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Decoding the Ever-Confusing Wedding Dress Code & All the Ethical Dresses That Will Fit the Bill

Well folks, it’s June, which means we have arrived at peak wedding season. And while figuring out that wedding dress code might be a little bit puzzling — what the heck does “festive attire” or “beach formal” or “fancy ranch” mean anyway — finding ethical options to fit the bill can be downright difficult.

Not to worry, I’m here and at your service. I’m here to help make the whole process a little less baffling and a lot less painful — explaining what all those dress codes mean and how you can find dresses from ethical companies that will fit all your wedding needs.

But before we start translating the mysterious language of wedding invitations, I think it’s important to point out that as an ethical shopper the goal should be to get a dress that you will wear again. Because while those babies sure are beautiful, the last thing you want is for the dress you bought for your cousin’s wedding to end up in the back of your closet never to be seen again/contributing to the nearly 11 million tons of discarded textiles each year in the U.S. Keeping that in mind, I’ve tried to provide options that are not only from companies that are doing it better, but also options that will take you from wedding to work to wanderlusting (yea, just made that word up, run with it).

So without further ado, let’s jump right in.

White Tie

According to Refinery29 (and everyone else for that matter), “White Tie” is the most formal of all the dress codes. We’re talking formal, we’re talking proper and we’re talking conservative. Best bet here is a classic (not flashy), floor-length black (or other neutral color) ball gown. Top it off with some glamorous hair and makeup and some fine jewelry and you’re good to go. All that said, not a lot of us probably own proper ball gowns, a good option here is Rent the Runway — you can get the look you need, at a fraction of the price and don’t have to worry about not ever wearing it again. Boro and Style Lend are other good option to rend high-end dresses, the selection is a little more limited, but rather than purchasing a collection to rent out, they crowd-sources their clothing, making it a little less wasteful.

Add just the right amount of sparkle in the Milly Shag Taffeta Gown from Style Lend; show off those shoulders in the Badgley Mischka Black Crossover Ruffle Gown from Rent the Runway; go slightly off the color scheme in this navy Alice + Olivia Gown from Boro; do sleek and strapless in the  Jadore Evening Gown from Boro; or add a playful ruffle in the Christy Dawn The Ellie Dress.

 

Black Tie

“Black Tie” is the most commonly used formal dress code, but unlike its stuffy older brother, you get to have some fun here. Go for chic, statement making cocktail dress (more fancy than what you would wear to a cocktail party) or a long evening gown in a bold color. Again Rent the Runway, Boro and Style Lend are good options here, as cocktail dresses don’t really fit into the “wardrobe staple” category for most of us.

You’ll be sure to stand out in Nha Khanh’s Blue Machi Dress from Rent the Runway; go for embellished in this Needle & Thread Whimsical Dreams from StyleLend; pop some florals with the Adrianna Papell Floral Ball Gown from Style Lend; get pleated perfection in the Ana Silk Pleated Maxi from Raven & Lily; look fab in fringe wearing the Caravana Tulum Itzia Dress from Alma Santa; or go elevated in emerald with this Elie Saab Ruffle Sleeve Gown from Style Lend.

Formal/Black Tie Optional

Not as elaborate as black tie, but still fancy, think long or cock-tail length dress in a dark, neutral tone. And whereas “Black Tie” calls for something statement making, that is not a requirement here.

Easy to dress up or down, opt for the Iris Dress from Reformation; add some texture with the Self-Portrait Ava Guipure Lace Mini Dress from Style Lend; go for a unexpected ruffle in the Cuyana Silk Ruffle Dress; make the other guests green with envy in the Jason Wu Satin-Crepe Midi Dress from Style Lend; or go simple with a pop of color in the Reformation Nori Dress.

 

Cocktail/Semi-Formal

According to Refinery29, a good rule of thumb for semi-formal is “no beading on anything long.” Here you can go for a playful knee length dress, which could also be your go-to cocktail dress, which could also kind of be considered a wardrobe staple. Festive also kind of folds in here, according to Brides.com, as it can entail a cocktail dress in a fun color with playful accessories.

The Japanese GoWeave Long Slip Dress from Everlane should do the trick if you want to opt for simplicity; go delicate in the beautiful lilac lace Elliatt Tingle Dress from Style Lend; add a little twist in the Mare Di Latte Davia Pareo-Dress Malin from Alma Santa; make them blush in the Reformation West Dress; or opt for a festive One Shoulder Midi Dress from Mara Hoffman

 

Garden

Best description/visual ever for garden wedding? Think what Charlotte York would wear to a baby shower or a bridal shower in the summertime — courtesy of Refinery29 (#nailedit). Cocktail and tea length dresses are good here, as well as boho maxi-dresses. And florals are definitely an added (and very much appreciated by me) bonus.

Love the unexpected color of this Rue Stiic Andalusia Dress from Alma Santa; opt for the comfort of a jumpsuit but the look of a dress in the The Classic Jumpsuit + Rana from Matter Clothing; do an off the shoulder neckline in an unexpected color in the Reformation Mariposa Dress; do the dark and mysterious thing in The Marla Dress from Cleobella; take it easy in the Amour Vert Brandy Silk Wrap Dress; or go for a more delicate look in the Odessa Dress from Reformation.

 

Beach

While the term may be a tiny bit confusing — I was ready to show up in a bikini, but whatevs — think more along the lines of an elevated sun-dress or maxi here. Go with something flowy, yet still elegant. For “Beach Formal,” you can step it up a notch with a more formal sundress at tea- or knee-length, and breezy jumpsuit or more elevated hair/makeup and accessories.

Nohting quite says beach like the Tropica Dress from Reformation; omit ocean vibes in the Amour Vert Hedi Dress; get tropical in the Anais Dress from Amour Vert; go breezy in The Autumn Dress from Christy Dawn; play with your hemline in this Ulla Johnson Jules Dot Print Dress from Accompany; go full on boho beachy in the Doen Adarsha Dress; or opt for a light and airy look in this Tissue Knit Begonia Dress in Washed Denim by Synergy Organic Clothing from Modavanti.

 

Casual

Casual is a tough one, because similar to “Beach,” the name is a little deceiving. This dress code is not to say jeans and tank tops, but rather something that could pretty easily go from day-to-date in your everyday life. You could go for a summer sundress, day-to-night jumpsuit or even a nice blouse and a skirt.

Simple but with an off-the-shoulder update, loving this Cuyana Linen Off-The-Shoulder Dress; accessorize the Dolores Haze Josephine Jumpsuit from Ethica for a sophisticated casual wedding look; go minimalist chic in the Alaina Dress from People Tree; update the classic wrap dress n an unexpected color with the Reformation Frances Dress; or unexpected ruffles in their Adora Dress; or go for versatility in this Ace & Jig Clifton Dress (off shoulder or on…you don’t have to choose).

 

And regardless of the dress code on the invite, here are a few more do’s and don’ts of wedding dressing:

Do:

  • Keep it subtle and simple, not sultry siren.
  • Keep hair and makeup fairly simple and natural.
  • Keep attire guidelines for ceremonies at houses of worship in mind
  • Err on the side of being overdressed (I mean, that’s just a good life motto right there).

Don’t:

  • Wear white. Avoid wearing anything that is more than 50% white.
  • Wear black for daytime events.
  • Wear jeans. Period.

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