Dear ESB: How do I tell my guests what to wear?

Categories   Wedding Fashion

We can so relate to this one! You want to give your guests some direction, but standard attire descriptors don’t always make sense for every event. Let’s see what East Side Bride has to say.


I’ve included a photo of my dress, perhaps as a brag, or perhaps just as a reference to my style and the style of our wedding— I love it to say the least (not those shoes though, I still have almost a year to figure those out).

I am writing, however, to get your input on guest attire specifications during the invitation process. My dearest and I will be getting married next summer in an arboretum in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a small, afternoon wedding, with dinner in the picnic pavilion and dancing on site. There is a 1/3 or 1/2 mile walk between the ceremony site and the reception site. As noted, I am wearing a fairly alternative wedding dress and my FH will most likely be wearing an olive/brown suit. We want everyone to look their finest but not overdressed nor uncomfortable in the setting. 

As we write our invitations, do we A) just assume that people will read the place and time in the invitation and make their own choices about what is appropriate to wear or B) write some notes about what to wear on the invitation? If B, what kind of language do we use? I don’t think it is really cocktail or garden-party or semi-casual, or is it? Any ideas? Do people want to be told how fancy the wedding is in advance?

Attire Adjectives Needed


Here’s what you need to tell people, either on the invitation or on your wedding website:

There will be dinner in the (OUTDOOR?) picnic pavilion. There will be dancing. There will be a HALF-MILE WALK.

None of that Cocktail or Garden-Party or Semi-Casual Attire stuff is ever actually helpful. (Is it??) Everybody has a different idea about what semi-casual means.

BUT. The fanciness of your invitation should, to a certain extent, match the fanciness of the wedding. I.E. This doesn’t feel to me like a 5-piece letterpressed/caligraphed invitation kind of wedding, you feel me? If you sent something like that out, your guests would definitely turn up overdressed.

In the end, you really can’t control what people wear. Someone will wear a weird/fabulous vintage sequined grandma top she bought at Goodwill and someone else will wear Tevas. (Whoops, that was my wedding in the Pacific Northwest. Whatever, you get the idea.)

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Whitney on Aug 23, 2011

Depending on how big your guest list is, it wouldn't hurt to attempt to contain everyone and let them know your concerns. ESB is right, most people can figure it out from the invitation, but if you have a wedding website you could also add it to the welcome page so you can be sure everyone sees it. All else fails, buy a few pairs of $1 flip flops from Old Navy and put them in a basket for those who wear heels/other inappropriate footwear. But who knows? Maybe Granny can navigate the wilderness in 3 inch heels!

Susan on Aug 23, 2011

My friend gave her guests a color palette to choose their outfit from so the photos would look cohesive. A bold move, but an effective one.

Susan on Aug 23, 2011

One more thing... I attended a wedding that I knew was going to be outdoors, but did not know was going to involve a 1/2 mile walk through woodsy, mosquito-infested terrain. I was SO PISSED to find this out when i arrived - without flats or bug spray - and ended up walking barefoot down the damn trail. I still have scars from scratching those bug bites. (Ok the last sentence is a lie. But seriously, provide bug repellent!!)

100layercake on Aug 23, 2011

Not that we've seen YOUR WEDDING on anything, ESB. Ahem.

A Bicycle Built For Two on Aug 23, 2011

I had the same concern for our guests at our wedding which was on a sailboat... that went sailing. Obviously for us it was critical that women wore appropriate shoes and that the guests were warm enough. We also didn't want them to be overly casual. We just stressed on the invitations that the wedding was ABOARD the Yacht, which would be DEPARTING AT 6pm. We then also used our closest friends and family to spread the word when asked. It is inevitable that as the day draws near guests will ask other guests what they are wearing and my mom and MOH were quick to answer and add "remember it's on a sailboat so don't wear spiky heels and do bring a wrap."

