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Decoding the Dress Code: What to Wear to a Wedding Now

When April Lavalle and Alex Boniello started planning their upcoming October wedding, one of the first things they decided on was the dress code. Rather than request their guests don more traditional formal or black-tie clothing, the couple opted for the less common, and purposefully vague, “cocktail creative.”

They communicated their unusual option to their attendees via their wedding website, writing “cocktail creative/semiformal” under the dress code F.A.Q., and have since received a handful of questions from guests unsure about what to wear. To prevent any stress, Ms. Lavalle and Mr. Boniello simply “encouraged them to wear whatever makes them feel good.”

“I didn’t want my guests to feel like they had to edit their personal style to be appropriate for a wedding setting,” Ms. Lavalle said. “We wanted everyone to feel free to get creative with what they want to wear.”

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While the couple’s wedding attire may seem a bit unorthodox, so-called atypical dress codes are becoming increasingly commonplace in the midst of a surge in nuptials. Roughly 2.5 million weddings are expected to take place this year, many of which had been postponed because of the pandemic.

“Many couples are finding that selecting a unique or nontraditional dress code for their nuptials is an effective way to set themselves apart from the pack,” said Lesley Brickman, a luxury bridal stylist and chief executive of the One Gown, a concierge styling firm in Los Angeles.

Ms. Lavalle and Mr. Boniello, both 31-year-old actors, producers and writers who live in Manhattan, are excited to see what people have in store for their Brooklyn nuptials on October 30. They hope the result is what Ms. Lavalle calls a “mash-up of styles” that reflect attendees’ personalities and tastes.

The couple will be following their dress code, too. Ms. Lavelle plans to wear a black “party veil” made by her friend, the Broadway seamstress Anna Kate Reep, with her white dress designed by Sarah Seven, and Mr. Boniello a gray Balenciaga suit that was once owned by the actor Michael K. Williams and purchased at the Harlem Creative Collective.

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Navigating these out-of-the-box dress codes can be confusing for guests who are accustomed to renting a tuxedo or donning a little black dress.

Heres a guide on how to interpret some of this year’s harder to define dress codes.

Weddings with canyons and cactuses as the backdrop may be beautiful, but unless the couple is content with guests in bandannas and hiking boots, dressing for the occasion can be tricky. If in doubt, opt for dresses that flow and separates in “bold prints and rich colors found in Joshua tree: greens, shades of orange, rich blues, deep reds and purples,” said Ms. Brickman, who suggested wide-brimmed hats and chunky jewelry as accessories. Think Boho meets Coachella. Make sure to dress for the weather, the stylist added, by avoiding “heavy fabrics such as wool or thick synthetics” and choosing closed-toed heels or flats. Sand and stilettos don’t mix.

“Black-tie Boho attire is clean and sleek with minimal embellishments,” said Jim Frericks, the Akron, Ohio-based owner of the wedding site Today’s Bride. Guests will want to sport simple yet elegant looks in monochrome palettes that feature small and subtle splashes of color and Bohemian flair. Those in dresses can incorporate a bit of greenery or florals into their outfits for a subtle touch, and tuxedo-wearing attendees can do the same via colorful pocket squares or a pair of funky patterned socks. Picture gowns with tons of lace and tulle, thin suspenders and flower crowns galore.

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While some beachfront weddings require casual attire, others may ask for guests to get just as dressed up as they would for an indoor venue. To stay formal while taking the sand and sun into consideration, pick jumpsuits or “airy floor-length or tea-length dresses in bright colors” Ms. Brickman said, as well as “suits in lighter shades and fabrics such as linen with playful ties or cummerbunds.” As for footwear, you want to be able to walk comfortably — “Avoid those four-inch stilettos or leather lace-up dress shoes,” she added.

A cousin of “smart casual” or “semiformal,” the “dressy casual” aesthetic expects guests to wear outfits that are “fancier than what you might wear to work, but less refined than for formal and cocktail events,” said Monica Mercuri, assistant fashion commerce editor for The Knot. “Casual sundresses, jumpsuits and dressy separates with minimal accessories are all great options, while suits and floor-length gowns are not required,” she added. And although heels are perfectly acceptable, they’re not necessary unless you’re in the mood. The only things to avoid? Jeans, T-shirts, and “any type of athleisure,” added Ms. Mercuri.

A slightly more elevated version of the dress code requested by Ms. Lavalle and Mr. Boniello, “creative formal” requires wedding attendees to don their best looks — but with a twist (or several). With this dress code, you want to “mix it up to avoid predictability,” said Donnell Baldwin, a New York City-based stylist, image consultant and a founder of Mr. Baldwin Style, a boutique wardrobe styling business. This may include gowns with sequins and funky patterns, suits or tuxedos with colorful vests, art-printed dinner jackets, and eye-catching accessories such as velvet purses or patterned pocket squares. The aesthetic “is for richly colored velvet jackets, burgundy suits and elaborate accessorizing,” added Brian Sacawa, the Washington, D.C.-based founder of the men’s wear blog, He Spoke Style. As long as the length and type of the outfits are abiding by the rules of the more traditional “formal” dress code, you can play around with the details and have some fun.

As the “coastal grandmother and “cottagecore” trends rise in popularity, so does “coastal chic” for outdoor weddings. It’s not a particularly formal dress code — no gowns or tuxedos needed here — and so guests can focus more on color and fabric than length. This aesthetic is all about calming pastel hues; “think sea green, sky blue, the soft pinks and reds found in the sunrise and sunsets, as well as lush florals and punchy prints,” said Ms. Brickman. Opt for soft fabrics, big hats, dressy wide-legged pants, mid-length dresses and anything involving lace or linen.

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If you’re planning a wedding with an unusual dress code, communicate your vision to guests in advance, said Michelle Cousins, the owner and lead designer of the Salt Lake City-based Michelle Leo Events. This can be done on your wedding website or invitation. These details “will make a world of difference for your guests so they aren’t feeling in the dark about what’s appropriate,” Ms. Cousins said.

Ms. Brickman echoed the need for a “cheat sheet” for guests. “Guests want to fit in and dress in theme, so help them do so by being clear in your intentions,” she said. “This could be in the form of a style guide on the invitation details card with example photos, or a visual/graphic in a section on your wedding information website.”

However, if you do decide to go the route of a full style guide with specific examples of outfits that fall under the aesthetic, make sure to stay flexible. “You want your guests to feel enabled to wear something they like that fits within the dress code without over-directing them,” Ms. Cousins said.

Most crucial, she added, is that you make sure guests are aware that help will be provided if they’re unsure about what to wear. Let them know that “it’s OK to reach out to the couple or someone in the bridal party or family to get clarification,” she said.

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