Advice From My Mom On How To Write A Wedding Invitation Dress Code

If what to wear to a wedding is one of the most asked questions of social dressing, what can you, the bride, or you, the bride’s mother, do to help find an answer?

Let us consider. As in any analysis, one most understand the first principle. And the first principle of etiquette is to make people comfortable. People, in this instance, including you, the groom, your family, and the rest of the guests. The difficult part being, you may want everyone to show up dressed a certain way, and they may not have the background or temperament to support, or even understand, your vision.

So how do you get close to what you’d like, without bossing everyone around? Because, in the end, although you might wind up with the wedding that looks the way you dreamed, guests in just the right outfits, you don’t want to get there via rudeness.

In all honesty, this question was too advanced for me. So I went to the Master Of All Things Good Looking And Appropriate. I asked my mother. Here are the Rules Of Wedding Invitation Dress Codes, According To LPC’s Mother.

What You Cannot Say

  • You cannot tell people what NOT to wear. No fair saying, No Jeans, or No Polyester, or No Mohawks.

What You Should Think Twice About Saying

  • Dress “Phoenix Festive,” or any other culturally bound or ambiguous concept. The only exception here is, given what I’ve seen, you can use Something Or Other Black Tie. Cowboy Black Tie, for example. Creative Black TIe. If you must. The locution is now well understood across enough societal sub-groups that you risk only mild grumbling at the usage. You have to be capable of defining “Creative” as broadly as the human spectrum is wide, however. And, when you use these kinds of codes, please pay attention to the full message your invitation delivers. It’s tough to make sense of a Rock and Roll BBQ in the garden. With straw hats.

What You Should Say

  • Use the standard dress code wording, i.e., White Tie, Black Tie, Cocktail Attire, Casual. This should be visible on the lower right hand of the invitation. I don’t care for the terms Formal, or Semi-Formal, as they are both less descriptive and reminiscent of high school dances.
  • Augment guests’ understanding of your vision via details of the location. In other words, if you have a reception card, note whether the venue is a garden, a ballroom, a loft, a restaurant. People aren’t dumb. They will triangulate Cocktail Attire and Garden, and arrive in something festive but more floral than were your reception in a Chicago warehouse space converted for making art and drinking whiskey. You can also put venue details on a map, if one is included with the invitation.
  • Use your wedding website, if you have such a thing, to further communicate the spirit you’re envisioning. With delicacy.
  • Use the design of your invitations to reinforce the aesthetic and resultant dress code, i.e. if you are having a straight-up, classic, formal wedding, send black on cream invites. If you want a more oxymoronic wedding, i.e. a wild rave in black tie, you could bend the formal invite format, classic type font and all,  by printing pale blue on oxblood red. The medium is the message, and all that.

I did check with the standard sources, by the way, only to confirm that they had not addressed the question in detail.

The Wedding Channel says,

When you must make a note of dress code, etiquette dictates a few rules. Include the dress code on the reception invitation in the lower right-hand corner (it should not go on an invite with ceremony information). And be simple about it. Just write “black-tie” or “black-tie invited” so there’s no confusion.

Martha Stewart says,

If you want to stress the importance of the style of dress — black tie, for instance, or casual attire — place that information in the lower right corner, or on the reception card.

Since Martha is more permissive as to dress code placement, we’ll go with her. Also, you know, she’s Martha. You can also take a look at The Knot’s advice, or Ask Bronny. I didn’t find anything via search at A Practical Wedding, but you should always feel free to email Meg and Alyssa and Lauren at APW and see what they, and the wonderful community, think there. On Offbeat Bride, there is this story detailing exactly the pitfalls we’re discussing here.

But finally, and most importantly, this snippet of dialogue between my mother and myself.

Me: So, mom, let’s say someone is throwing a wedding, and they don’t want people to come in jeans, they can’t say that, right?
Mom: No.
Me: Because that would be rude.
Mom: That would be rude.
Me: But what if they don’t want the wedding to be stuffy either?
Mom: (with alacritude) Then don’t invite stuffy people.
Me: (peals of laughter) Mom, oh, Mom. Mom.