DHarvey on Aug 23, 2011

It is helpful/polite/courteous (choose one) to tell people what to wear. That way they don't have to fret/worry/hand wring/call you. Do say that there is a 1/2 mile walk on a natural path, then use one of the timeless standards: formal attire, white tie formal attire, black tie semi-formal attire cocktail attire Informal attire The style of the invitation, the time of day, and the season will give them the other cues they need. Remember that your invitees just want to be good guests, make it easy on them by being a good host. It's not easy to choose a label in your case, but if you're having a hard time, think of how it will be for them? DH

Tonia on Aug 23, 2011

We put something like "Northwoods semi-formal" on our invites, meaning that folks should dress nice but also be prepared for the cool fall weather of our northern climate. Everyone showed up looking great and looking like themselves (i.e. my relatives from the city dressed to the nines in the slimmest suits and sexiest dresses, and our neighbor who grows pot wore a CLEAN bandanna tied around his head and a CLEAN tunic, and we were happy.)

PNW bride on Aug 23, 2011

I could see a small line at the bottom of the invitation and on your wedding Web site: "Attire is semi-formal, keeping in mind the half-mile walk between the ceremony and reception." That said: if your guests are from the PNW (as I am) you may not need to worry at all. They hear arboretum and know that they're going to be walking from the parking lot and that their heels would sink into the soft grass. They'll all show up in their fanciest pairs of Danksos or Naots.

Victoria on Aug 23, 2011

A Bicycle Built for Two makes a good point: Never underestimate the power of pre-wedding chatter! Guests always confer with each other about what they're wearing to a wedding. If the bridesmaids and a few close friends and family know the drill with the location and the 1/2 mile walk involved, they can spread the word. Done.

Melanie on Aug 23, 2011

Because I recently had a bride's aunt ask if she could wear 'jeans' to a formal evening wedding the response card was printed with 'formal evening attire'. I agree, whatever the degree of relaxed, casual, or formal; lay it out for them in print.

nicole b. on Aug 23, 2011

You should definitely include information on attire on your wedding Web site. Include the url on your invitation and/or save-the-date. Just an idea: Since your guests will be walking to the reception site, why not make it more enjoyable and do a parade of sorts? Guests could carry balloons, streamers, etc. As seen here: Back to the invitation, casual language will also let them know it's going to be a laid-back FUN affair... something like: "Following the ceremony, please join us in a parade to the pavilion for dinner and dancing under the stars. Dancing shoes required. Fancy pants optional. For more information, visit our wedding Web site at [insert: url]." Good luck! Your dress is AMAZING. You have every right to brag, woman! xo.

nikki on Aug 23, 2011

I agree with ESB that the commonly used titles mean absolutely nothing to most people - one man's "garden attire" is another man's cargo shorts and flip flops. At the very least, note the half-mile walk so no one is filled with rage when they find out. If you're thinking of pictures, or if you think it'll bother you if someone shows up particularly over (or under) dressed, put a sentence in the invites. I also got married in the PNW and did not care what my guests wore, but then ended up with a mixture of plaid shorts, birkenstocks, capri pants with tank tops, and a couple high-end cocktail dresses... at an 11am wedding. If you want to avoid THAT, give 'em guidelines.

Maddie on Aug 23, 2011

ESB is dead on. But I'd like to add, we recently were at a wedding that involved an hour long walk through Central Park immediately following the ceremony. If you are going to ask your guests to move around, in addition to letting the know the appropriate attire, don't forget water bottles and the like. At this wedding they gave out metal canteens filled with cold water and in that moment I thought I might die of happiness.

WiscoSweetheart on Aug 23, 2011

I'll just add that if the wedding is a destination for some guests, it'll help to be specific about how to dress not just for the occasion, but for the climate and environment. I just attended a wedding in California, and I'm from the midwest. Our hosts provided us with the information that the wedding would be outdoors, and that this area of CA gets very hot during the day. They neglected to tell us, however, that the wedding itself would be held on top of a mountain at night. When the temperature dropped to around 50 degrees, no one was prepared for the cold. Many of the guests left very early, rather than endure the discomfort, and women were running back to their hotel rooms to put their jeans and pajama pants on under their dresses--which, while kind of whimsical, was not exactly ideal.

Rosaleen on Aug 23, 2011

I agree with ESB. Also word of mouth should help too. You tell a friend, your mom tells a family member, etc. But more importantly, holy s*$t that dress is AMAZING!

