Summer 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 modern suiting. If you’re unsure 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. But realistically, if you need to ask, it’s probably not the correct outfit and a re-think is required.
“Navigating what to wear at a wedding as a guest is never easy but there are a few factors to keep in mind, such as the venue and time of year, when choosing your outfit. These should steer you in the right direction on what is, and isn’t, appropriate to wear. Beach weddings can be more casual, whereas a fancy hotel is likely to be pretty formal” says Paula Moore, fashion director at Goodto.
What to wear to a wedding as a guest
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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," says Lucy.
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.
H&M Single-Breasted Blazer | RRP: £34.99 | Sizes: 4-22
A blazer is a key piece in everyone’s capsule wardrobe, guaranteed to add instant polish to the simplest of looks. Crafted from a cool linen-blend, this soft blue design is the perfect layering tool for the warmer months. Leave undone to show off your frock underneath.
VIEW NOW - £34.99 | H&M (opens in new tab)
3. 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. “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.
Next Long Sleeve Chiffon Midi Dress | RRP: £56 | Sizes: 6-22
The white print on this dress helps to break up the black, making it more appropriate for a wedding. Plus monochrome always look chic. The v-neckline is flattering on the bust and shirred waist accentuates your silhouette. Team with black heels or introduce a splash of colour with some pink sandals.
VIEW NOW - £56 | Next (opens in new tab)
4. 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.
Nobody’s Child Elsa Midi Dress | RRP: £69 | Sizes: 6-18
It can be harder to avoid white in the summer so if you do want to wear the bridal hue, make sure it includes a more colourful print. This smock design is delightfully romantic with a shirred bodice and a flared skirt that’s just made for that dance-floor. Bring out the floral print and style with a lilac clutch bag.
VIEW NOW - £69 | Nobody’s Child (opens in new tab)
5. 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 Chiffon Cover Up | RRP: £49
If you do need to cover your shoulders, this elegant scarf will do the trick without overpowering your already planned-out look. The blush shade is super versatile and will work well with most colours and the chiffon fabric gives it a high-end finish. Drape over your shoulders and let it hang or tie neatly in the middle.
VIEW NOW - £49 | John Lewis & Partners (opens in new tab)
6. 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.
New Look Red Floral Frill Tiered Midi Smock Dress | RRP: £25.99 | Sizes: 6-18
All hail the smock dress with it’s throw-on-and-go appeal, minimal styling needed! This has a stylish high neckline and a frilly tiered hem for a playful touch. Lightweight and airy with zero clinginess, it’s perfect for summer (and hitting that wedding buffet!) Keep accessories pared-back to let the bold print take centre stage.
VIEW NOW - £25.99 | New Look (opens in new tab)
7. 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.
Mango Flower Print Trousers | RRP: £49.99 | Sizes: XS-XL
These floral trousers are a worthy investment and can be mixed and matched with your wardrobe basics or worn with the matching blouse for an attention-grabbing head-to-toe look. The flowy fabric gives them luxe look and the straight cut leaves a flattering finish on the leg.
VIEW NOW - £49.99 | Mango (opens in new tab)
River Island Purple Wide Leg Pleated Trousers | RRP: £40 | Sizes: 6-18
Wide-leg trousers have serious leg-lengthening powers, especially this high-waisted pair. Style with a tucked-in blouse to show off the waist and add a belt if you want extra definition. Finish with a pair of strappy sandals and once the nuptials are over you’ll be able to rewear with your go-to trainers at the weekend.
VIEW NOW - £40 | River Island (opens in new tab)
8. 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.
9. 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.
Principles Brushstroke Puff Sleeve Maxi Dress | RRP: £49 | Sizes: 8-20
If bold brights aren’t your thing, go for muted tones instead. The brushstroke print is a welcome change from feminine florals and gives this frock a modern edge. It has an on-trend square neckline, a nipped-in waist and a tiered hem for easy movement. Finish with black barely-there sandals and delicate gold jewellery.
VIEW NOW - £49 | Debenhams (opens in new tab)
M&Co Navy Broderie Tiered Midi Dress | RRP: £44.99 | Sizes: 8-22
Navy is a chic alternative to black and more flattering on the skin-tone too. The broderie detail on this frock adds a romantic twist that’s perfect for wedding season. It has a fitted bodice before flaring to an A-line skirt. It has pockets too! Soften the darker shade with baby pink or mint green accessories.
VIEW NOW - £44.99 | M&Co (opens in new tab)
10. 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 Blue Polka Dot Sweetheart Jumpsuit | RRP: £22 | Sizes: 6-28
This spotty jumpsuit is a real supermarket steal and looks way more fancy than the price tag suggests. Boasting a cute sweetheart neckline and wide leg-trousers it’s universally flattering. The soft jersey fabric and elasticated waist keeps it comfy for all-day wear too. Plus, it’s super easy to dress down with trainers, ensuring you'll get plenty of mileage out of it well into the honeymoon.
VIEW NOW - £22 | George at Asda (opens in new tab)
Zara Straight Cut Blazer and Full Length Trousers | RRP: £92.98 | Sizes: XS-XXL
A modern alternative to dresses, a two-piece suit will give you serious style kudos. The zesty hue keeps this blazer and trouser combo feeling fun rather than corporate. Offset the masculine aesthetic with feminine flourishes to render it party-ready such as some sparkly heels or a beaded clutch.
VIEW NOW - Blazer £59.99 | Zara (opens in new tab)
VIEW NOW - Trousers £32.99 | Zara (opens in new tab)
11. 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 Amrose Pearl Embellished Knot Headband | RRP: £26
This pretty pearl headband is more subtle than a fascinator or hat but still as effective. Featuring dainty white pearlescent beading, the ivory hue makes it easy to style with any outfit.
VIEW NOW - £26| Oliver Bonas (opens in new tab)
Accessorize Lucy Loop Band Crin Fascinator | RRP: £30
This mink hue will work for both summer and winter weddings, making it an incredibly versatile addition to your wardrobe. The hairband fastening is comfy to wear and ensures it stays secure on your head too. Also available in navy and ivory.
VIEW NOW - £30 | Accessorize (opens in new tab)
12. 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.
V by Very Block Heel Slingback Court Shoe | RRP: £28
Every shoe-drobe needs a pair of nude court shoes and these are a front-runner. The comfy block heel means you can wear them all-day-long and the slingback design helps them stay firmly in place. The almond shaped toe gives them a modern upgrade too.
VIEW NOW - £28 | Very (opens in new tab)
Charles & Keith Adel Recycled Polyester Gem-Embellished Slingback Ballerinas | RRP: £45
You don’t have to wear heels to feel dressed up and there are plenty of flats on the market that will make you feel just as fancy. Case in point, these pointed ballerinas. The sparkly embellishments give them a party-ready finish and the pointed toe keeps them elegant. Available in four chic shades.
VIEW NOW - £45 | Charles & Keith (opens in new tab)
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. (opens in new tab) "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.
Charlie Bell is the acting deputy fashion editor across multiple women’s magazines and also a freelance fashion, beauty and lifestyle editor. She bagged her first magazine job in 2009 and has previously written for titles including Woman & Home, Closer and Dare. Over the years Charlie has embraced anything that was thrown at her from styling celebrities to testing out the best jeans on the high street to writing about must-have beauty buys. Charlie is on a mission to shop more sustainably and loves finding new ethical brands and second-hand buys.
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