It doesn’t matter how much of a diehard romantic we are—after receiving a wedding invitation, it usually takes about 10 minutes to wipe the tears from our eyes before we start strategizing style.
Okay, we think, So what am I going to wear?
If your wedding invitation reads “formal,” breathe a sigh of relief. You won’t have to wear a ballgown, and bearing an ankle won’t attract any odd glances from any fellow wedding guest! The formal wedding dress code, also known as “black tie optional,” gives you plenty of room to find a look that’s both up-to-code wedding attire and harmonizes with your personal style.
Below, we touch on 5 classic, universally flattering formal wedding guest attire ensembles and styling tips to help you find your perfect match for any season, theme, or celebration. From a beach wedding to any outdoor wedding venue, you’ll be ready as the wedding invitations roll in.
There’s no need for an evening gown and to get all buttoned up for a formal wedding, but the dress code does carry a degree of conservatism. Dark-hued, sheer fabrics are ideal for showing a little skin while ensuring your ensemble meets wedding guest attire expectations. I’d be most inclined to opt for this look for a fall wedding, winter wedding, or when figuring out what to wear to a spring wedding.
For formal weddings, this heart-racing texture is best incorporated into:
- Sleeves – One of my favorite places to add some drama. For a slightly sexier look, keep an eye out for sheer sleeves that hew tight to the arms. But for a slightly more “statement” take (and, truthfully, my personal favorite)? Dramatic, draped long sleeves on a cocktail dress lend a noirish air worthy of Katherine Hepburn in her heyday.
- Skirts – Think gauzy, tiered, or gathered fabrics in brocade or mixed textiles. The added visual complexity adds a hip, romantic look (bohemian rhapsody, anyone?) while keeping things modest.
In other words, those sheer cut-outs in the bodice or pantsuit racing strips can be gorgeous—but save them for a more casual nuptial event instead of a wedding party.
Lovely in Lace
Formal weddings do leave a little wiggle room for wedding outfits, but for those looking to lean into the slightly dressier side of things, few textiles rival the classic grace of lace. It’s a favorite of mine when deciding what to wear to a summer wedding that’s ultra-romantic (or wedding showers and engagement parties in any season).
These design updates transform the staple fabric from your great-grandmother’s closet to formal-wedding fabulous:
- Backless – A skin-bearing dress is best saved for more casual receptions, but layered in lace you can absolutely get away with a backless style. Darker fabrics like navy, aubergine, and blacks work best for formal dress codes (but so long as you’re not veering into whites or ivories, any shade can work well!)
- Full-body lace – Incorporated into a full-body sheath-style dress, delicate lace can have a powerful, streamlining effect on every figure. To keep up with the formalwear’s demureness, just be sure to pick out a design with full sleeves and a full-coverage slip beneath all that lace. This keyhole neckline tackles it all while keeping things interesting.
Draped and Divine
Elegant, sumptuous, and universally flattering, the elevated wrap dress might be the fashion equivalent of a skeleton key hack for any wedding dress code. Why are wrap dresses complimentary to any figure? They create an hourglass silhouette by cinching at the waist—which makes them a cinch to don and doff (ideal if you’re planning on collapsing into your hotel bed at the end of the night!).
To ensure a wrap dress is appropriate formal wedding attire, look for designs that have:
- Necklines that don’t plunge below the breastbone
- Hems that don’t hike higher than 1 to 2” above the knee
You’ll also want to look for wrap styles that have some extra security at the waistline. Tie-ups can be appropriate for a more casual, semi formal wedding—like a destination occasion or beach formal event held at the height of summer—but in general, it’s best to look for styles whose wrap-ups are sewn into the dress. And trust me—it’ll save you the stress of worrying your dress will get caught on a stranger and unravel while you’re breaking it down on the dance floor!
All Dolled Up
Form-fitting formal attire is all well and good, but every so often it feels fun to tap into your fresher, more feminine side. For that, take a flight of fancy in a doll-inspired drop-skirt frock—one of my favorite looks for spring, summer, early autumn, and can serve as a more casual wedding look for ranch weddings.
Some defining design features of the dollhouse look are:
- A slouchy, airy skirt
- Long bell sleeves
- Victorian accents like embroidered lace, brocade, or ribbon
- A scoop or off-the-shoulder collar (open neckline, open heart)
Making this look feel all grown up is easier than you’d think. With minimalist sandals and bold, statement jewelry pieces, you’ll look like the effortless, confident belle of the ball (second to the bride, of course).
Classic Hollywood vibes are a shoo-in for any formal wedding, no matter the season or theme of the event. A full-skirted, full-sleeved maxi dress fuses formalwear with Gone with The Wind-inspired aesthetics.
