Ask Allie: How to Dress for a Wedding Without a Dress Code

Fashion Advice shopping tips

I have a wedding to go, and ever since the wedding where I dressed fancier than the bride (I wore a simple velvet sheath!) I have a horror of wearing the wrong thing. The wedding is at 4, with cocktails, dinner, and reception to follow, all at the same venue, an “event center.” Essentially a ballroom. I did email the bride and she just said “We don’t really have a dress code. Not black tie but not sweats and a t-shirt. Well, there’s a LOT in between there. Jersey maxidress? Sparkly mini? My feet are likely to be swollen so I’m leaning toward something I can wear flat sandals with, but other than that I’m kind of at a loss what to wear.

Event planners and brides to be… please understand that a dress code isn’t snooty or pretentious, it’s a helpful guide for loved ones who want to ensure your event is great. A specified dress code will reduce stress on your guests and ensure you don’t end up with anyone in black tie or sweats and a tee shirt!

How to Style a Black Sheath Dress Four Ways
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Top Row: v-neck sheath | earrings | leopard clutch | heels | satin sheath | lipstick | clutch | printed shoes
Bottom Row: gathered sheath | earrings | snakeskin clutch | pumps | crewneck sheath | pearls | quilted bag | peeptoe pumps

That being said, this is the type of event where I pull out my black crepe sheath dress. Sleeveless, simple neckline, skims the figure, hits the knees; it’s simple and easy to dress up or down. For a wedding that starts at 4pm you can accessorize a dress in a multitude of ways to make it look festive yet appropriate for a crowd in khakis or a dancefloor full of sequins.  Of course, the dress does not have to be black, but it’s a color you often already have in your closet.

How to Style a Black maxi Dress Four Ways
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Top Row: strappy maxi dress | hoops | bangles | leopard bag | gold sandals | short sleeve maxi | lipstick | belt | bag | wedge sandals
Bottom Row: halter maxi | earrings | lipgloss | clutch | black sandals | scoop maxi | necklace | bracelet | pouch | silver sandals

You mentioned the desire to wear flat sandals, and for a wedding at an event center I’d keep flat sandals to a midi to maxi length dress or skirt. While traditional jersey maxi dresses would likely be too casual for a wedding at this hour, one in matte jersey or with a chiffon overlay would be perfect and just as easy to fit in with a more casual or more dressy crowd.  Again, black is not the only color; a bright or pastel hue would be quite festive and appropriate for an August wedding.

Both types of dresses are extremely versatile. A lined sheath in crepe, triacetate, silk, or a blend can be worn to work, dressed up for a cocktail party with strappy heels and sparkly jewelry, or made more casual with nude pumps and wood accessories (see my post on how to style a black sheath four ways). A matte jersey or chiffon maxi dress can also lead multiple lives; I wore a black matte jersey maxi as the matron of honor at a relatively formal wedding, then wore to a garden wedding with gold flat sandals and even wore to a bridal shower with brown sandals and wood and leather jewelry. Not only that, these fabrics are seasonless making a dress purchased in the summer wearable for holiday parties on your event calendar!

  • Amy

    I had a fancy event here in DC a few months back – the organizers called it a ball but specified business dress. I saw everything on women from boring suits to strapless ball gowns. People need to be more specific! I was sitting with our CEO so played it safe with a striped ponte skirt, lace top with sleeves, wedges and a great necklace.

  • I’ve got a stumper for you… I have a wedding to go to in September. Late afternoon ceremony will be at a Methodist church. Reception will be in a backyard, buffet style picnic. There will be a bonfire later that evening. It’s a family member’s wedding so I’ll have the ability to change but how do I even dress for that?!

  • For one like that, I think a jersey maxi dress will be okay with flat sandals. That or a cotton sundress with sandals 🙂

  • A ball but in business dress! What a swizz! If I’m going to a ball I insist on being able to wear a full length ball gown! If it was for work, I’d go for a more conservative cut i.e. wide straps or short or long sleeves, a reasonably muted colour and not too much cleavage, but it’d still be a ball gown.

  • Here in DC they LOVE to call things galas and balls but they’re actually after-work networking events with a bunch of people in their work clothes. SO WEIRD, and so hard to know how to dress appropriately!

  • Janki

    Is it ok to wear black to a wedding? My husband often says I need to wear anything else but my nice dresses are all black.

  • I love a suggested dresscode. It’s just smarter. Helps eliminate stress of over dressing or under dressing. More people should embrace it.

  • Jenny

    Thanks to my mom, the prohibition on black at a wedding is firmly ingrained in me as well. I know it has become much more accepted, but it is so hard to shake those “rules” that I grew up hearing over and over again. I think it is pretty common nowadays and I have a wedding coming up and a black dress that would be perfect…. but I’m about 50/50 on whether I’ll wear it or not!

  • Unless the religion states otherwise, these days it has become the norm. However I think it’s important to balance the black with lighter or more festive accessories and makeup. Last time I wore my black sheath to a wedding I paired it with strappy soft gold heels, a bright green silk shawl, and hot pink lipstick. But yes, even bridesmaids these days wear black, it’s no longer considered just a color for mourning.

  • I was taught no black at a wedding, no color at a funeral, no patent leather for winter, no suede for summer, white only between Memorial and Labor Day, but all of these rules have gone out the window these days. Many rules were created during a different cultural time, when people had fewer pieces of clothing and shoes, cleaning clothes was me difficult, dyes were expensive. Breaking these rules isn’t against etiquette but keeping up with modern times and accessibility. However, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to these rules since they do have respect and common sense behind them!

  • Karen

    No patent leather in winter? I didn’t know about this. But it’s the easiest to clean street salt off of. What in the world were they thinking?

  • I believe it was a southern tradition, searching online I can find tons of sites stating it is only to be worn before Labor Day, but no place explaining WHY. I love patent in winter for the very reason you state!

  • For traditionalists like me who are nervous about wearing black, navy blue can be a great compromise. Versatile in color, a navy dress, either sheath or maxi, can be accessorized with nude, gold, or silver shoes and some great contrast jewelry.

  • Sharlynn

    Thank you so much for this post. The majority of my clothes are black (maybe 85%-90%) and I only wear dresses (sometimes with footless tights-black, of course!) It’s a simple “uniform” that makes dressing simple and I always look chic and yet elegant! Accessorizing keeps my look fresh and fun!

  • UkExpat

    I grew up in the UK, and amongst Brits wearing black at weddings is a definite no-no, because it’s a) unlucky, and b) what you wear to funerals – not the vibe they’re going for at a wedding! I have never seen a woman in black at a wedding (even in the US or Canada, where I live), and most commonly people wear a floral dress.

    I struggle with the no black rule and once wore a black dress with a colorful jacket to a wedding in New York, but there was nobody else in black and a couple of comments made it clear that black was inappropriate, so I felt bad all evening. Unless the organizers explicitly volunteer that you can wear black then I’d say one really shouldn’t. I’m sure people have varying POVs, but a lot of people are still superstitious and wearing something they think is unlucky to their wedding seems really selfish.

    Do you want to be the person jinxing their day? Or the person in the corner, ducking out of photos, because you’ve been told off for what you’re wearing, as I was in New York?

  • Emily

    Agreed!! Maybe it’s just a UK thing but I’ve NEVER seen anyone wear black to a wedding (and I used to work wedding catering as a part time summer job, so spent a lot of time discussing guests’ outfits with the other waitresses!). Even if paired with bright accessories I’d steer well clear of it. Maybe things are different in the US though…