Rules for Dresses at Weddings (not Rules for Wedding Dresses)

I was lucky enough to attend a lovely, lovely wedding yesterday. The bride and groom were glowing with happiness; their families and friends were there to support them and share their joy; and the bride chose (and wore with élan) a perfectly suitable and elegantly simple gown.

I was also pleased to see how many people were following the rules for dresses at weddings (that is, rules for the dresses that are not the Wedding Dress–the Wedding Dress has its own rules that are beyond the scope of this blog). However, seeing so many people dressed beautifully and appropriately reminded me of the many weddings I've attended where many were not, so here is a refresher for those who need it.

One: do not wear black. I can hear somebody whining that she only has one nice dress, and it NEEDS to be black because she has to wear it on New Year's Eve, and besides, black is slimming. I am not listening to you. You do not wear black to weddings. You do not wear black to weddings because wearing black at weddings means you disapprove of the marriage. You do not wear black to weddings because someday, god forbid, you might actually WANT to wear black to a wedding in order to show your disapproval and your deep grief over somebody's ill-advised nuptials, and no one will know that this is what you intended because there will be a roomful of women in LBDs dancing barefoot to "We Are Family" and your grand gesture will be for naught. MARK MY WORDS. (Besides, black is BOR-ing. And not as slimming as you might think.) Black and white prints are allowable if they would be unsuitable for a funeral.

Two: do not wear red. Wearing red is an attention-grabber, and it is rude to try to take attention from the bride. (A corollary of the "do not wear red" rule is "do not wear dresses cut down to (or slit up to) THERE".) This rule goes double for the groom's ex-girlfriends. This rule goes triple for the groom's ex-girlfriends who are there as the "and Guest" of somebody else.

Three: do I even have to tell you not to wear white? And yes, ivory, candlelight, pale shell pink, and pearl grey all count as white. Better safe than sorry. If you have to ask why you can't wear white, you are no longer allowed to attend any weddings at all. If you are the mother of the groom and you wear white or a whitish shade, you will not be allowed to ask "why? why?" when the newlyweds move someplace you need a visa to visit.

Four: if you are wearing a dress with spaghetti straps or no straps at all, or one that is far enough off the shoulder to need special undergarments, AND the ceremony is in a place of worship, please bring a shawl, a wrap, or something to cover up with. Yes, I know that God doesn't care, but churches are usually cold (it's all the stone) and goosebumps are unbecoming.

The general idea is that a wedding is NOT simply a fancy party to which you wear your fancy-party clothes; a wedding is a wedding, and it has its own rules. (However — if you are a bridesmaid, and the bride asks you to break any of these rules, you suck it up and say "yes, whatever you like, it's your day." Without eye-rolling where she can see you.)

Now I can hear that same somebody asking, "Well, what CAN I wear?" Weddings, especially summer afternoon weddings, are the place to wear dresses. A simple sheath in a bright color or print is nearly always flattering, appropriate, and pretty. An A-line or full-skirted dress will be a pleasure to wear while dancing. (I myself use nearly every wedding as an excuse to sew a new dress–if they care enough to invite me, I should make my best effort, shouldn't I?) Summer weddings are one of the last places where a frivolously pretty dress is recommended, if not required — why ruin it by crowding out the dresses with sparkly cocktail gowns and business suits? They have their own turf.

202 thoughts on “Rules for Dresses at Weddings (not Rules for Wedding Dresses)

  1. I had to laugh when reading this. It reminded me of years ago when I worked at Fleur de Paris, in New Orleans. A customer asked the owner if it was okay to wear white to a wedding. He replied, “That depends on if you like the bride.”


  2. Hi I’m worried that I am going to stand out like a sore thumb. The only dress I could find to fit me without breaking my bank acct is a royal purple dress. It’s floor length and looks nice. Planned on dressing it up with jewelry. I have white shoes to off set it some. I believe it is an inside wedding. I just found out yesterday that the brides maids are wearing lavender dresses. I’m I okay with what I have or am I going to look like a fool? Please please help with opinions. Ty


    • Hi E,

      Okay, so I’m going to give you a bit of advice based on my own upbringing. My family has been hosting and attending formal events, including weddings, for many years. I was raised on the very rules listed above, as they are standard proper wedding etiquette despite some of the less informed comments made.

      Unless the wedding is a black-tie event or the bride has specifically stated that long formal dresses are requested, you may be overdressed in a floor length gown. I would check with the bride about the length of the dress unless you have been told otherwise.

      Now, about the color … I have no doubt that you look lovely in your royal purple dress, but wearing a dress that flashy to a wedding can be viewed as a bit disrespectful to the bride. If your dress is bright and grabs the attention of the guests, then it is not appropriate. It is her day and no one should impose upon that. Obviously, it is not your intention to do that or you would not be seeking advice on this forum.

