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What is Cocktail Attire: How to Decipher Wedding Dress Code

You open your mailbox to find a large, fancy envelope. You open it and yep! It's a wedding invite. You're filling out the RSVP card when you see the note at the bottom - cocktail attire. Or maybe it says beach formal or dressy causal. Who knew there were so many oxymorons when it came to wedding fashion. I'm here to breakdown the attire names for wedding dress code. I've listed these from most fancy, to most casual.

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White Tie Attire

I've never been to a "white tie" wedding, because it's not really in fashion at the moment. White Tie, however, is the fanciest of the fancy. Think Oscar night. Think that scene in Anastasia when she and Dimitri go the opera to meet the Empress. You should either be wearing a tuxedo with tails, or a long fancy dress. This is definitely a Rent the Runway sort of occasion.

Black Tie Attire

Definitely more common than White Tie, Black Tie weddings are still very formal. We're looking for tuxedos (no tails necessary) with black bow ties, and a long evening gown.

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Formal Attire or Black Tie Optional

This means you can dress it up if you want, but you don't have to go all out. Here we are looking for dark formal suit and tie, and a formal knee-length or longer dress.

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Cocktail Attire

This one is probably the most common "dress code" I see for weddings. If the invitation doesn't specify, I would go with cocktail attire. You want to wear a suit with a tie or a cocktail dress. Cocktail dresses tend to be knee-length and a little dressy. Think if you're going on a fancy date. This would be the perfect time to pull out your Little Black Dress*.

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Beach Formal Attire

The venue sets the tone for how formal a wedding is, and beaches tend to be more casual. If they are still looking for "formal" that means a longer sundress or a light summer suit. If you're on the beach, I think sandals are fine (heals and sand do NOT mix). Just remember to bring a fancy sun hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen. A beach wedding means lots of sun!

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Semi Formal or Dressy Causal Attire

This is where it gets a little tricky. Dressy casual makes me think of Sunday picnic. You would be fine wearing a sundress, a suite without a jacket or tie - something a light and fun.

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Causal or Daytime Attire

While causal can mean "anything goes," if it's a wedding please do not go TOO casual. A nice top and nice pants or skirt would be great. Think back to your first day of school. You wanted to wear your nicest outfit without wearing something overly formal. That cute new blouse and sandals would be great.

No jeans at all - but DEFINITELY no ripped jeans!
What to Never Ever Wear

No matter how "common sense" the following may seem, I always see someone break them. Regardless of how fancy the wedding, there is a list of things you should never wear.

  • White Dress - this for the bride only

  • Jeans - weddings are neither the time nor the place for jeans

  • Anything super flashy - the rule of thumb: do not upstage the bride or groom

  • Sweats - we are not hanging out on your couch, so please do not wear sweat pants/shirt

When in doubt, go a little dressier but conservative. As long as you give the fashion spotlight to the couple, most people won't notice what you're wearing anyways.

*Note - back in the day it was considered rude to wear black at a wedding. I'm talking back in the 50's back in the day. Now a days many people wear black at weddings because it's classy and everyone looks good in black. So I say break out that cute cocktail dress and wear it!


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