Shorts

    H&M Double-Breasted Jacket and Tailored Bermuda Shorts | RRP: blazer, £35.99, shorts, £17.99 | Sizes: S-XXL

    A short suit offers a fresh take on traditional tailoring. Just make sure the shorts are long, like this Bermuda style pair. Just add a camisole and heeled sandals.

    VIEW NOW – from £17.99 | H&M

    12. Don’t feel like you have to wear a hat 

    The recent shift towards more laid-back weddings has meant less pressure to wear a hat. “Hats are a personal choice but if the wedding is very formal, it is still a good idea to wear one,” advises Lucy. “They should be worn throughout the day, but can be removed when the reception is in the evening and no-one leaves to change.”

    Key wedding guests like the Mother of the Bride and Mother of the Groom will still tend to wear a hat, even when the dress code doesn’t require it. If you’re not keen on wearing a hat, but feel like your outfit is missing a little something, opt instead for a fascinator or statement headband.

    Anthropologie Parkside Metallic Wavy Headband

    Anthropologie Parkside Metallic Wavy Headband | RRP: £28

    Headbands are big news, the more detailed the better. We love the glossy fabric and wave design of this Grecian inspired band. Also available in gold.

    VIEW NOW – £28 | ANTHROPOLOGIE

    Next Fascinator

    Next Fascinator |  RRP: £22

    This grey fascinator is the perfect shade to see you through summer and winter weddings alike. Tie your hair back to let the detailing take centre stage.

    VIEW NOW – £22 | NEXT 

    13. Do consider your footwear

    Weddings offer the perfect excuse to get dressed up, and we’d recommend you take it with both hands. Unless you have specific problems or concerns, Lucy recommends “no trainers, flip-flops or heavy boots.” Not only are they too casual for such a special occasion, but the latter two are notoriously noisy, especially in echoing halls and churches.

    A classic court shoe, the kind favoured by Kate Middleton, is our top pick. Buying a pair in a neutral hue like nude, tan or silver is a smart investment. They’ll coordinate with any colour of clothing you choose, and can be re-worn for other weddings and occasions to max out your cost-per-wear. If you struggle to walk in high heels, look to block heels or wedges instead for extra stability. There are plenty of pretty flats on the high-street too. Choose a pair with a pointed toe for effortless elegance and to create the illusion of longer legs. 

    Jones Bootmaker Leather Courts with Kitten Heel

    Jones Bootmaker Leather Courts with Kitten Heel | RRP: £75

    Call off the search – we’ve found the perfect pair of neutral court shoes. The kitten heel is just the right height for all day wear, while the pastel blush shade will go with everything.

    VIEW NOW – £75 | JONES BOOTMAKER

    Zara Flat Mules with Buckle Detail

    Zara Flat Mules with Buckle Detail | RRP: £49.99

    Mules are a huge trend at the moment. We love them for wedding and events as the backless design means no chance of blisters. The mint green shade of these Zara beauties would look great with pink.

    VIEW NOW – £49.99 | ZARA 

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