NEW YORK – “Space Disco Cowboy.” “Yacht Shabbat.” “Burning Man Formal”? More couples are tossing tradition when it comes to what wedding guests should wear, to some befuddlement among invitees.
Maggie Long, 34, recently attended the nuptials of a close friend in a low-key Denver lounge. The suggested dress? “Dive Bar Semiformal.”
“I love a theme,” said Long, who lives in New York. "It's fun that people aren't taking weddings so seriously, but I had no idea what that meant."
After exchanging thoughts for months with the officiant, who is also a friend, Long took her outfit idea — a strappy ultra-mini dress — to the bride. The bride deemed it a bit too “Kardashian cosplay.” Long finally settled on a slinky gold lamé number by Norma Kamali, and a great time was had.
“There were a lot of vintage jumpsuits. One of our friends went full 1960s with go-go boots and a bouffant. A lot of sequins were happening," Long said.
Some couples are offering mood boards as a way to guide guests, including older ones. At the dive bar wedding, Long said plenty of older guests got into the spirit. One donned a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt, à la the Grateful Dead.
Other wedding guests have contended with “Tropical Formal," “Snappy Casual” and “Garden Party Whimsical.”
Heading into the busy summer season for weddings and other special events, Indya Wright in Washington, D.C., has had enough.
She recently posted on Twitter: “These new age event dress codes are the bane of my existence. What happened to just 'casual,' ‘cocktail’ and ‘formal’? Now I gotta Google ‘After 5 Formal Festive Renaissance attire’ to figure out if you want me to give Great Gatsby or King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table.”
Wright, 35, remains frustrated. The wedding of a college classmate had a “smart, but not too smart casual” dress code.
Emily Coyne, founder of Emily Coyne Events based in San Francisco, said wacky dress codes come down to couples striving to make their nuptials custom and unique.
“The key is making sure there’s communication behind the dress code. Don’t just confuse guests,” she said.
When her company builds wedding websites for clients, it includes descriptions for dress codes like “Wine Country Chic,” urging couples to offer a broad enough palette for people to express themselves. “Tropical Formal,” for instance, could be long, flowing dresses in bright summer colors and linen suits with playful ties.
“Most guests have a lot of fun with it,” Coyne said.
Rikki Gotthelf, 32, in Los Angeles, attended a wedding recently and has three more this year. She was a bridesmaid for the “Space Disco Cowboy” nuptials of friends who shuttled their guests to an abandoned ghost town near Austin, Texas.
“We had these shiny intergalactic Batsheva prairie dresses. Mine was iridescent,” Gotthelf said. “Another wedding I went to was ‘Funky Formal.’”
For guidance, Gotthelf turned to Sophie Strauss, who bills herself as a “stylist for regular people.” Strauss suggests following up with the couple if they haven't made themselves clear.
“They won’t be offended,” she said. “They’re invested enough in how everyone looks to have put forth a kooky dress code.”
One of her clients has a “Music Festival Formal” wedding coming up.
“He clarified with the couple that it’s more Woodstock, less Burning Man. Good to know,” the stylist said.
The difference? Hippie flowy dresses, bell bottoms, tunics, tie dye, big round sunglasses and woven headbands for the former. “Mad Max-meets-Carnival on mushrooms” in lamé, combat boots, rhinestones, body paint and goggles for the latter, she said. Her client decided on a neutral-tone linen suit with a vintage beaded necklace or two.
She implored guests staring down out-there dress codes to remember: “It's not a costume. Unless, of course, it's literally a costume party.”
Small adjustments may be enough, like wearing a regular suit but swapping out a dress shirt for one in an on-theme pattern. James Berger, 32, in Las Vegas, was among guests told to express their inner spirit. He managed a bow tie with multicolored polkas and a formal suit that left him feeling “slightly out of place” among a sea of vibrant colors.
Strauss, the stylist, regularly faces the issue among her clients.
“I had a client who had to do a ‘Fancy Ranch’ theme a few months ago and she was tempted to go buy a new outfit from head to toe,” she said. “But pairing some cowboy boots with a sundress or swapping a tie for a bolo tie goes a long way. And if you’re really into it you could add a cowboy hat. You don’t need to dress like Orville Peck to fit the theme, though if that’s your style, oh my god go for it!”
There's often sentimental meaning behind wedding themes. Madison Smith, 32, is a May 2024 bride and her dress code calls for “Black Tie Sunset Glam.” The wedding will be held at the Bonnet Island Estate in Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
“It's in honor of my late grandfather," she said of the theme. “His favorite thing was the sunsets where I’m getting married."
Her vision? Sunset-colored gowns of oranges, yellows, purples, blues and pinks with fun accessories, and tuxedoes with bow ties and pocket squares of the same colors.
Smith, in Arlington, Virginia, hasn't left guests guessing. She works for Pinterest and has already been pinning inspiration to give them a boost. Her bridal shower guests have a board of their own to tackle Smith's “LoveShackFancy” dress code.
“They have no precedent for an unusual dress code where a couple calls for something other than black tie, formal, cocktail or casual attire. When you receive an invitation that reads ‘Festive Hudson Valley Chic’ or ‘Tropical Hipster,’ it can certainly bode more questions than less for those used to more traditional themes,” said Amy Shey Jacobs, founder of Chandelier Events in New York.
“Chic as F—k.” “Gay Garden Party.” “Black Tie Fabulous.” “Colorful Cocktail.” “Sparkle and Shine.” “Red Carpet Ready.” Jove Meyer, owner and creative director of an eponymous event planning company in Brooklyn, has handled all of the above in dress codes.
“As much as I love a fun and unique dress code, I always suggest couples clarify exactly what they mean with a descriptive sentence or two so there's no guessing,” he said.
Brittny Drye, editor in chief of the wedding resource magazine Love Inc., said guests shouldn't be reluctant to quiz the bridal couple about a puzzling dress code.
“We never want to bombard the couple,” she said, “but when they're asking their guests to abide by a nontraditional dress code, they’re signing themselves up to be asked questions.”
Find Leanne Italie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/litalie
This story was first published on June 28, 2023. It was updated on July 2, 2023, to correct the attribution of several comments to Emily Coyne, not Renée Strauus.