And there you have it.

Invitation from Cactus and Quail
Reception card from
Dempsey and Carroll, edited to add the dress code line
Redonkulous invite, my fevered imagination. Pay no never mind.

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  • Oh, I love your Mama, too! Love, love, love.

  • This posting is so important! A lot of porcellain can be broken before the wedding even started. At my sisters wedding, people were invited to come with hats. Her friends loved to borrow hats from costume-shops. Tru divas! Unfortunately, some misunderstood the invitation and thought a hat was obligatory. As a result those friends were upset and the invitation caused further damage to some friendships. I call your today’s posting a friendship-saver.

  • Great post, but more importantly, did you find the right shoes to wear to your brother’s wedding?

  • Sometimes I read this, and I think being a WASP is hard. I would welcome someone telling me “no jeans” if they were inviting me to a “creative” dress code wedding. I mean, I’m creative! The span of potential dress is VERY WIDE. Guidance would be appreciated.

  • OK well I guess we now know where you get your writing and research skills, practical sense of appropriateness and willing adaptation to new forms of communication (ie – technology). In this case mothers do know best!!

    12:42 pm
    Danielle said...

    Agreed! What a smart, sophisticated mom!

  • I’ve heard horror stories from friends who’ve received invitations with “interesting” attire instructions and themes. Luckily, I’ve not come across this. When I was planning my own wedding I was often asked, “What’s the theme????”. My response was always the same…”Our theme is ‘marraige'”. I mean seriously? I was planning a Barbie theme, but them I remembered I was getting married not turning 7.

  • My mom wouldn’t let me put “no polyester pantsuits” on my invitations ;-)

  • Our son got married 4 years ago … the invites indicated nothing about attire…

    It was a casual summer garden wedding, dinner under marquis tents and a dance in a covered tea house later…

    no one wore jeans…

    the most casual was a white polo shirt and khaki’s (male)
    and a strappy low cut skimpy floral dress (female)

    Everyone seemed to have a great time…especially the bride and groom.
    I guess we invited savvy guests :)

  • Best post ever! Lately I am getting invites with no attire info at all or made up crazy terms that only have meaning to the bride.

  • Awesome post – everyone needs to read this!

  • Please thank your mom for me! This helps tremendously.

    Also, loved the line about not inviting stuffy people. If only it was that easy to not invite my grandma. Oh well.

  • If anyone is willing to let their wedding be a social experiment, perhaps different tables could receive different styles of invites, and the bride, who would have nothing better to do, would evaluate the effect of the design and wording on the attire chosen. Everyone should be comfortable at their own table, if nowhere else. Bags I sit at the stuffy table and talk stuffy talk with all the stuffy people. I’m reading up on stuffy subjects even as I type.

  • Similar to Hostess’ successful garden wedding, we held our daughter and SIL’s wedding reception here at our beach home seven years ago. Despite no reference to dress code on the invitations, guests all drew reasonable inferences about the venue and showed up in shirts with ties (albeit soon yanked off and tucked in a jacket pocket) and pretty summer dresses. Many did change later to wander down to the beach or to sit on the deck stairs talking and laughing ’til the wee hours. But they did all know enough and care enough to honour the newlyweds by dressing up. Like Hostess, I guess we invited the right guests.
    Another daughter is getting married this spring, and the different location will dictate a slightly more formal dress, but it’s a tiny guest list (30) and any concerns can easily be addressed by word of mouth.
    We’ve been offended, in the past, by invitations to weddings at golf/country clubs which include references to the club’s code, forbidding any denim, along with several other no-gos. I’m with your mom, and would really resent being put in a position where I had to warn my guests against forbidden attire. (and although I wouldn’t consider wearing denim to a wedding, I know many young women who consider their denim jackets the perfect foil to the sweetness of a pretty summer dress)

    I’ll pass your good advice along to my daughter, although we’re unlikely to need it for this wedding. Beyond the specifics re dress, there’s a lovely attitude about weddings that you convey here. And about the relationship between you and your mom . . .

