Have you received a wedding invitation in the mail that’s left you clueless about what you’re supposed to wear? While you may be accustomed to a “dress code” for your job, there are also some unwritten guidelines that govern what you should wear to a social event – like a wedding.

In most cases, you’ll be given a clue that is just one or two words, such as “formal” or “black tie.” Here is your dress code decoder for those cryptic hints that are sure to be hidden somewhere on that wedding invite.

What is “Formal” Wedding Attire?

Formal attire is also sometimes referred to as “black tie optional.” When you see this, you should pull out your nicest tailored suit and tie, preferably in a dark color. In most cases, a crisp white shirt and conservative tie are the best choice to bring together the look. Since the invitation might say “black tie optional,” you can certainly wear a tuxedo if you wish but this isn’t necessary.

Accessories are key to really finishing off a formal look. For example, a French cuff shirt with a pair of simple but stylish designer cufflinks can really add an additional touch of class.

What to Wear When the Invitation Indicates “Semiformal” Attire

Semiformal attire for a wedding may also be labeled as “cocktail attire.” This is close to formal wedding attire, with a few liberties that make your outfit just slightly more casual. For example, instead of the white shirt and conservative tie, you might opt for pastel or brighter colors. You can even lighten up the suit colors slightly and opt for a pair of loafers over formal lace-up shoes.

What Does “Festive” Attire Mean?

If you’ve been invited to wear “festive” attire to a wedding, you’ll want to check several things. First, if this is a theme wedding you can probably incorporate some part of the theme into your choice of attire. Otherwise, if the wedding party is simply trying to keep things fun, this is your opportunity to take some chances with your wardrobe for a social event. Combine bright colors with polka dots, plaid, or other quirky patterns. Have a pair of Converse you’ve been dying to wear with a suit? Now’s your chance.

Your Guide to the “Black Tie” Wedding

Let’s assume someone you know is pulling out all the stops for their wedding and you’ve received an invitation listing the event as “black tie.” Think James Bond, here. You’ll need to either purchase or rent a tuxedo and dress it up with a bow tie. This isn’t the prom, so avoid bright and pastel colored ties and cummerbunds. A conservative look here is key, but you can certainly add your own mark with navy blues, white, and charcoal colors.

Other Dress Code Possibilities for Weddings

While the dress codes that we’ve listed are the most common, there’s always a chance that you’ll be thrown a curve ball by some creative bridal party that strives to be different. For instance, if you see the words “white tie” on an invitation, you’ll need to wear the most formal tuxedo available to the wedding.

On the other end of the spectrum, “casual” means that you can wear khakis (no jeans) and a nice polo shirt or button down. Finally, “beach formal” or “dressy casual” will allow you to pull out your most casual suit (think linen) and opt for lighter colors.

Wedding invitations with no dress code tips whatsoever, you can simply assume that the dress code is “formal” unless someone tells you otherwise. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and be overdressed rather than underdressed.  In nearly all cases, you can’t go wrong with a good-looking tailored suit and a nice pair of shoes.