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

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  • Winter wedding season is officially upon us and with it comes the dilemma of what to wear to 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 to a wedding as a guest

    1. Follow 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 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.”

    Remember, 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.”

    2. 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 Velvet Tailored Double Breasted Blazer

    Dorothy Perkins Velvet Tailored Double Breasted Blazer | RRP: £50 | Sizes: 6-20

    Velvet is a stylish choice for a winter wedding as the plush fabric will instantly luxe-up your look. This tailored blazer will help you stay warm whilst still keeping your wedding outfit looking polished.

    VIEW NOW – £50 | 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. 

    H&M Tie-belt Shirt Dress | RRP: £24.99 | Sizes: XS-XL

    H&M Tie-belt Shirt Dress | RRP: £24.99 | Sizes: XS-XL

    It’s a lot easier to get away with wearing black when it’s a winter wedding and this one ticks all the boxes. Floral prints ooze romance and the colourful blooms on this frock help to break up the dark colour. Bring it out more and finish with a pair of red or pink heels.

    VIEW NOW – £24.99 | H&M

    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 the 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.

    Sosandar Ivory & Black Spot Print Ruffle Hem Shift Dress

    Sosandar Ivory & Black Spot Print Ruffle Hem Shift Dress | RRP: £75 | Sizes: 6-20

    The polka dot print and shorter hem on this dress helps to steer it away from looking too bridal. The body-skimming shift silhouette keeps it comfortable and flattering and the ruffle hem adds a flirty and feminine finish. Keep it classic in monochrome and pair with black accessories.

    VIEW NOW – £75 | Sosandar

    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.

    Coast Faux Fur Stole

    Coast Faux Fur Stole | RRP: £69 | One Size

    Give your outfit that red-carpet appeal with a faux fur stole. Not only will it add an extra layer of warmth, the super-soft fabric adds a dose of decadence too.

    VIEW NOW – £69 | Coast

    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.

    M&S x Ghose Satin Midi Tea Dress

    M&S x Ghose Satin Midi Tea Dress | RRP: £79 | Sizes: 6-20

    This flowy tiered midi dress is made for special occasions. The satin-like fabric oozes opulence whilst the round neckline and long sleeves keep it modest – and offers extra coverage for winter.

    VIEW NOW – £79 | M&S

    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. 

    River Island Pink Pleated Tapered Trousers

    River Island Pink Pleated Tapered Trousers | RRP: £38 | Sizes 6-18

    These tapered trousers sit high on the waist for a flattering finish. Pair with a silky floral blouse and sleek mules for a feminine take on tailoring. Add a belt for further definition on the waist.

    VIEW NOW – £38 | River Island

    Mango Flower Print Trousers

    Mango Flower Print Trousers | RRP: £49.99 | Sizes: S-XL

    Florals are a timeless print that work all year round. The wide-leg fit makes these trousers serious leg-lengtheners. Pair with a simple tucked in blouse and let the bold trousers take centre stage.

    VIEW NOW – £49.99 | Mango

    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.

    Next Pleated Midi Dress

    Next Pleated Midi Dress | RRP: £60 | Sizes: 6-22

    The pastel pink floral design on this dress helps to soften the orange hue for a sweet and romantic look. Cinching in at the waist and flaring out at the skirt, it makes the perfect dance floor dress. The flared sleeves also add a chic vintage vibe.

    VIEW NOW – £60 | Next

    Oasis Trapeze Lace Midaxi Dress

    Oasis Trapeze Lace Midaxi Dress | RRP: £59 | Sizes: XS-XL

    If you’re wary of bold colours, navy is a chic alternative to black and can easily be brightened up with accessories. Lace is another go-to fabric for weddings giving this simple frock a romantic spin.

    VIEW NOW – £59 | Oasis

    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. 

