Style + Ask The Edit

Ask Belle: Fall Wedding Edition


Black Tie: Arabelle Long Chiffon Dress ($295), Cara Bib Necklace ($98), Faille frame Clutch ($118), Nina Cadence Pump ($79)

Cocktail: Halston Heritage One Shoulder Dress ($154), Siyabona Cluster Bracelet ($395), Block Frame Clutch ($69), Caparros Chantelle Pumps ($75)

Semi-Formal: T by Alexander Wang Pleated Dress ($325), Tory Burch Column Ring ($67), Wildlife Clutch ($29), Zara Studded Sandal ($90)

Casual: Tibi Shift Dress ($375), Trina Turk Modernity Necklace ($225), Elliott Luca Cordoba Clutch ($98), Michael Kors Suede Pump ($130)

Polyvore Set Here.

Earlier this year, I posted a guide on what to wear to summer weddings, and judging by the flood of Ask Belle’s inquiring about wedding attire, I thought I should probably post another one. So let’s dive right in, shall we?

Black Tie.  When I open a wedding invite and see that it’s black tie required, I get a little too excited.  Any excuse to bring my evening gowns out from under the bed is fine by me.  There just aren’t enough occasions in life where black tie is required.

If you want to buy a gown, here are some guidelines you should follow.  Choose a simple style with no embellishments, something that will be wearable for years.  Choose a color that can be worn in multiple seasons like wine, gray, navy, green or taupe.  Choose a neckline that is flattering on you.

For this look, I paired a blackberry-colored dress with a peacock clutch for contrast.  I added a simple gold heel, because no one can see your feet anyway so you should be comfortable.  And I chose a large necklace to complement the neckline of the dress and provide a bit of sparkle. 

However, when I wear strapless, I prefer to let my collarbones breath.  So I would probably wear a stack of bangles anchored by this fantastic mosaic J.Crew bracelet on a burgundy enamel field. 

To keep warm, I’d bring a wool wrap in either camel or grey.  But if your tastes run to the preppy side of life, you could also wear a crewneck cardigan.

Other full length gowns that I liked include this Mango gown with a lace bustier ($170), and if you need sleeves, check out the selection of reasonably-priced Tadashi Shoji gowns on Bluefly.

Cocktail.  Last time, someone asked me what the difference between cocktail and semi-formal is.  I believe that semi-formal is relaxed cocktail, essentially cocktail without the shimmer.  No satin, no shiny silks, no metallic shoes, no bling.  I think the two outfits above reflect that.

I love this one shoulder dress, because the shirring on the bodice hides a myriad of flaws while hugging the curves.  Because I didn’t want to destroy the neckline with a necklace, I added an to die for bangle.  Sadly, the price is also to die for.  (Forever 21 has a decent substitute for $10.)  And paired these pieces with a simple frame clutch and gunmetal heels to continue the all grey look. 

One of the biggest mistakes women make when they wear cocktail attire in winter is wearing fancy dresses with casual outerwear.  Your puffer jacket or everyday peacoat is distracting from your awesome dress.  Instead, choose a longer coat like the J.Crew Lady Day Coat ($325), or save your money for the dress and pick up this Nine West Coat for $130.

Other cocktail gowns I adored? The neckline on this Tadashi dress is lust-worthy, I can’t believe it’s under-$150. I also like this sculpted satin Black Halo dress.

Semi-Formal.  When do I wear semi-formal instead of cocktail?  When the wedding starts before 5:00PM.  I just don’t think glitter heels and satin are appropriate at 2:30PM.  If the wedding is in the afternoon and the reception is before 7:00PM, I’m semiformal all the way because it’s not too dressy for day, and dressy enough for the reception.

I chose this dress for the fantastic racerback neckline and the flouncy mini-skirt.  It has a feminine style with a bit of edge.  I elected to do a bold zebra clutch, but if you’re feeling basic black, add a statement piece like this metal plate belt or this one with gold insets.  I also brought in one of my favorite shoes of the moment, the Zara studded sandals.

