Reader Request: Wedding Wear

Wedding guest attire: What to wear and where to shop

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Kate K popped this into the Suggestion Box:

I am at that age where everyone I know is getting married and so thus, I go to about four or five (or six or seven!) weddings a year. I have no problem dressing myself in every other arena of my life but when it comes to weddings, I’m stumped. I have no idea what fabrics are appropriately dressy enough or if I need take time of the wedding into consideration, and I always look back on what I wore and wish I’d worn something else. I’d love some tips on wedding wear!

So most of my thoughts on wedding guest attire can be found here, in a post about dressing for emotionally significant events. I get a LOT of questions about what to wear as a wedding guest, and find it challenging to generalize. Weddings take place across seasons, at varying levels of dressiness, and across regions that may have culturally specific dressing expectations. And, of course, each individual wedding guest has a personal style, fit and figure flattery concerns, and a specific set of resources at her disposal. I don’t feel like I (or anyone) can create a single set of rules that will work for all guests at all weddings, so I’ve put off writing about this topic for ages. I’m happy to share my own guidelines, but here are some additional factors to consider and actions to take:

  • Ask someone close to the bridal party: Most invitations include some mention of dress code, but if the phrasing is vague, contact someone associated with the bridal party. Bridesmaid, brother of the groom, mother of the bride … anyone who might know a bit more about the decor, bridal party attire, and general feel of the event. If you’re going to do this, do it EARLY. The closer to the wedding date, the less likely you are to receive a helpful (or civil) reply. But reaching out months in advance should work.
  • Err on the dressy side: If you’re concerned about the opinions of others, my guess is that fewer folks will frown upon an overdressed guest than an underdressed one. (Unless it’s a Jimmy Buffet-themed, Hawaiian shirt extravaganza.) Floor-length gowns will be overkill in most situations, but classic dresses are nearly always appropriate.
  • Be aware of the timeline and activities: If you’re attending full Catholic mass, a pre-reception happy hour, dinner, and dancing you’re gonna need a comfortable outfit and forgiving shoes. (Or a change of shoes.) If it’s a beach ceremony, come prepared with sunscreen and removable footwear. Again, most wedding parties will want you to be prepared, so you’ll get this info well in advance and can plan accordingly.

Now, here are my reluctant generalizations:

When in doubt, wear jewel tones

Nearly everyone can find a jewel tone that flatters her skin and hair, and these rich-yet-subdued shades are ideal for broadcasting respect and sophistication.

Simple hair, makeup, and accessories

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to evening soirees or anything that specifies black tie. But for a typical day wedding, keeping your grooming and adornments clean and classic will help further the goal of broadcasting honor and respect for the bride, groom, and families.

Classic attire, elegant accessories

Don’t feel obliged to purchase a new dress or outfit for every wedding! A classic sheath, shift, or fit-and-flare dress in a solid color can create the perfect backdrop for a simple belt, eye-catching necklace, and chic pair of shoes. A silk blouse and clean-cut slacks paired with sleek heels or flats and a few sparkly jewels will create an elegant ensemble.

I generally point folks to the following three sources for wedding guest dresses:

  • J.Crew’s Wedding Section – meant for brides and bridesmaids, but the bridesmaid dresses are all so simple and chic they’ll work beautifully for wedding guest attire. And holiday parties, birthdays, and just about any dressier-than-officewear occasion.
  • eShakti – simple dresses that can be customized, and all available in sizes 0 – 36W.
  • – selection is a bit flashier, but also includes more floor-length and unusual options
  • Igigi – edressme has a few plus options, but J.Crew has none. Igigi is my favorite source for elegant plus-sized dresses and evening wear.
  • Talbots Occasion – separates and dresses for a variety of styles and body types

Again, all this goes right out the window for weddings in exotic locales, themed weddings, black-tie, super casual, and loads of other specific styles of events. Your true best bet is to head back to bullet point number one and talk to someone directly involved with planning the wedding to get a feel for what would work best for a guest. But, barring that, some of these ideas and guidelines may be helpful.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

Originally posted 2013-02-19 06:25:25.

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24 Responses to “Reader Request: Wedding Wear”

  1. Bree Bronson

    Taken specific themes into consideration I aim at choosing something to wear that I’m comfortable in and that makes me feel good. My party mood is always heaps better in clothes that I feel great wearing.

  2. LK

    I’d also add to find out what people in your neck of the woods usually wear to weddings. For instance, in Iowa, I have seen people come in shorts and polos, beachy sundresses etc so every time I wear a Calvin Klein dress I look overdressed. I ended up at Dress Barn for the last one. Go to Chicago however and I’m underdressed in Calvin Klein with some women in black formals and cocktail dresses. Though I do always ere on the side of dressy, as its safer. Go to NY and you’ll be dressing like you’re going to the Oscars in some cases. Its all so confusing and many forget to suggest attire on the invitation.