To keep this look feeling fresh, look for modern accents like:
- A belted waist to avoid floor-sweeping trains
- A hem that falls between the knee and ankle
- Transparent or semi-transparent textiles (leave opaques to the silver screen)
What to Wear at a Formal Wedding Shower?
Whatever the dress code, wedding ceremonies and receptions are, on the whole, decidedly more formal than the wedding shower. Black tie-optional wedding showers in particular let you indulge in plenty of flexibility when it comes to planning your outfit.
When planning your ensemble and searching through wedding dresses, you’ll want to find that sweet spot between fun and formal: Your mom should still be able to give you her stamp of approval, but you have room to shake it up with two-piece numbers and brighter colors.
For the formal wedding shower, I adore:
- Flowy, casual cuts in elevated fabrics like silk, satin, and velvet
- Monochrome dressy separates (so long as they don’t expose the midriff)
- Asymmetrical builds—like a high collar and an above-the-knee hemline, or a scoop neck with a longer skirt
Lastly, I always recommend bringing along a structured blazer, cashmere shawl, or another cover-up to help elevate the look, keep you comfortable, and introduce a level of conservatism if you arrive to find other guests’ wedding dresses cover up a bit more than you’d anticipated.
Styling Tips for Your Formal Wedding Look
With the centerpiece of your wedding or wedding shower look picked out, what do you wear to a formal wedding accessories-wise?
Formal Wedding Shoes
One of the most difficult elements of any wedding look to style, shoes play a crucial role in how much you’ll enjoy festivities: They’ll keep you dress-code appropriate, weather-appropriate, and ready and able to stay on your feet until the last song.
For that, I recommend the following feet- and formalwear-friendly designs:
- Wedge sandals, a perfect match for beachy or outdoor wedding scenes. Go for a natural fabric or hue—just be wary of wearing these if you discover the wedding venue won’t have solid flooring.
- Peep-toe heels, opt for a close- or peep-toed heel for events held indoors in colder climates. Jewel-tone hues work well to jazz up a darker formalwear look, especially when paired with some juicy gemstone jewelry.
- Upscale flats, for those with sensitive feet who plan on doing plenty of mingling. For modern weddings, there’s no rule saying you must wear heels—on the contrary. Choosing a posh fabric like leather or animal print will keep flat shoes sophisticated.
Formal Wedding Finishing Touches
Before it’s officially time to head out the door, don’t forget to add a final touch of polish to the ensemble. I recommend wearing at least one of these can’t-go-wrong formal accessories:
- Hats – Fashion hats can be a functional and elegant accessory for garden weddings, ranch weddings, and any formal outdoor nuptials where you want a touch of solar protection. A Panama hat in organic materials is ideal for seaside or resort wedding venues, while sleek fabrics like velour blend city chic with country-themed formalwear.
- Handbags – Hotel keys, wallet, phone—check. But your formal tag-along handbag is your BFF when it’s time to raid the powder room with your girls for a mid-reception touch-up. Opt for smaller purses to stick to the dress code and keep all eyes on your outfit, but if it’s an outdoor venue, don’t shy away from oversized haul-alls in luxe fabrics.
- Jewelry – Diamonds are a bride’s best friend, but gemstones are a glam guest’s ride-or-die. The cherry on top of the perfect formalwear wedding look is jewelry, so liven up yours with a colorful gem choker or a refined pair of mother-of-pearl drop earrings. As for me, I like to use Mademoiselle Chanel’s classic “less is more” approach as a guideline: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”
Fall in Love with Flattering Formalwear by Karen Kane
Formal weddings are all about playing the classics: versatile shades, simple silhouettes, and knowing where you can seize the moment and play. For a timeless-meets-modern take on formalwear that lets you nail that dressy feel while letting you feel utterly, gorgeously yourself, shop Karen Kane.
Dedicated to crafting conscious garments that feel effortless to wear, our woman-led teams are champions of comfortable, elegant, and thoughtful design. Like you, the Karen Kane collection is ready for anything—from blush-worthy cocktail attire to beachy, summery, cute accessories—so that you can embark on wedding season, and beyond, with confidence.
For a closer look at who we are, browse our closet and see what’s new with Karen Kane today.
Martha Stewart Wedding. A Comprehensive Guide to Wedding Guest Attire. https://www.marthastewart.com/7871616/wedding-guest-attire?slide=c53f39c0-b01f-4949-b664-b93a8a8e6504#c53f39c0-b01f-4949-b664-b93a8a8e6504
Brides. Every Wedding Dress Code, Explained. https://www.brides.com/story/wedding-dress-code-explained#toc-formal-or-black-tie-optional
Vogue. The Most Inspiring Coco Chanel Quotes to Live By. https://www.vogue.com.au/fashion/news/the-most-inspiring-coco-chanel-quotes-to-live-by/image-gallery/b1cb17be7e20734d0b255fbd5a478ed4