      The issue some of the people above seem to be missing is that the bride is not the only person that may find a person’s attire offensive. It could offend either set of parents or grandparents, and while it is the brides special day, you can be certain that she will NEVER live it down if one of her “friends” looks inappropriate. Not to mention, your royal purple dress will undoubtedly stand out in every single picture, which detracts from the photos.

      I understand that you are on a budget. I, too, am updating my wardrobe for an upcoming wedding where I am the aunt of the groom. Trying to find something budget-friendly, classy, understated, not white, not black, not red, not flashy, not trashy, not too young, not too old, but still makes you look and feel beautiful … is a difficult task.

      The rule of thumb is … if you have to question what you are wearing, then you should probably choose something else. However, if you are still on the fence, I would take a photo of your dress and show it to the bride or groom’s mother. They will be honest with you about its appropriateness. I understand that these rules sound very formal, but trust me … as much as some of these women would like to pretend that anything goes at wedding as long as the “guests feel comfortable and good about themselves,” … That is both naive and unrealistic. Most brides care a lot. They may not say, “Don’t wear royal purple,” but if it is not one of the wedding colors and you are not related to the wedding party, chances are, it will not be well-received.

      Ultimately, it is your choice, but now you know what others will be thinking. If you choose to wear it, then wear it with flesh-tone shoes, a matching bag, your hair up, minimal make-up and pearls. At the very least, cover your shoulders or dress with a neutral wrap during the ceremony. By doing these things, you will show respect and the people who are most likely to be offended will be appreciative of your efforts. Best of luck to you!

      P.S. While I may sound like I was born in 1922, I am 40 years old. :) These rules may seem a bit old-fashioned and some brides are casting them aside in favor of less strict adherence to etiquette. However, weddings, like funerals, are meant to show respect to the intended. Unless the gathering is specifically non-traditional, it is best to observe the standard rules. Otherwise, you will most likely be viewed as rude and disrespectful. And while noble society is not the standard today, in the case of weddings, the rules of etiquette are still heavily applied. I do hope this helps. Cheers!


  3. this year the dont wear black rule is a bit of a problem as trying to find an age approprat frock that not black in the shops is a bit a tall order.


  4. My mother-in-law wore black to my wedding, despite my request that she choose any of the wedding colors: brown or jewel tones. OUCH! Still seething/stinging from that.


  5. My niece is getting married this summer and my 20 year old daughter, who has never been to a wedding before, is quite excited. She has chosen a strapless, short, very dressy, pale pink dress and I am worried that she will get some “looks” from the somewhat sophisticated guests who will be attending. Should I discourage her from wearing the dress?


  6. I’m attending a wedding August 22. The ceremony is in a church and the reception is at a classy country club. I just bought a flattering navy blue dress with a tan belt and matching shoes. Is that appropriate for a summer wedding? I have a hard time finding dresses that aren’t too short on me and I fell in love with this dress. Any jewelry suggestions that may brighten it a bit?


  7. There are those who like black, want to wear it to weddings, and couldn’t care less about tradition or what others think of their attire. Times change and people need to stop being so “judgmental.” Others respect tradition and prefer a broad palette for wedding guest dresses since black is funereal and doesn’t reflect the happy occasion of a wedding. If you’re in this second group, it must be frustrating to see that black, and to a lesser extent red and white, have become increasingly more prevalent at weddings.

    I’ve been invited to an evening semi-formal wedding. Not knowing what to wear yet forging ahead with information gleaned from the Internet, information that indicated I wanted a cocktail dress found at such and such store, I purchased an eggplant colored sheath with 3/4 sleeves and a v-neck. Turns out the dress is more navy than eggplant, has a sexy cut and shows my cleavage. I may someday happily wear it in drunk society but I cannot wear it to a wedding celebration and dinner. So I followed that buy with the purchased of a classic red sheath, thinking “This will surely brightened me up!” But as soon as I hit the pay button I realized that I probably made another faux pas. Naturally it was only then that I stumbled onto your article. So you may be happy to know that the third dress I purchased is a lovely polyester blouson in an abstract small print of cool colors: blues, whites, gray, silver and black. It’s a beautiful and quietly cheerful dress. I know it’s suitable too. So thanks for your help, Erin. It’s nice to have guidance that’s not self-serving.


  8. I am planning my own wedding, which is in a few weeks, and I have been a Bridesmaid and also a guest in countless weddings, and I have never ever heard of the no black, or no red rule before. The no white thing unless you’re the bride is obvious and a rule I agree with, but no black or red? That’s f*ing ridiculous!! For the black “rule” of it showing disapproval of a marriage, if you don’t approve of a marriage, don’t go to that persons wedding!! And red as an eye catching color? Give me a break!! Yeah a female guest shouldn’t dress too slutty for that reason and because weddings also are family affairs, but I can tell you as a bride I do not care if other women wear red OR black OR any color (except for white of course!!).


  9. I’m a wedding officiant based in nyc, which means I go to at least three weddings a weekend. I can tell you that there are black, white and red dresses at every one of them. Black is the official color of NYC.