Lisa on Aug 23, 2011

If you want people to be fancy, but rural fancy, I suggest you say something on the invite. I can't tell you how many questions I get about what to wear to weddings. Generally, people like guidance. I say generally advisedly. So you can put, for example, cocktail attire on the invite face itself, then if you have a map etc., put the information about walking, temperature, shoes, etc. People can triangulate, fancy but you're gonna have to walk.

snarkycat on Aug 23, 2011

Dress = amazing. Congrats on your awesome taste.

Christine @ Bridal Banter on Aug 23, 2011

Traditionally, you're not supposed to include a guest attire directive. The time of day and the venue are supposed to cue guests. But if you're worried and think extra info would help, then you should include it -- your wedding website even gives you space to explain. And as ESB mentioned, you should DEFINITELY DEFINITELY mention the walk. A friend of mine included this on a card sent with her invitations: "Ladies, leave your stilettos at home. The ceremony will talk place on a small hill." I was so appreciative of the information, and it changed what I was going to wear. I actually wrote a post on some more creative guest attire suggestions if you'd like to take a look:

sk on Aug 23, 2011

keep in mind most people won't dress as cute as you do- unless you have one of those rare fabulous groups of friends & family with perfectly coordinated hipster wardrobes (see: andi & jarret and the ace) so yeah, aunt mabel may F up the look with her weird fresh produce dress. whatever. your dress is amazing, thats all that counts.

sk on Aug 23, 2011

p.s. i just read susan's comment above- and i'm slightly stubborn & mostly b*tchy- but i either wouldn't have GONE to the color palette wedding, or i would have shown up in dayglo hotpants. don't do that. on Aug 24, 2011

Over here in Germany most of the people say nothing on the invite concerning the dress code but... thats why a lot of weddings turn out to be very informal. I don't like that, I can imagine it also feels quite strange when you are the bride all dressed up and your guests wear a jeans or something like that. Therefore I would definitely comment someting somewhere. I personally would comment on the invite that people should check out your page concerning more details. On the page itself I would do something funny, I like the idea of posting example pictures. Maybe you could go shopping with your fiancé and while doing that you just try on several things you could imagine people to wear on your wedding, take a picture and post it on your page.

Anna on Aug 24, 2011

Attire Adjectives here. Thank you ESB and ladies for all of your advice. Using the invite to set the tone of the formality of the event is a great idea--one that I think is and often overlooked objective when designing. In the end I am more concerned about my guests' comfort than looking fab in photos. Walking in the woods and dancing the hora are hard to get into if you're wearing the wrong shoes for the occasion--and I want my guests to get into it. There is also a drive-in option for anyone who physically cannot participate in the walk. I forgot to mention that my guests are a blend of PNWers and Brooklyners, so perhaps I will use the word-of-mouth advice more with my Brooklyn friends, who might need more guidance on what is appropriate/comfortable than the Northwesters. GRACIAS!

Marie on Aug 30, 2011

It's nice that you want to make sure your guests are comfortable at the wedding and for the walk. I went to a back yard wedding last year, and was going to have my BF wear a shirt and tie (no jacket) until I found out the groomsmen weren't wearing ties. That was a big clue about the fanciness level. And you really can't assume that people will get it from the venue, time of day, etc. I went to a full Catholic mass wedding this weekend, and I saw two people in shorts and Hawaiian shirts. And finally, another wedding I attended last year (it's been the year of weddings) specified cocktail attire for ladies and suits for men. And people came in jeans. So really, people will come in what they want.

Sonya on Sep 1, 2011

A friend of mine got married at a rustic venue with stairs, dirt paths, stone walkways and grass. The semi-formal invites included a note that informed people the ceremony and reception will be outdoors. They recommended bringing something warm for the cool evening and to wear sensible shoes. She and her fiance also said golf carts will be available. This note had a conversational tone that was very cute and fun!

Mezzo Soprano on Sep 19, 2011

Mention the dress code on the invitation and state that there will be a special prize for the best dressed couple/person which will be awarded during the speeches. Good luck.

rachel on Jan 30, 2012

@sk - I'm so with you.

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