  3. SusanInBoston

    Buy one elegant and understated dress that you really love and swap out the accessories. I don’t regard with any enthusiasm invitations to themed events that require me to purchase something I’d never want to own or have any other occasion that would require them, but I’m willing to wear a lei with my beloved emerald sheath to a tropical affair or replace it with a “jewel” encrusted belt or add a bolero for the evening.

    If you don’t have time or patience for the research, you could fill a bag with
    some accessory options and build your look as the guests arrive 😉

  4. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I agree it’s better to err on the side of over-dressed, but classic. I have a pale gray Calvin Klein sheath dress that would work at most weddings save the fanciest ones. With some sparkly jewelry and painful shoes (I kid!) I’m good.

  5. Colleen

    I think it’s also worth a shot to try to thrift formal wear. I have at least 3 formal gowns I got at thrift stores, one of which was clearly a custom tailored bridesmaids dress in a past life (but a very classic one, not cheesy). I paid about $20 for each of them and they can be dressed up from semiformal to black tie.

    • Eleanorjane

      Also, sales! I find that formal dresses tend to go on very good sale (like half price or less). I’d never spend masses of money on a dress I’m hardly going to wear, but I do like a lovely dress at a good price.

      • LK

        I get all my semi-formal/wedding attire from TJ Maxx usually. No sense in spending crazy money.

  6. sabend

    I often ask a handful of other women what they’ll be wearing, and as Sal suggested, I err on the side of overdressed. I also tend to choose dresses that are more casual, and then dress them up with accessories, and I let my shoe choice set the tone for what style I’m going for.

    I’d also like to emphasize to brides and grooms: DO NOT assume that people will know what to wear to your wedding! No matter how typical or traditional you think your wedding will be, people will be unsure of what to wear; I highly recommend having a wedding website with a FAQ section. If you’re having an offbeat or otherwise non-traditional wedding, folks are going to be even more confused about what to wear, and so you will need to share more information and suggestions.

    • Katie

      Agreed on the FAQ!
      We put a suggested/requested level of attire on the invites and because we had a certain type of dancing at our wedding even had a bit on the website beyond clothing on appropriate footwear (we did not want anyone to end up with knees like mine because of our wedding).

      Now one of the groomsmen is now getting married and we’re clueless, not only for me, but for DH. It’s a midday wedding, at a nice location, the invites were pretty casual (not sure if that was intentional), and the weather is going to be a guessing game since it’s spring in southern Texas.

  7. Sonja

    Some good ideas here! I don’t attend many weddings, but last year we were invited to the wedding of my boyfriend’s cousin. Both she and her husband are really active and sporty types. This and the fact that we were invited by email, not by mail, let me to believe that it was going to be a real casual thing. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It was a huge event with many elegantly dressed woman and a bride in white. I would never have guessed! I wore something that was totally appropriate, black pants, a nice blouse and black pumps. But if I had known, I would have loved to wear a dress. I just did not want to be overdressed, and it had not occured to me to ask.
    So I really second Sals suggestion to inform yourself!

  8. Laura (dusty_rose)

    A few other good resources for plus size dresses and evening wear:

    -Queen Grace–like Igigi, it’s pretty pricy, but they have some gorgeous stuff!)
    -Sealed With a Kiss–I have their Kara lace dress and absolutely love it.
    -ASOS Curve
    -Simply Be
    -Yours Clothing
    -New Look’s plus size line–right now, I’m totally coveting this dress, which would be great for weddings.

    • Meg

      Major agreement on the Kiyonna recommendation! They lean heavily on the wrap dress shape formula but have some other great options too especially now that they’ve gotten more popular. I wore a Kiyonna dress to my brother’s wedding and one of the gorgeous lace numbers to a cousin’s ‘black tie optional’ wedding and felt beautiful and confidant at both.

  9. Kari Serenity

    Good post, but asking what to wear months in advance seems like overkill to me. I feel like a couple of weeks should be fine.

    • Trystan (the CorpGoth)

      A few weeks before the wedding is when all those involved with the wedding will be a crazy wreck with last-minute details — they will be far less likely to respond to 100 guest emails about what to wear. Please give the mother of the bride, bridesmaids, bride, etc. a break!

      Also, if they do reply & say “formal wear” but you don’t have that, you’ll only have a few weeks to scramble & find appropriate clothes. Which will leave you will less selection (fewer colors, sizes) & probably more expensive options.

  10. Andrea

    Kari – and others with the same perspective – please don’t ask the bride what to wear a couple of weeks before the wedding (someone in the wedding party would be fine to ask). It’s stressful to plan an event with a lot of moving parts and those last few weeks are often chaotic. I couldn’t believe the kind of calls I was getting the day of the rehearsal when I was running around getting everything set up (like requests for directions, which were on the website).

