Reader Request: Dressing for Emotionally Significant Events

Reader Kelly popped this one into the suggestion box:

I’d love to see something about dressing for the big moments and days in life! I feel like I’ve got a handle on things most days, but then comes a wedding, graduation, funeral, banquet? I freeze. It’s like I’ve entirely forgot how to dress myself. Especially because somehow the stakes feel higher? Making a “wrong” decision could actually offend by failing to show respect for the day or occasion.

Etiquette is NOT my strong suit, kittens. I do love me some style guidelines, but I  also love to subvert everything that I’m told about what I should wear. Being respectful and reflecting that respect in my dress and comportment are both incredibly important to me, but sometimes I miss the mark. So I’ll offer my thoughts here with some trepidation, and hope that you can contribute additional experiences, resources, and wisdom.

My overall impression is that no matter what kind of emotionally significant event you’re attending* – be it a wedding, graduation, christening, funeral, baby shower, Bat Mitzvah, or something else entirely – the most important contributions you can make are to show up and show you care. Very few people are going to pay close attention to what you’re wearing and will be more affected by your demeanor and participation than your clothing and accessories.

However, bearing that in mind, emotionally significant events are some of the few for which you should aim to blend in. I don’t generally encourage anyone to conform, purposely dull, or invisibilify themselves, but my experiences have led me to believe that events such as these call for clean, plain, unobtrusive dress. If you wear your finest fancy frock to a wedding and show up the bride, you’ll feel crappy. If you pile on the statement jewelry for a funeral, you’ll feel conspicuous. Many emotionally significant events are about honoring SOMEONE ELSE, and if you keep your clothing and accessories chic but subdued, you will allow the process of honoring to continue smoothly.

In terms of specific guidelines, here are my personal opinions:

Unless directed to do otherwise, black or gray for funerals: I am extremely lucky to have attended only a handful of funerals, so I’m no expert. But my honest opinion is that you should wear something plain, black or gray, the end. The main thing is that you show up, give hugs, and support the bereaved, as this Jezebel article points out. But unless you are attending a service for which festive dress has been suggested as a way to honor the departed, just do black or gray. Dress, suit, blouse and skirt, blazer and slacks, anything office-appropriate should work.

No white, cream, or ivory at weddings: It may seem like an antiquated rule, but weddings are attended by plenty of etiquette sticklers and I just don’t see the point of rocking the boat. No one has a wardrobe full of nothing but white, cream, and ivory. Just wear something else.

Avoid loud patterns: There’s nothing wrong with a simple floral, some tasteful plaid, or a chic geometric, but garish patterns should be avoided. For instance, I’d feel comfortable wearing this or this to an event, but not this or this. Use your judgement and feel free to deploy patterns that you adore, but steer clear of truly loud, attention-grabbing ones.

When in doubt, wear jewel tones: Nearly everyone can find a jewel tone that flatters her skin and hair, and these rich-yet-subdued shades are ideal for broadcasting respect and sophistication.

Simple hair, makeup, and accessories: Obviously, this doesn’t apply to evening soirees or anything that specifies black tie. But for a funeral, day wedding, or anything of that ilk, keeping your grooming and adornments clean and classic will help further the goal of broadcasting honor and respect.

Again, I am no expert in these matters and I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve overlooked. So I turn it to you: What are your personal guidelines for dressing for emotionally significant events? What do you avoid? Embrace? Ever perpetrated a gaffe? How did you handle it? Any older rules that you think should be discarded?

*I’m assuming, here, that Kelly is asking about attendee attire. What to wear to your own Bat Mitzvah, graduation, wedding shower, etc. is a whole different question. Or set of questions, potentially.

Images via Boden – Yes, Boden!

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  • Eliza

    My high school made a huge deal about graduation, which was held under a white tent. Since it was outside, during the day, but quite formal, I noticed a whole range of styles. I thought the mothers wearing cocktail dresses (some quite short and very glittery!) looked a bit off. Demure but flattering dresses in plain (matte) fabrics, and one big accessory for personality seemed to work best for the occasion.