    Wear what you want. As long as it’s not long, white and lacy, no one will even notice. Including the bride.


    • I agree with you. I went to an event and every woman there wore black. I wore beige lace and felt I stuck out like a sore thumb though it looked spectacular on. Bu, a statuesque blonde, wore a red dress and every head turned as she entered or left the room. The power of red!


  10. im going to a wedding on the 30th of this months, i got a strapless orangy pink short in the front and long in the back. im 13 and looking for someone, i wanna look good. Is that fine?


  11. Summer wedding, outdoors. Colors are blue and tan. Would it be acceptable to wear a yellow flowered, chiffon type dress? It’s actually a skirt and top. Long skirt with a slight ruffle at the bottom, full top, short sleeved. Hope to get your thoughts. Thank you.


  12. I’m going to my sister’s wedding in January, and it’s going to be a lovely garden wedding in summer here in Australia. Is it okay to wear lace to a wedding especially if the bride is wearing a full lace dress. This is the dress I want to wear with a flower crown.



  13. The last wedding I went to had people wearing FLIP FLOPS & very casual clothing. I felt like the most dressed up person there wearing a strapless black with large panels of blue, teal, navy down the front.

    whatever. I’m wearing black with sequins on a new years type wedding. It’ll help disguise any red wine I spill on myself.


  14. I never felt so disrespected as the day I noticed my sister-in-law wore white to my wedding! Same sister-in-law who re-gifted me a shower gift, but forgot to take the card addressed to her and her husband out of the box. What can you say some people are just rude n crude.


  15. Black is absolutely allowable to wear to a wedding. If the wedding is black tie, am I really not “supposed to” wear a stunning black gown? Ladies, wear whatever color makes you feel most comfortable and beautiful. If you love black, wear black, don’t go out a buy a pink dress just to conform to a silly “rule”.


  16. Wearing red to a wedding in Norway meens you have had an afair with the groom. And should not be worn.. but not all people follow this..


  17. Whoever wrote this is a miserable individual who got screwed at their wedding. 1. Who invites ex’s?? That’s stupid. Who cares if someone wears red? 3. None of my guests were in my formal pictures. Lighten up.


  18. This is the snobbiest article I have ever read. Wow! Some people need to stop obsessing over clothes.

    Don’t wear red to a wedding? I actually am having my bridesmaids wear red.

    Don’t wear black because one day you may want to wear it to show disapproval of a wedding. Is this a joke? If you don’t agree with a marriage – don’t go at all. Also, who are you to judge if two people should be married.


  19. Here I am with a lovely dress in pink and purple flowers and I am wondering if my bright fuchsia pink jacket is taking the attention of the bride. Should I ask the bride what she thinks?


  20. Hi,

    I purchased a beautiful Italian made dress for a wedding this month. The main color is white but it has tons of very bright and colorful flowers. It is a very soft well made fabric, with a high soop neck line, and length goes just above the knees. I was thinking of pairing this with a nice golden/nude shoe and some nice gold jewellery (probably with some color) to dress it up. Please Please give me your opinion because im getting mixed answers by everyone.


  21. Don’t do this, don’t do that because there is some rule that clearly isn’t a rule because it hasn’t always been so and at no point in time has everyone agreed with it. Whatever you do be sure to base it on a tradition that wouldn’t be recognized as such 150 years ago and some superstition that in any other context you would mock. Be sure to have an acupuncturist determine the feng shui of your outfit and have a formal horoscope worked up to make sure the planets align properly with it as well.


  22. I am wearing a navy blue, 3/4 sleeve lace and chiffon dress to an upcoming wedding. There are sequins on the sleeves and bodice. The reception begins at 6:00PM. Should I wear a shawl or jacket? Any links would be appreciated.


  23. O good grief , get over it, wear what is comfortable and what you wish to wear. Wearing Black has nothing to do with approval or disapproval. I wore black to my wedding. I like the color black . the wedding party is too involved to worry let alone to care what you are wearing. That is along as you are not wearing a white wedding dress. Get over yourself. SMH


  24. Most of these rules are ridiculous. TONS of people wore red to my wedding and I didn’t think one thing of it – in fact, I loved all of the red dresses there. I plan on wearing a red gown to my friend’s autumn wedding coming up too. As long as the dress isn’t ridiculously flashy or white, you’re good.


  25. “You do not wear black to weddings because someday, god forbid, you might actually WANT to wear black to a wedding in order to show your disapproval and your deep grief over somebody’s ill-advised nuptials….”

    If you are that critical of the match, perhaps the more gracious response would be to decline the invitation.

    The only rules I would follow is to dress in a way that does not take attention away from the bride and to select an outfit at the level of formality requested by the invitation. They may not be possible for everyone. If you’re going to get upset because your friend has to wear her one nice black dress, you’re not mature enough to be getting married.


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