  • Ha! Your mom is great. My mother grumbled recently when she received an invitation instructing guests to wear white or black only, but that was the aesthetic that the bride wanted.

  • I got invited to a white wedding once. I asked the bride about it (was it a Billy Idol themed wedding?) and she said people could wear whatever they wanted to the ceremony, but must wear white to the reception. That was way too much effort for me and I look crap in white, so I declined.

    I find many of my friends feel they must go to every wedding no matter the cost and often complain about it. I always point out that it is ok to decline, but then they look at me like I sprouted a horn.

    Young people today.

  • I was under the impression the TIME of wedding usually set the dictate on dress. But I haven’t been to a wedding in such a long time, I really am out of the loop on this. I do wonder though, why the wedding party would really CARE or WORRY what others will be donning…don’t they have so much more to worry about already,like what THEY will be wearing? At my son’s wedding, the wedding party was very formal, but I think the ones in jeans at the reception were probably having much more fun than the guests in suits!
    I personally think it inappropriate to wear jeans to a wedding, but my cowboy husband and son and their friends seem to have a completely different opinion!
    I think worrying less about the “Look” of the guests and concentrating more on the happiness or fun that said guests are having should be the number one priority…at any party.

  • We went a little crazy, because we actually included a card and a trinket to incorporate into the guest’s dress, with the words:

    “the enclosed object is one of the only remaining pieces of evidence from the new brighton hill picnic of 1927. local legend maintains that the party disappeared, only to be discovered in a disoriented and revelatory state on the same plot of land weeks later. when questioned, members of the group said that ‘no time had passed at all’ and seemed quite surprised that anyone had come looking for them. ‘we were just having a grand picnic,’ said one.

    please incorporate it into your attire as we return to the site.”

    Really only useful for more theme-y weddings, but it totally worked – everyone matched and looked gorgeous! & there was zero grumbling.

  • Agree with Princess Freckles. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Did you know one can buy Cinderella-themed wedding invitations? Seven-years-old indeed!!

  • We skipped attire instructions on our invitations, but did include them on the wedding website. I tried to be cheeky, which worked in one case but not the other.

    Worked: for the Welcome Cookout on the beach the night before the wedding – “wear your best flip flops”

    Didn’t work: for the wedding itself – “beachy cocktail attire.” We got sooo many questions about that. I was trying to say that yes, you should dress up, but it’s the beach, so it’s understood that everyone will be more casual than a traditional wedding. Oops.

  • Materfamilias does raise the interesting question of a dress code dictated by a private club or venue. Guests who do not usually frequent those places need some sort of “heads up” that the venue has rules, yet reprinting the club’s dress code on the invitation won’t work.

  • I love your mom’s comment. Too funny!

  • I think I would just invite your mom and let her wear whatever she wants, because I’m sure it would be perfect!

  • Love your mum, love you and I think you’re at your finest when you’re breaking down each fiber of the nuances at hand. Keep it up, pretty please! And you’re tagged at QBS, btw :)


  • What wedding guests are suppose to wear to my son’s uncoming summer wedding never entered my mind. Heck I don’t even know what I am going to wear…lol. To be perfectly honest I don’t think my son could care less what any of the guests wear let alone me but his fiance may well care. Your mom made me smile. :)

  • So important! Thank you for the post. I am planning a black on ecru invite, with script so I hope that will be enough. Otherwise, I will insert “Black Tie” on the reception card.

  • Your mum rocks, Lisa!!

    SSG xxx

    Sydney Shop Girl blog

  • I agree with you and your mother, but what to do when the wedding is multicultural? In our case it was Finnish and Dutch (and in 4 languages). As you probably are aware of, Dutch people don’t really dress up that much. What they’d wear to a wedding is about what an American would wear to an office at a Casual Friday. Finnish people (especially in cities) wear sundresses, cocktail dresses, and the men always suits and most often ties (black tie only in winter/evening weddings, and very rarely).