If you want to wear tights with this look, you can.  Just choose a REALLY opaque tight like Commando or Kate Spade’s Very Opaque.  And then choose a closed toed shoe like these booties with black paillettes or these black t-strap platforms.

If you’re afraid of getting cold, I’d wear a leather or knit moto jacket.  This is definitely an occasion to go edgy over safe.

If edgy semi-formal isn’t the way you want to go, I loved this and this Joie navy lace dress and this green Asos dress for $70.

Casual.  While I love dressing up for a black tie wedding, I always have more fun at the casual ones.  Maybe because I’m comfortable.  The strapless gown may look divine but that boned corset is murder.

For this look, I chose a flattering and simple shift dress in a bold color.  Just because you’re supposed to dress casually doesn’t mean you can’t stand out.  I paired it with an eye-popping geometric necklace (the under-$20 version can be found here) and a simple pump.  Again, you could wear tights with this if you wanted to.

Choosing a coat for this look, I’d wear something black with a cool collar and gold buttons.  I like this black coat from Jessica Simpson for $150. 

For casual weddings, I also like this long sleeve, high neck Rachel Zoe dress and this printed Acne dress, even though it would cost a week’s pay.

One final tip, if you can’t afford a new dress or you don’t want to buy a new one, focus on your hair and makeup.  Go to the salon and get a blowout or an updo and spend the extra time on your makeup.  This way, you’ll look amazing in the photos without a huge financial commitment.



  1. TA says:

    I'm getting married on October 6 and people have been asking me what “semi-formal” means. I'm going to refer them to your blog post! It's like you've answered my prayers.

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  2. ml says:


    I have a wedding at a winery outside Charlottesville in late fall. The ceremony will be outside at sunset. Could I wear dress boots ( I already own these, so I'm hoping they'd be appropriate… Also, Can you suggest something I could wear over my dress for the outdoor ceremony?



    September 19, 2012/Reply
  3. Belle says:

    ml: If it's a casual or semi-formal you can wear those, if it's more dressy then it's a no. What about a big chunky knit wrap or a cape?

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  4. KateW says:

    Hi Belle,

    I'm planning to wear a hunter green satin David Meister cocktail dress (this is the closest link I could find to an October wedding. The ceremony is outdoors at 6, reception indoors. Any suggestions on shoes? I've paired it with silver shoes similar to the gold ones in your first post, but outside in mid-October, those shoes seem too summery to me. Thoughts?

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  5. Gabriela says:

    One suggestion with the black-tie look- if you're planning on purchasing a brand that doubles as a bridesmaid look, make sure you won't be wearing the same thing as the bridesmaids themselves! I only thought of this because I'll be wearing the same Arabelle dress in my best friend's wedding, and the invitation specifies black tie, so I think it would be pretty mortifying for a guest to show up in the same dress!

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  6. Caroline says:

    I probably would not buy a black tie or cocktail dress new. There are SO MANY of these things in thrift stores, consignment shops, eBay, and Craigslist that have barely been worn and are a fraction of the original price!

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  7. Anonymous says:


    Wow, I want to congratulate you and thank you for doing this write-up. It's a great cheat-sheet for distinguishing the differences (subtle as they may be) between black tie, cocktail, semi-formal, etc. So useful and handy.

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  8. lisa says:

    I'm surprised you suggested a black dress for a wedding.

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  9. J says:

    Belle, you are amazing, thanks for helping to clarify. I'm going to a wedding in December in Florida. The wedding starts at 3:30, the reception is from 5pm to 2am, and black tie is listed as optional, with a note that ladies should wear wedge heels since everything is outdoors. I was thinking about going semi formalish with an awesome flat sandal since we'll be dancing for a bajillion hours. Or would that be totally awful? What's your take?

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  10. Belle says:

    Lisa: A lot of people wear black to weddings. The only place it's uncommon, at least in the fall, is the South.

