What to wear to a wedding

| On
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

For some reason, weddings make me overthink my outfits. I think it's the feeling of someone else's judgmental aunt sizing me up in front of the shrimp platter that leads to self-doubt and paranoia over dress code references on invitations. It shouldn't be that way, but it's part of the wedding tradition, right up there with picking China patterns and listening to the maid of honor talk about the couple-in-question as if no one in the room has ever experienced love before.

Over the past several years, I've been to enough weddings to realize that there are some basic formulas to hitting the dress code expectations while still being true to your own style. I've also realized there are really only three types of wedding dress codes, or three "levels" of dressiness with the most stringent being black tie, then formal, and finally cocktail which I designate as "anywhere you would have a cocktail" which could include anything from a boat to a tailgate. 

Here are the formulas that I've employed in dressing for each of those levels of wedding dressiness this year using things already in my closet.

#1 What to wear to a black tie wedding

The above photo is what I wore to my friend Alyssa's black tie wedding in NYC. It's a simple black ballgown skirt with a silk / cotton blend blouse and nude heels, a combination that I landed on by considering the question "What would Jenna Lyons wear?" while perusing my closet. 

Jenna would not wear Rent the Runway. Instead, she would wear something undeniably fancy, with an unexpectedly understated piece, in simple colors. Black tie doesn't necessitate a gown or a full-length skirt, but it does require a key element of your outfit to be fancy enough to not be upstaged by your date's cumber bun. What, might you ask, are pieces that compete with cumber buns? Think ball gown skirts, feathered dresses, beaded blouses, tailored tuxedo pants, and anything taffeta. If you've got that key piece, the other elements can be simple and even unexpected to keep the look true to your style. 

#2 What to wear to a formal wedding

This is my favorite type of wedding dress code, because it still requires you to be fancy but with less stringent guidelines than black tie. Meaning, it's more fun! With a formal dress code, I can find ways to make my cage heels appropriate such as pairing them with a vintage red silk dress I picked up for $10 at my local Logan Square thrift store (there used to be a gold metal seashell sewn on the bodice, and chopping it off with a pair of nail scissors was the only "tailoring" necessary). 

When dressing for a formal wedding, I think of what fabulous people wear to an art gallery opening and dress accordingly. You want to look classy, with a twist. Look for items that keep your shoulders or knees covered, and add spice with accessories.

#3 What to wear to a cocktail wedding

A cocktail dress code is more casual, and the perfect opportunity to wear a matchy-matchy silk pantsuit like the one below. Or, that amazing embroidered pencil skirt that's been sitting in the back of your closet for four years because you're not sure how to style it. Or, that basic little black dress you've had forever with a pair of bold shoes. Shorter hemlines, bare shoulders, fancy flats and other indicators of comfort fair game. I like to imagine what flappers of West Egg wore to Gatsby's parties and dress accordingly.

I think the most difficult variations on these three levels of wedding attire are seasonal: what to wear to a black tie wedding in winter is a harder question (with the answer always including "add a fur stole"), as are the variations tied to the odd disclaimers added to cocktail attire wedding invitations intended to control weird relatives (such as "no jeans" which should be obvious to all invitees but then seeds doubt in your mind as you imagine your silk pantsuit dancing to Stevie Wonder, completely out of place in a sea of bedazzled Wrangler jeans).

Any thoughts on wedding attire rules that I've missed? And tips on dressing for winter weddings? I'd love to hear your thoughts on what to wear to a wedding while still honoring your personal style.
5 comments on "What to wear to a wedding "
  1. What an interesting topic Colleen! I only wish you would upload more pictures! Really love that red dress you have, what, for $10??

    I actually only attended 2 weddings in my whole life, one is my brother's , the other is my hubby's friend's(sadly, they both divorced ) I must admit, I do not really like attending weddings or big parties. I can't really explain why, I just never like being in these situations.

    I want to share the interesting aspects of Chinese weddings. Only the bride can wear red, you most definitely can not wear black or white(they are both colors of death) Brides never used to wear white because it was a color only belongs to funeral but the western influence has changed people's opinions nowadays. and as for gifts, in old days people gave mostly very practical gifts such as pans and pots, bedding, so newly weds quite often received several sets of pans and pots; but nowadays it's almost strictly cash. And you might be amazed to know how much people give. For a distant cousin's wedding, my parents gave $300, and that's pretty standard. That's one reason bride and groom hold wedding banquet because they actually make money(from all the money they received)

    My hubby and I did not have any wedding parties, we were the only attendees plus a minister, because we both detest parties and also other more practical reasons(my parents are in China, his in Scotland and we are here)

    anyway... thank you for the topic, it's fascinating!

    1. Echo, your comments were so interesting to read! First, that the color red is meant for a bride in China and that black and white signify death. And also that you have been to just two weddings. As an Irish Catholic, I've been to more weddings than I can count! Weddings tend to be a little overblown in the US, and I think that it is common for a bride to lose perspective on what it is all about. I love that your wedding was small, private and focused. In some ways, that is so much better! But, I have to ask: were your parents disappointed to miss it? And, what did you wear?!

    2. My dear Colleen,
      Thank you so much for the reply! I hope you are doing well and enjoying your new house! Are you doing a lot of furniture shopping for your place? We frequently go to our local consignment stores and found lots of goodies.

      Thank you for being interested in my comments! Well I think my parents were a little bit disappointed but since we were far away there's not much they could do. They did suggest us to have a traditional Chinese wedding when we go back to China, but both my hubby and I were horrified of the idea, I really do not like the Chinese wedding. It's basically a big banquet, a big show, bride and groom don't really get to sit down to enjoy the food, their job is to entertain the guest, to go around the tables make toasts to people and are forced to drink too much. And since my hubby does not speak any Chinese, a Chinese wedding will be rather awkward for him haha...anyway, I had some traditional Chinese dresses QI Pao custom made before I came here, so I wore them at my wedding :-)

      Take care my dear friend. and thank you again for the lovely earrings, you are so sweet and thoughtful :)


  2. I'm a person who tends to overthink wedding attire. For a friend's daughter's wedding last year, I wore a pair of black silk pants with a black silk & lace sleeveless top. To cover my bare arms in case the AC was out of control, I took along a fitted blazer but gratefully didn't use it at all. I felt good in this very simple, yet stylish outfit. However, the getup only came to me after a two-hour ordeal that involved putting on countless variations of clothes and accessories, each leaving me more frustrated than the one before. Lesson learned: Relax, save the sequins for a New Year's Eve party, and aim for simplicity :)

    The three looks in this post are absolute perfection and I would wear all of them. In fact, I will try to recreate outfit #1 the next time I need to wear something that's special, but not too froufrou.

    1. Hey Ivanka! I love your lesson learned from your recent wedding experience. Aiming for simplicity is always a good idea (and results in better outfit choices...) As for sequins, I so agree. (And feathers.) Thanks so much for your affirmation of my wedding outfit choices, there is nothing worse than looking froufrou when you meant to be comfortable yet dressy!!!