  11. Kate

    I am the most awkward person to ask others what to wear, but I’m going to have to suck it up for the wedding I’m attending (August, in a temperate rainforest, chances of mud are high). The one time I didn’t err on the side of dressier was at my (ex) sister in laws wedding when I listened to my ex-husband on what to wear. I was so embarrassed when I showed up in Khakis and everyone else was wearing dresses.

  12. Jackie

    I would recommend also, in a broad stereotypical way, not asking men unless you know they will have the scoop. My husband asked his friend (the groom) what we should wear to the rehearsal dinner, and he said “business casual,” so I wore nice pants and a sweater. Of course, all the other women there were wearing lovely dresses, and of course, we had traveled to get there so I was limited in my choices I knew then that what I had brought for the wedding wouldn’t be near dressy enough, so another guest and I panicked together and went to buy dresses the next morning, for the wedding in the evening. Never again!

  13. Laura (dusty_rose)

    I thought of a few more good places to check out for plus-size eveningwear:

    For Her and Him has gorgeous bridesmaids dresses that would work equally well for guests, and they do custom sizing.

    eShakti also has custom sizing, in addition to carrying sizes 0-36.

    Chic Star has some really cute retro dresses that would be perfect for more offbeat weddings.

    I’ve also had surprisingly good luck with Dress Barn. I’ve never actually bought directly from them, but I got one of their dresses at a consignment store. It fit so well that I decided to look on eBay for other dresses in the same brand and size, and found–for $13!–this amazing dress, which I’ve worn to multiple weddings.

    • Andrea

      I wrote about this topic last year on my blog when I was not only invited to a wedding, but asked to participate by being the church greeter. I’d originally commissioned a dress from a seamstress on Etsy, but 4 weeks before the wedding, she said she hadn’t started it yet! She knew the deadline and had the order for well over 7 months. Argh! I was beyond pissed off. At the last minute I found an amazing dress at Dress Barn Outlet, on clearance, for about $30. I was shocked and super pleased. I had the attached crinoline removed, and I wore my own petticoat.

      • LK

        My one girlfriend exclusively gets everything from Lane Bryant or Torrid. Torrid has surprisingly nice stuff. Torrid’s dresses are adorable and well made. But kind of expensive and young (I’d say under 35). But they do have sheaths that can work for everyone sometimes.

  14. Molly

    On bridesmaid dresses as guest attire: I actually wore a light green Ann Taylor bridesmaid dress (I’d been in that wedding) to a wedding a few weeks later, only to find that the wedding colors were similar, which meant people kept mistaking me for a bridesmaid or joking about it. If you don’t want to draw that kind of attention, I’d own a versatile dress with a pattern or color blocking or other non-monochrome variation, or have a couple options and make sure you know the wedding colors before choosing from them.

    On erring on the side of formal: My cousin-in-law’s wedding invitations emphasized “fun,” “funky,” and “colorful” guest attire. We and a few others showed up underdressed or off the mark, because it turns out that the bride and groom and their Ivy-League, MBA-earning friends interpreted funky and colorful to mean fairly conservative, with a bright satin tie or square-toed shoes. In the future, I’d either make sure I know the couple well enough to go full-on funky, or go with a standard cocktail dress and add some fun accessories.

  15. Ruth

    I went to a wedding where the bride had a gorgeous dress (naturally) but also a pair of ivory wellingtons to change into for the reception. Yes the field where it was held was THAT muddy. Would have been nice to have warning about that. Not something you would think to ask ‘Do I need to wear wellington boots?’ Can’t remember what footwear I was wearing – I think just a pair of flat sandals – but definitely unsuitable. And it was freezing – it was August in England. We went to the supermarket to buy some food to take to the party. We were in flimsy dresses and little wraps, everyone else shopping in jeans and fleeces and big boots!

  16. Kate K

    This was my question! After posing this question, I realized that for the number of weddings I attended and the amount of stress I put on myself while dressing for every event, I needed to figure out some answers.

    For me, this meant lots of looking back and analyzing previous wedding fashion choices. I found that I was always trying to dress like a wedding guest i.e. dresses that seemed like you would wear when you were going to a wedding: form fitting bandage dresses, a satiny strapless number, etc. The effect? I spend the evening feeling uncomfortable and out of my fashion element. I looked back on pictures and thought “That doesn’t look like me at all.” And then I would never wear those dresses again, which meant I was constantly shopping for new dresses and putting myself through that stress.

    Last summer, I had six weddings to attend and I tried to focus on either wearing dresses I had from previous events that I loved and felt comfortable wearing (like a New Years eve dress) or buying simple dresses that felt like me and that were flattering and then dressing them up with the appropriate accessories. (Many of which I already owned!) Everything is much less stressful now 🙂

    • Kate K

      Also, I have a wedding next month in my home state of Wisconsin and following my new wedding style philosophy, I bought this dress from Kiyonna:

      It fits like a dream, it’s flattering and comfortable, and I can dress it up with a great statement necklace, a pair of sparkly heels and a cute clutch. But, I also know that I’ll wear it again for a variety of occasions.