Consider this your go-to guide for interpreting every type of wedding dress code.

By Samantha Durbin and Maggie Seaver
Updated May 29, 2019
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Whether you have one wedding to look forward to or half a dozen invitations up on the fridge right now, the question of what to wear to a wedding is never an easy one. From “Black tie optional” to “beach formal,” decoding wedding dress codes—and finding the right ensemble—can cause some wardrobe anxiety for both men and women.

Before we break down what different wedding dress codes mean, there are a few simple rules every guest should follow, regardless of the wedding’s formality. (In case you missed it, the dress code should be printed on the wedding invitation and/or mentioned on the couple's wedding website.)

First and foremost, guests should never wear white (unless, of course, the invitation specifies to do so). This also goes for all wedding events before and after the big day. Second, if the ceremony will take place in a house of worship, bring something to cover your shoulders just in case, like a jacket or shawl, if you're wearing a sleeveless dress or top. Third, keep your hemline cocktail-length or longer—and guys, avoid wearing shorts. When in doubt, go by the classic fashion motto: It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.

Next time you're headed to a wedding, consult this handy dress code cheat sheet so you can relax and enjoy the party.

1

White tie is the most formal dress code for any event, and is sometimes referred to as "full attire." We're talking Academy Awards or state banquet formal. It's rare to see a white tie event that isn't in the evening, so richly hued floor-length gowns and dark tuxedos are the norm.

Women Should Wear:
A full-length formal gown in black or a jewel tone that isn’t too bright. Skip cocktail or tea-length dresses. Wear a full face of makeup, styled hair (an updo always works), and your best jewelry.

Men Should Wear:
A tuxedo with a long tailcoat over a white shirt and vest, and a white bow tie. Black formal shoes. A clean shave or well-groomed facial hair. White dancing gloves and a pocket square are optional extras if you're feeling very fancy.

2

Black tie weddings are more common than white tie weddings, but this dress code still requires a strong dressing-up effort.

Women Should Wear:
A floor-length evening gown, or formal cocktail- or tea-length dress. You could also get away with a chic, formal jumpsuit, depending on the venue. Styled hair and makeup (a nice blowout will do if you're not interested in paying for an intricate updo). Polished accessories and fine or statement jewelry.

Men Should Wear:
A white or black tuxedo and white shirt with black bow tie. Black patent leather shoes. Optional: cummerbund. Clean-cut grooming.

3

"Black tie optional" is understandably confusing. Think of it as a toned-down version of black tie, and a dress code that mostly refers to what men should wear: A tuxedo or suit is allowed here—versus black tie, which means all men should wear tuxes.

Women Should Wear:
A floor-length dress or cocktail-length dress. As for styling and accessories, the black tie tips apply for black tie optional too.

Men Should Wear:
A tuxedo or a dark suit and tie with the dapper additions of a vest, pocket square, or tie clip.

4

Cocktail attire is still fancy, but more fun than it is formal or buttoned-up. This attire is usually reserved for festive, less formal occasions. No tuxes, here, but still dress your best—and don't be afraid to have some fun with your outfit.

Women Should Wear:
A cocktail-length (i.e. to the knee) dress, a blouse and skirt combination, or a smart pant look with an elegant blouse. Opt for an updo or a sleek blowout to top off your look in style.

Men Should Wear:
A light or dark suit, depending on the season. No tie required (although they're always a nice touch), but add some personality with a colored or printed shirt and refined accessories.

5

"Beach Formal" is often seen on beach wedding invitations. But just because there’s sand involved doesn’t always mean you can wear flip-flops (this is when wedges or espadrilles come in handy).

Women Should Wear:
A floral maxi dress, tea- or knee-length sundress works great for upscale beach weddings. A stylish shawl and fancy flats or sandals (heels and beaches don’t mix—not something you want to learn the hard way). Don't worry about going too overboard on a hairstyle, since the elements will likely have their way with it. Stick with a simple chignon bun or loose waves—both appropriately polished, yet relaxed.

Men Should Wear:
A linen or seersucker suit or a lightweight blazer with a shirt, linen pants, or chinos. No tie required. Light brown shoes.

RELATED: 7 Pretty Wedding Guest Dresses You Can Wear Over and Over Again

6

More couples than ever seem to be requesting "casual attire" for their laid-back weddings. But you might also see this dress code listed for a formal wedding's more laid-back events, like the morning-after brunch or welcome cocktails. Just remember that the word casual doesn't mean "sloppy." Avoid jeans, ripped anything, and inappropriately short hems.

Women Should Wear:
A sundress, jumpsuit, relaxed maxi dress, or skirt and blouse pairing. Playful accessories. Natural hair and makeup are perfectly appropriate.

Men Should Wear:
Err on the side of caution: Opt for khakis rather than denim, paired with a long or short-sleeve button-down shirt or pique polo. If you choose shorts, make them chinos and pair with a crisp shirt.