Everyone who has ever attended a wedding knows there are certain rules — a big one being don't wear white unless you’re the bride. On the other hand, some are a little less obvious, like deciding if you can wear black to a wedding or whether you should buy a gift from the registry or go rogue with your own idea. Plus, in the modern era of nuptials, there are things like Instagram and social media to consider, which aren’t addressed by the traditional gospel of guest etiquette.
With a busy year of bridal events on the horizon and invitations pouring in one by one, the concerns of what to do and what not to do as an attendee at someone's big day are even more pressing and relevant (especially since you're likely already thinking about what dress to wear now). For the final word on all things wedding etiquette-related, it’s best to turn to the pros. Enter: Anne Chertoff, the wedding etiquette expert at Beaumont Etiquette and co-founder of its renowned Plaza Finishing Program. The course has revived the art of etiquette for a modern crowd, offering lessons in professional networking, digital communication, social graces, and other revamped matters of decorum and propriety.
Below, Chertoff lends her considerable know-how to answer all your questions about how to be a good wedding guest, from the proper way to RSVP (which is not to just text the couple a week before the big day, FYI), and bringing a plus-one (read: don't bring the guy you met randomly at a bar last weekend), to the gift (is it ever okay to not get one?), the dress code, and the dos and don’ts for the day of.
The Dress Code (Hint: Black Is OK)
Yes, you can wear black! Just choose a style that's suitable for a particular time and place.
"Black is perfectly acceptable to wear to a wedding. The style of the dress should reflect the time of year, time of day, and wedding location. For example, for a formal or black-tie wedding, a woman may wear a black floor-length gown, but at a beach wedding she may wear a black dress that’s shorter and flowy, and at a rustic or vineyard wedding a black lace dress would be appropriate."
Don't wear white (obviously), but also try not to wear the same color as the bridesmaids.
"Unless the couple is planning a white wedding dress code, guests should avoid wearing white, ivory, or a similar shade to a wedding. If a guest knows what color the bridesmaids are wearing, they should avoid wearing the same color dress."
Avoid anything too casual or too sexy.
"If the wedding ceremony is being held in a house of worship, it would be appropriate for a guest to choose something that isn’t too sexy or at least wear something to cover their shoulders if the church or synagogue requires a more modest look in their chapel or sanctuary. In general, guests should also avoid flip-flops, athleisure wear, denim, and shorts which are most likely too casual for a wedding’s setting."
Always pay attention to the dress code — and when in doubt, ask.
"It’s important for guests to look to the time and location of the wedding as well as a style of dress listed on the invitation or on an insert card, such as black tie or formal attire, and follow the directions listed. If the couple asked everyone to wear black tie it would be inappropriate for a guest to arrive in a sundress, suit without a tie, or shorts. And it’s OK to ask the couple, a parent of the couple, or a member of the wedding party for clarification if a guest is not sure what they should wear."
The RSVP & Plus-One
It's best to RSVP in the format requested on the invitation — but no matter how you do it, always RSVP.
"A guest should RSVP in the format the couple requested, either via a reply card you drop in the mail or their wedding website because it is probably the easiest way for the couple to keep their guest list and RSVPs organized. However, the most important thing is to let the couple know that you are or are not attending, so an email, phone call, text, or in-person reply will do. Don’t assume that the couple will check their LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram messaging often enough to read your reply. Text, email, a call, or in-person would be better."
Don't assume you get a plus-one and don't bring just anyone as your guest.
"A couple will indicate on the outer or inner envelope of their wedding invitation whether you’re invited with a plus-one or not. The envelope would list both names of those invited or one name and “and Guest” on the envelope. A guest who is not sure if they’re invited with a plus-one should ask the couple if they can bring someone with them. If you are invited to a wedding with a plus-one you should bring your significant other or someone close to you who you are sure to have a good time with."
You can politely ask for a plus-one, but respect whatever answer you're given.