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  11. J says:

    Belle, you are amazing, thanks for helping to clarify. I'm going to a wedding in December in Florida. The wedding starts at 3:30, the reception is from 5pm to 2am, and black tie is listed as optional, with a note that ladies should wear wedge heels since everything is outdoors. I was thinking about going semi formalish with an awesome flat sandal since we'll be dancing for a bajillion hours. Or would that be totally awful? What's your take?

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  12. Belle says:

    Black tie optional for a dinner that starts at 5pm and they advised wedges? I don't think these people have any idea what they're doing.

    If they advised wedges they must mean cocktail or semi-formal. I would guess. I'd tryto bridge the gap between cocktail and semi form. I'd do a non-shiny dress with metallic accessories and extra jewelry.

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  13. Belle says:

    Basically J: I think she just wants all the dudes in tuxes. So she put black tie optional. One of the more cryptic invites I've ever seen.

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  14. J says:

    Thanks Belle! I was very confused reading the invite.

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  15. ANH Style says:

    This is a great guide! My friends and I are good about sharing dresses, which is a great option when you do not have either the time or the money to shop for something new. Dry-clean it and return in promptly with a sweet thank-you note and you're done!

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  16. ak says:

    I'd never heard that distinction between cocktail and semi-formal. I'm inclined to think they are the same thing for evening weddings, but this is useful guidance for a daytime semi-formal wedding I'm invited to in October. I have another wedding — this one in the evening — the week before and while the attire is also listed as semi-formal, I think they really meant cocktail (the bride has even encouraged me to re-wear the long gown I wore to my sister's wedding, which I am happy to do!).

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  17. Amy says:

    Belle re: longer coats- do you know anything about the quality of the Nine West Coat? I've been a big fan of the JCrew double cloth, and own two of the lady day coats already, but neither is really appropriate for formal attire (both are jewel tones that clash with anything but neutrals). Am debating a less expensive coat this time, although the JCrew ones are often worth the investment because they hold up for years.

    September 19, 2012/Reply
  18. DaShore says:

    I have a wedding in December in South Jersey at the shore that is likely semi-formal at best. This is very blue collar. There will be a lot of “Jerz”. What do I wear?

    September 20, 2012/Reply
  19. Zaza says:

    Belle just covered that in the post. Answering that question was the point of this post. The casual and semi formal outfits are your options.

    September 20, 2012/Reply
  20. Belle says:

    DaShore: I'd look for a dress that fits you really well in a bold (not neon) color. No sequins. No platforms.

    September 20, 2012/Reply
  21. Adil says:

    Great suggestions. I love women wearing short black dress along with stylish high heels for casual parties.

    Love this post. Gona share with mates.

    September 20, 2012/Reply
  22. Amanda says:

    This is great! I am going to my cousins wedding tomorrow and the invitation says “black tie optional” I just stuck to what I knew and got a black dress that was very flattering with fun accessories. But, I think you're right about the intention of all the men being in suits/tuxes. Hailing from a very blue-collar family, we sought out clarification from the bride a couple of months ago. Thanks, Belle!

    September 20, 2012/Reply
  23. Heather @ passthedressing says:

    Love Arabelle! If I can fit into it by October, I've got mine in charcoal. I really want a huge yellow statement necklace. Kinda Amarita Singh-esque. Seen any?

    September 20, 2012/Reply
  24. Heidi/The Closet Coach says:

    This is great, thorough advice. I especially love the tip to splurge on hair and makeup instead of clothes if you're on a budget. It's so true! I get reader questions on wedding wear, too, and I am totally stealing this advice ­čśë

    September 20, 2012/Reply
  25. RM says:

    What about a 2pm church wedding in Maryland, with cocktails at 4pm and dinner/dancing at 6pm at a country club? The wedding website says “black tie optional.” Is semi-formal. cocktail or floor-length most appropriate?

    July 30, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Cocktail. No satin, no sequins.

      July 30, 2014/Reply