What To Wear To Every Wedding, Depending On The Dress Code

You've always been game for your friends' famous theme parties. So why, when it comes to weddings, does the dress code always trip us up? "White tie," "festive," "fancy ranch" (yes, all real) — sadly, these aren't as easy as "ugly holiday sweater." Still it's important to respect our friends' wishes when it come to celebrating their relationships. Which means we may need a whole different dictionary to figure out what to wear.

Instead of stressing over the vocabulary — or worse, confusing "casual" attire for sweatpants — we asked an expert to decipher the dress codes. Annie Lee, founder of Daughter of Design, is not only a pro at creating dream weddings, she also works with couples personally on their big day — and offers up some much-needed insight on what they really expect with that RSVP.

For instance, Lee tells us that when it says "preferred" on the dress code (such as Black Tie Preferred), it means, "I really, really want you to dress this way." That's much different than "optional," which means, "Some people, including the bride and groom, are going to dress like this but you don't have to." Finally, our expert tells us, "'suggested' is a polite way of saying 'You should wear it.'" For all other hints on what to wear according to the couple's dress code, click on for Lee's advice and outfits to inspire your look.
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Photo: Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images.
The invitation says: Festive Attire
Lee says: "Festive Attire falls under the semiformal category, but invites you to get in the spirit of the location. Select an outfit that evokes the local culture and textiles of the wedding."
So, wear: We've found that "festive" dress is often requested for holiday weddings. But, it can also be any excuse to get more literal with your outfit choices. For instance, are you going to a destination wedding in a tropical locale? Opt for a tropical print, like Lupita Nyong'o's palm tree embellished mini dress.
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Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images.
The invitation says: Casual
Lee says: "Jeans are A-okay here, but it's not so casual that you're rolling up in track pants. This event is going to be relaxed, but you're still socializing in public, so an easy sundress or jeans and nice top are great picks."
So, wear: Jenna Lyons knows how to make denim work for nearly every occasion. Her classic, refined combination of dark wash skinnies, structured white top, and simple heels are perfect for low-key nuptials. If you're feeling hesitant, a denim jacket paired with an evening-appropriate skirt is a slightly less casual take.
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Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images.
The invitation says: Dressy Casual
Lee says: "Think your Sunday Best. This event is definitely not formal, but still requires a bit of effort. A cute dress or top with pants or skirt is a great option — definitely no jeans."
So, wear: Choose something comfortable and easily polished, like Aimee Song's printed jumper and sandals. The tailored blazer satisfies the "dressy" part of this equation.
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Photo: Steve Granitz/Getty Images.
The invitation says: Whimsical
Lee says: "Not quite a costume party, but this wedding is going to be a quirky one where creativity is encouraged. Guests are invited to use their imagination as they dress themselves in an almost anything-goes sort of atmosphere. Put on that tutu you weren't sure [you'd ever] wear out of the house."
So, wear: If Yoda on your evening gown doesn't say "whimsy," we don't know what does. Willow Bay had the right idea at the Academy Awards, and her use of a playful motif on an otherwise fancy silhouette is totally appropriate.
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Photo: Gregory Pace/BEImages.
The invitation says: Black Tie/Formal
Lee says: "A bit less ceremonial than white tie, but still in the formal realm. Black Tie means tuxedos and gowns. Ladies can wear anything from a floor-length dress to an elegant cocktail dress. Shorter dresses have become acceptable for Black Tie events — as long as they are stunning and dressy!"
So, wear: This is an excuse to break out a favorite gown that you don't often have a reason to wear. As long as the overall effect is formal, a bit of flair — like Lena Dunham's Creatures of the Wind design with cut-out shoulders and bright stripes — is totally welcome.
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Photo: REX Shutterstock.
The invitation says: Gatsby Chic
Lee says: "You have been invited to a theme wedding, and the missing piece of the decor will be the guests' fashion. Complete the look by dressing in your best 1920s sequined, flapper number."
So, wear: Blame Baz Luhrmann for the Gatsy obsession. We've seen this dress code popping up over the past few years. If you're not entirely gung ho, look for an outfit with subtle elements of Roaring '20s style, such as fringe, T-strap heels, or a drop-waist silhouette like Emma Stone shows off here.
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Photo: Henry Lamb/Photowire/BEImages.
The invitation says: Fancy Ranch
Lee says: "Much like Beach Formal attire, the idea here is to ironically dress formally for the informal setting. Try to find a sophisticated dress that has a bit of western style to it."
So, wear: Subtlety is key. After all, you're not baling hay, so no need to wear your toughest denim (or, heaven forbid, chaps). A sweet gingham print, as seen on Dree Hemingway's collared wrap dress, plays along with the rustic theme, while a feminine heel and clutch keep the look wedding-appropriate.
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Photo: Matt Baron/BEImages.
The invitation says: White Tie
Lee says: "This is at the tippy-top of the scale for formal attire. We're talking long gloves for ladies, tails for the gents. Ladies should be in elegant, floor-length gowns only."
So, wear: We can think of no better example than Olivia Wilde's recent Met Gala look. The dress is simple in silhouette and comes complete with opera-length gloves. But, the embellishments, unconventional color, and that Prada headpiece add just the right amount of personalized quirk to the strictest of dress codes.
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Photo: Rob Latour/REX Shutterstock.
The invitation says: Creative Black Tie
Lee says: "Your hosts are looking to have you add a little flair and personality to your formal Black Tie outfit. Choose a unique dress design or layer a fun accessory on top of your traditional ballgown or cocktail dress for a bit more pizzaz."
So, wear: This dress code is a little confusing because your hosts are saying "it's pretty fancy!" and "do you!" all at once. But, Diane Kruger's dress-over-pants combination by Donna Karan Atelier follows both guidelines beautifully.
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Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images.
The invitation says: Beach Formal
Lee says: "Beach Formal indicates the wedding is going to be in an informal beach setting, but still elegant and upscale enough for guests to dress their best while factoring in the sun, sand, and sea breeze. Shop for the oxymoron of a 'less-formal, formal' dress — such as a flowy, long dress. A designer's resort collection often offers the right selection for a Beach Formal guest."
So, wear: Your best printed dress — nothing too stiff or tight, as you'll want it to have some movement. Select a smaller, chunkier-heeled sandal or flat, like Alexa Chung. It's no easy feat strolling the sand in stilettos.
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Photo: Rindoff/Dufour/Getty Images.
The invitation says: Cocktail
Lee says: "A notch below Black Tie on the attire totem pole, Cocktail attire means gentlemen in suits and ties and ladies in LBDs and other short dresses."
So, wear: Following Lee's LBD suggestion, take a hint from Dakota Fanning's off-beat option that has a sheer mesh overlay and caped back. Accompany with understated, monochrome accessories should you go for a statement silhouette such as this one.
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