Monday, May 2, 2011

Decoding the Wedding Invitation

Spring has definitely sprung, and the season of the most infernal nuisance of the gentleman’s year has sprung upon with it: The Wedding Invitation. The influences on your decisions for what to wear are vast, including your relationship to the happy couple, the location of the event, your role in the wedding, and so forth. Herein I will offer some broad advice focusing on the instructions provided on the invitation – the rest is up to you.

Wedding invitations, and other party invitations, for that matter, will generally have a code included, indicating what you are expected to wear. And the date you should bring, but that is probably a topic for another blog.

The codes are as follows: Formal, Morning Dress, Black Tie, Black Tie Optional, Festive, and Casual. These codes include some valuable information, and, in some cases, some inherent misleading language. Here is a breakdown of what you need to wear.


In the go-go 21st century, this is really quite rare. The term formal, in its correct usage, indicates that white tie and tails are preferred. The wedding party will certainly be in white tie, and, as a guest, it is appropriate for you to wear white tie too. Given that most of us, with the notable exception of my brother-in-law, Bill, do not own a full evening dress rig, it is far preferable for you to wear your good dinner suit instead. When wearing your dinner suit, however, wear it as conservatively as you possibly can – opt for a black bow tie and a black dinner vest. A white pique shirt also elevates it a notch. Military personnel are encouraged to wear mess dress.

Morning Dress
In the US you won’t see this much, but if you do, it is for a formal wedding scheduled before 6:00 pm. The appropriate formal rig for these events is a morning suit (a cutaway and striped trousers) or a lighter colored business suit. In the US in the current era, a crisp linen suit is perfectly acceptable if you do not have a cutaway or a stroller. Military personnel would wear class A uniforms appropriate to the region and the season.

Black Tie

This is the most formal wedding that most of us will ever be invited to. It indicates that the bridal party will likely be in dinner suits, and you are expected to wear one too. Again, go with the most traditional interpretation of what you wear with your tuxedo. Avoid colorful ties and cummerbunds, and stick with the traditional protocols. If you are going to be dancing the night away, be sure to wear shoes that will support you through that. Remember, when you dance, it is never appropriate to shed your jacket or your tie. Yes, they do it in the movies, and no, you still may not. It makes you look like a high school kid at the end of prom night. Again, mess dress is ideal for military personnel.

Black Tie Optional

This category is the bugaboo for many young men attending weddings. The invitation says that black tie is “optional”, so what is the issue with wearing a pair of clean jeans or khakis and a really sharp sport shirt? The issue is that the term “Black Tie Optional” is not-so-secret code for “dress decently, for God’s sake.” Literally it means that you would not be the least bit out of place if you wore your dinner suit. With this variant, however, you may choose to wear a tastefully patterned tie or cummerbund with it, or you may opt for a dark business suit. Or a blue blazer and a pair of dark gray flannel trousers are equally at home at black tie optional events. In any case, a tie of some sort is not optional, nor is a sport coat, at the very least. If you have made the investment in a dinner suit, take this opportunity to wear it – it is certainly the rig that you look the best in. If you do not own one, wear your #1 suit and tie. Once more, mess dress is acceptable here, but a class A uniform will do equally well for military personnel.


OK, now we are really into vague areas. The reason this is such a minefield of choices is that the definitions of the words “festive” and “casual” vary so much between users. Also, you cannot rely on your solid old dinner suit for these events, you actually have to think about it and make some choices.
  • Consider where the event will be held: Is it at the beach? Or at the horse park?
  • Consider the event’s theme: Is it an equestrian theme? Or a country or Hawai’ian theme?
  • Consider the time of day: Evening events at the beach will likely require a warm layer that you can add later on.
For a lakeside wedding a few years ago I sported a vintage dinner jacket with a slightly rumpled pleated front shirt with a pair of well faded khakis. I accessorized with a straw boater and a navy blue Churchill dot bow, and looked, frankly, spectacular. If you are attending an island themed affair, a fresh and crisp Aloha shirt is in order with well pressed linen trousers. 

The secret to carrying off the festive or casual looks well is to remember that you are going to someone’s special affair, so look your best. “Casual” is not the same “casual” that you wear to the poolside barbecue in your own back yard. With no guests. No holes in pants, no matter how fashionable the Brass Ring employee told you they were, and no tee shirts with slogans on them are acceptable. In fact, no tee shirts at all. Consider how George Clooney carries casual off – a well-fitted navy blue suit with a plain point collar shirt, opened a couple of buttons. That is casual for the martini set, and it looks so very good. For a casual wedding military personnel should probably forgo a uniform in favor of smart civilian clothes in the spirit of the event.

In Short

The surest way to get through a wedding is to simply follow the rules. Bear in mind, you are the guest of the bride at what may very well be the most important day of her life. Dress in a manner that she will find the most pleasing, and you will do fine.

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