    So what do you do when you fear half of your guests will be foreign to the culture and underdressed, and you can’t write “no jeans” on the invite? You see our dilemma… We emphasized both in person and on the website to our Dutch guests that this is one occasion when they are allowed to dress up, let their hair down and even wear hats. Well… there were no jeans but there was a lot of Casual Friday going on… it was still pretty clear who was Dutch and who was not. Fortunately everybody had a blast.

  • Trust your guest, friends and relatives to know what to wear. Embrace the creativity of those who don’t. As a bride, groom or family (read: mother of bride) don’t get your feathers ruffled if the guests don’t dress in the spirit of the wedding. After all, isn’t the spirit of all weddings love and fun?


  • Oh, the conversation with your mother made me laugh outloud. This post has already been forwarded via Facebook to my “creative” daughter. Wedding in a Rose Garden, reception in a refurbished silent movie theatre. Live band…

  • Your mother is fabulous, as are you. I am not a WASP, high or otherwise, but her advice is crystal clear and very sensible.

  • Love your Mom!! She’s total class!
    Is it still forbidden for guests to wear white?
    Thank you! XO Candy

  • Love this. In my neck of the woods, everyone overdresses (evening gowns at noon) so how to dress is not as much of an issue as starting the wedding on time. It goes so far to one have one set of invitations printed for the demographic that is known to be on time and another for the group that is always late.

  • Your Mama is a wise lady; unfortunately, she has not met all the people who showed up at my eldest daughter’s wedding. Their biggest mistake was that many of their guests could not triangulate venue and dress code if they were given a protractor with their invitation. The next biggest mistake was that they used a dress code that is completely meaningless to almost everyone at this point: Business Casual. The venue was a tent at a vineyard, on a Sunday afternoon. The guests showed up in everything from teeshirts (and I do mean teeshirts) and blue jeans to my own sister showing up in a black pants suit. The amount of black, actually, was enough to interpret the event as being a funeral.

  • Many moons ago I thought the real engraving and formal traditional wedding invitations would communicate the dress code. The wedding party wore black tie, the guests wore suits (or the female equivalent), but one guy came in a polo shirt. At the time I was mildly irritated, but now I see his photo and think “Ah Caltech, they are so clueless sometimes.”

  • I think most people appreciate guidance in wedding attire. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a bride-to-be verbally give the wrong clues as to dress; I am sure she regretted it later.

  • I’ve never been confused about what to wear to a wedding but I can’t ever imagine wearing jeans even to the most casual wedding…not in a million years. Usually time and locale of the wedding/reception is enough of a clue. I think if it was white tie it might give me pause, but other than that it is just one of those things you learn somewhere along the line…must be the WASP in me.

    3:00 am
    DocP said...

    Kris, I think the problem is that everyone thinks they know what is appropriate to wear to a wedding – it is just that their notion of appropriate may be radically different from yours or mine.


    And also no completely incomprehensible directions like “SHARP.” I got one with “sharp” as the dress code and not a damn one of us knew what they meant. I took a swing at it and wore a bright pink cap-sleeved cocktail dress, and it was fine. But the groom wore seersucker, and had I known that, I certainly could have come closer to “SHARP”!


  • TBS – If you ever come out to Southern California, let’s you, me, and Mama go for lunch. It’d be so much fun.

    Paula – I love that phrase, porcelain can be broken. Your sister’s hat story is exactly the point, and there was no malice anywhere, just misunderstandings.

    kathy – ha! I have been looking, casually, online, but I have to wait for the spring shoes to hit the stores here.

    fruitbat – then you are the sort of guest we all treasure. As for being a WASP, is it hard? This social coding around clothes is definitely the area we worry to death:). I hope by providing the analysis, you all can decide if any of the nuances are worth paying attention to.

    Quintessence – :)!

    Danielle – Thank you. She is that.

  • Princess – I confess. I’ve never understood having a ‘theme’ for a wedding. Since weddings are themselves, themes. As you say. Also Barbie. Bwahahahaha.

    Mom on the Run – ;). Moms are good, huh?

    Hostess – When you have a shared community, or the families have met, or the location and time makes dress very clear, none of this matters. Nor does a good dress code guarantee a good time, or the lack of one prevent it:).