"If a couple did not invite a guest to their wedding with a plus-one, the guest may feel comfortable enough in their relationship with the couple to ask them if they may bring a plus-one to the wedding. They should make the request in person, if possible, or over the phone. The couple may have made a list of guidelines as to how they determined which guests were invited with and without a plus-one based on their wedding venue’s capacity and their budget. If the answer is that a guest cannot bring a plus-one, then the guest should respect their answer and not show up at the wedding with a plus-one."
Only bring your children if they were explicitly invited.
"If you’re invited to a wedding with your children, you can bring them if you want to. It is not appropriate to bring your children if they were not invited. Their names should be listed on the outer or inner envelope, but if you’re not sure if your children are invited, ask the couple."
It's OK to decline being in the bridal party, even if you still plan to attend the wedding.
"It is OK to decline the invitation of being in someone’s wedding party. Some people may know or think they won’t have the time to give for pre-planning and pre-party events, and others may not be able to afford all of the pre-wedding activities. It’s better to decline the invitation than to accept and then not participate. But if you do decline, let the bride or groom know why you’re declining and make it clear that you’re looking forward to celebrating with them on the big day."
You don't have to select your gift from the registry.
"A couple will create a wedding registry to help their friends and family find a gift for them. The registry is comprised of what they want or need. But a guest does not have to shop for a wedding gift off the registry. A guest should find a gift that they think the couple will enjoy and that is within their budget."
You should always get a gift, but how much you spend is entirely up to you.
"It is customary for a guest to send a wedding gift to the couple, however, it is at the guest’s discretion to decide how much he or she wants to spend on the wedding gift. If you do not attend the wedding it is not expected that you send a wedding gift."
If costs are adding up, consider going in on a gift with others for pre-wedding events like the bridal shower or engagement party.
"It is expected that a guest at an engagement party and bridal shower bring a gift with them to the party. It is up to the guest to determine what they want to bring — item and budget-wise. A guest does not have to bring a gift to a bachelorette party. It’s not uncommon for a group of guests to chip in and give the couple a group gift at these types of events too."
It's convenient to send your gift directly to the couple's address, especially if it's a destination wedding.
"It’s entirely up to the guest if they want to bring the gift with them or have it delivered to the couple’s home — their address would be included in their wedding registry. A couple will expect that some guests will bring gifts to the wedding and they will have made arrangements on how they are to be collected and brought home or to someone’s home if they won’t be heading home after the wedding. If the wedding is a destination wedding it is advisable not to bring the wedding with you because it will be more difficult for the couple to ship their wedding gifts home from their wedding destination, especially an international destination."
The Ceremony & Reception
Don't skip the ceremony, even if you're running late.
"It’s always better to show up to at least part of the ceremony even if you’re running late. If you are late, you should enter the ceremony venue quietly as to not disrupt the ceremony if it’s already begun. If you know that you won’t make the ceremony at all, you may want to call and let someone know so if the couple asks for you they can tell them that you’re running late."
Absent specific direction, you can sit on whichever "side" you want at the ceremony.
"Seating at the ceremony, if not directed by an usher, is up to the guests’ personal preference. A guest can determine where to sit based on how close to the aisle or altar he or she wants to be. That may be determined when he or she arrives and which seats have already been filled. Also, a guest may determine where to sit based on where other friends or relatives are already sitting so they can all sit together if they desire to do so."
It is never appropriate to switch table assignments at the reception.
"It is not appropriate for a guest to reconfigure the seating chart that the couple worked so hard to put together. After the meal, it is okay for guests to mingle with other guests at the different tables."
Posting to Instagram is usually OK — just stay out of the way of the photographer.
"Some couples encourage guests to use their phones to take photos and videos and post them on social media. Others will request a phone-free wedding. A couple can ask someone, such as their officiant, to make an announcement before the ceremony or post a sign that they don’t want guests using their phones. Or they may encourage guests to use a custom hashtag when they post so they can see all the fun pictures their guests took at the wedding.
Above all, if you are going to use your phone, try to not get in front of the couple’s professional photographer when he or she is trying to capture special moments, such as standing in the aisle as the couple walks down the aisle."
Now that you’re a pro on all things wedding etiquette (give yourself a pat on the back!), below shop an assortment of chic black wedding guest dresses to wear to the event.
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