    George Purple Floral Print Angel Sleeve Jumpsuit

    George Purple Floral Print Angel Sleeve Jumpsuit | RRP: £24 | Sizes: 6-24

    It’s all in the details with this stunning jumpsuit – from the square neckline for a modern touch to the angel sleeves and the cute ditsy floral print. The elasticated waist and wide-leg fit keeps it delightfully comfy for all-day wear.

    VIEW NOW – £24 | George at Asda

    Zara Tailored Double-Breasted Blazer and Chino Trousers

    Zara Tailored Double-Breasted Blazer and Chino Trousers | RRP: £87.98 | Zara

    Suits are having a moment and offer a modern alternative if dresses aren’t your thing. Go for a pop of colour such as this blue number and add feminine flourishes by pairing with a silky cami and sparkly heels.

    VIEW NOW – Blazer £59.99 | Zara

    VIEW NOW – Trouser £27.99 | Zara

    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.

    Oliver Bonas Floral Sequin and Beaded Embellished Black Headband

    Oliver Bonas Floral Sequin and Beaded Embellished Black Headband | RRP: £29.50

    Headbands are big news and this design from Oliver Bonas oozes glamour with its plush velvet fabric and sparkly embellishments. Perfect for jazzing up a more pared-back dress.

    VIEW NOW – £29.50 | Oliver Bonas

    Accessorize Bow Disc Fascinator

    Accessorize Bow Disc Fascinator | RRP: £37.50

    The soft blue hue will work for both winter and summer weddings. Featuring a slim, satin headband with a statement disc and netted detail, it’s sure to be just as effective as a traditional hat.
    VIEW NOW – £37.50 | Accessorize

    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. 

    New Look Cream Pointed Stiletto Heel Court Shoes

    New Look Cream Pointed Stiletto Heel Court Shoes | RRP: £19.99

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

    VIEW NOW – £19.99 | New Look

    Zara Flat Mules with Rhinestones

    Zara Flat Mules with Rhinestones | RRP: £59.99

    There are plenty of fancy flats out there proving you don’t have to wear heels to feel dressed up. The slingback design on these mules means they will stay put whilst the rhinestone detailing adds a glamorous finish.

    VIEW NOW – £59.99 | Zara

    What is acceptable to wear to a wedding?

    When in doubt, a midi or maxi dress is a fail-safe option for a wedding. Something that is not too low-cut and falls just below the knee. Pay close attention to the invite as this will help indicate how formal the ceremony and reception will be. Some invites may even specify a dress code but if they don’t, look up the venue online. A fancy hotel in the city might require something more formal than a barn in the countryside.

    What not to wear to a wedding?

    Steer clear of anything too bold and attention-seeking or a dress that is too short and uncomfortable. The last thing you want to be doing is readjusting yourself all day. On the other end of the scale, you will also want to avoid anything too casual such as loungewear and denim.

    “Try your best to stick to the dress code stated,” says Lucy Challenger, etiquette expert and founder Polo & Tweed. “Never upstage the bride, so no full-length white dresses. Avoid causal hats, sunglasses and shorts. And steer away from anything this is too revealing.”

    Which colours should you avoid at a wedding?

    The obvious answer is plain white. Choosing to wear white to a wedding can be seen stealing attention away from the bride and groom. Similarly, black is often avoided at weddings due to its association with mourning and funerals. However, modern wedding dress codes can be more relaxed which means you can probably get away with wearing a white dress with a pattern or brighten up a black dress with punchy accessories. As long as you avoid a floor length white gown, it will mainly come down to how to style it.

    “White or black is more acceptable these days but if doing so, then introduce a splash of colour. Never wear these two as block colours. Sometimes the wedding invite will follow an overall theme and if this is a colour then best avoid it, as it could match that worn by the wedding party.” says Lucy.

    What is casual attire for a wedding?

    Denim is seen as casual attire for a wedding so it’s best to avoid jeans of any kind. When it comes to footwear, trainers and flip flops are also too casual for a wedding.

    If you’re after something comfortable – go for a block heel, wedge or a smart flat shoe such as a mule instead.