    Preppy Pink Crocodile – Yes, this is proliferating. I think that’s why I got the request for the post. And why I had to ask mom:).

    Wendy – Oh thank you so much.

    Ms. Bunny – Grandmas get a bye on all this. They are sui generis:). Thanks for the request.

  • Mise – Do please send the stuffy inspiration board:). And the stuffy script.

    Mater – Exactly. Your island house set the stage so well, no need to add any words. And the wedding sounds wonderful. Iconic, almost. Tiny guest lists also rarely require dress codes – they are Rosetta Stones to translate, not dictates from on high. Oh, and I love a denim jacket with a sundress. Even to a wedding, in the right circumstances, on the beautiful young.

    The Cape House – I’d grumble too. I mean, are we props? But, as I am sure your mother did, I’d grumble privately and try to show up with a big smile on my face and dancing shoes on my feet.

    Emmaleigh – Ha! You should have showed up with a horn. And a Billy Idol do:). No. Really. Your way was better. Young people of every era…

    Deb u naunt – The time of the wedding does, in the traditional codes, set the dress. But people want more flexibility these days. And of course we might think that the look is less important, but for some, the highly visual in particular, it matters. I try not to judge the motive, only offer advice to make it work in the best way possible for as many people as possible. It’s a big world. And I think a cowboy husband and son probably make weddings really fun:).

    Tamera – That is a wonderful, advanced way of communicating. It was inspirational, but not judgmental – however they showed up would be OK. No failure possible.

  • Sewing – I know. And there are Disney wedding packages. I just try to imagine that there are many ways to put oneself together that I will not understand.

    Maggie – Your wedding was so gorgeously put together. I think the first wording worked because it was so concrete. We can all answer the question, what are our best flip flops:). But beach varies, from Big Sur, to the Hamptons, to Miami Beach. Also people have more concern about dressing with respect, at the wedding itself. I believe that everyone got their questions answered well, and had a good time. I saw those photos:).

    DocP – Yes. That would pose a whole different problem, I agree.

    Stephanie – Thank you:). I was laughing really hard.

    Lori – Ha! She’s a great guest, my mom.

    QBS – Oh thank you, for the tag, and for the encouragement.

  • Worthy – You can also write, Black Tie Requested, and then people will get as close to it as they can.

    SSG – Thank you!

    Anna – If it didn’t bother you, and your Swedish relatives were prepared, then all was well. As you say, everybody had a blast. I don’t think the goal is to get everyone to be the same, only to get everyone to be comfortable with whatever happens.

    Stacy – Yes, I agree, but we all have secret desires that we can’t always manage. So better a graceful, planned, degradation of the ideal, than an attempt to be perfect and a subsequent explosion:). IMHO.

    Terri – I bet your daughter’s wedding will be just lovely.

    Marieanne – Thank you. The more the advice is useful to everyone the better I feel.

    Candy – I will answer for my mom in this case. It’s not forbidden, but it’s not good form. And there are so many others colors, why do it?

  • Gablesgirl – Bwahahaha. The concept of different “times” is a very real one.

    Toby – I can only wonder, why would anyone want the word Business anywhere their wedding? My guess is that people had trouble triangulating Business with Wedding. And if these were tech folks, well, unless you hard code that invite who knows what they will wear:)/

    mathmom – Ha! Hi! and yes, the thought of Caltech people trying to parse a non-determinate instruction set is pretty amusing. Adorable, even.

    The Devoted Classicist – Yes, I think people appreciate guidance, but don’t like to be ordered about. Much like life:).

    Kris – I think High WASPs learn it along the way because it is so freighted in our culture. That’s why I’m running all this down here, in case it’s of use to other cultures with other priorities.

    Mouse – I remember that. Sharp, I believe, is supposed to have a Jazz Age connotation. But it’s pretty dang obscure. And hence confusing.

  • LOVE this! forwarding on to my mother, the only person i know who is more concerned with invitation wording than i am!

    4:05 pm
    Lisa said...

    Thank you! Looking forward to seeing all your wedding details!

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