  • http://viennaisforphilosophers.blogspot.com Elizabeth Ann

    With funeral as the one exception I think it’s always appropriate to ask either the person the event is honoring or someone else involved with the planning what kind of attire would be appropriate. A bridesmaid or mother-of-the-bride can provide tips on what sort of wedding it will be, your sister can probably tell you what to wear to your niece’s graduation, etc. No one wants you to show up feeling or looking out of place and people are generally happy to provide basic guidelines. And, if they can’t it generally means that they just don’t care. I couldn’t get anything resembling a coherent answer from my brother about what to wear to his law school graduation, but I am positive he doesn’t remember what I was wearing. I do know he was glad that I came.

  • Emily I.

    I’ve been to several funerals held at churches where women wore black party dresses that were either backless, very short or had a plunging neckline. I guess that was their only black dress and they didn’t realize something different in a less somber color would have been more appropriate. I’ll throw in a bonus suggestion from experience, if a loved one appears to be approaching death, you might want to get the outfit ahead of time, possibly on sale. Both my parents died this past year and I want to continue to use the suits I wore, but now they’ll make me sad. My sister lived in the same town as my parents so on top of making all the arrangements, she also crammed in a trip to the mall for something more suitable than what she already had, but had to settle for a dress she didn’t really prefer for the occasion. I made sure to pack my great grandmother’s brooch for my mother’s funeral which was a little comforting to think of generations of women in our family being represented.

    • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

      Oh, Emily. Sending you big hugs, my dear.

      • Anonymous

        Emily,

        I’m so sorry you to had experience that. You did provide a really good suggestion, though. My father passed this year and we all had to spend time at the mall when we would have rather been at home focusing on each other and planning for his memorial service.

        I bought a dress that I actually like and continue to wear. I try to think of it in a positive light, though. It helps me to think of it as honoring my father when I wear the dress.

        Best,
        Elin

    • Jen

      Yes, on the modest dress to occasions. The scantily-dressed comment always reminds me of a scene from Will and Grace where Karen (Megan Mullally) and her husband’s mistress Lorraine (Minnie Driver) are at her husband’s funeral. Karen says to Lorriane, “If that dress were any shorter I could see your English muffin. Lorriane says to Karen, “If that dress were any lower cut I could see your Yankee doodles.” Henceforth, that’s been my shortcut for occasion dressing–no muffins or doodles showing. ;)

      When my best friend got married the groom’s mother wore a short black strapless cocktail dress to their conservative Baptist church wedding. Several of the groom’s family and friends wore strapless or spaghetti strap dresses. There’s actually a rule in our wedding guidelines that if you get married in the church, the bride needs a coverup if you have a strapless dress. You could hear the buzz of gossip when she walked in in that getup. It could have been avoided if they’d thought to ask someone that goes to the church about wedding attire.

    • http://www.sidewalkchic.com JoAnn, Sidewalk Chic

      Oh Em, thanks for sharing your story. I had to experience something similar when my own father died a few years ago. My aunts took me to Target that week and I ended up picking out the first black dress I saw, which I ended up hating afterwards because it didn’t fit well and it was associated with such a painful memory. I’ve stocked up on appropriate black dresses since for such occasions, all with different sleeve lengths, and I always try to wear a little memento that reminds me of the person who just died.

      I am so sorry to hear of your loss.

    • Eleanorjane

      My mother died recently (from cancer so we saw it coming) and I did think of buying something in advance but couldn’t bring myself to.

      I think the colour rules are much more relaxed here – anything sober and conservative works i.e. navy, dark burgundy, etc. but several people deliberately wore colourful outfits (including my mother’s sister in a candy pink jumper ‘cos she said Mum wouldn’t’ve wanted it to be a sad occasion)

      I straddled the boundary between colourful and not – I had a very brief trip to the mall and found the perfect dress in a shop I don’t normally frequent. Cobalt blue, knee length, fitting, high necked – I wore it with a little black jacket, black tights and shoes and earrings. It helped me get through the day feeling like I’d nailed the ‘Dressing for your mother’s funeral’ conundrum and Mum would have loved the dress.

      I am working on bringing myself to wear it again…

      • GingerR

        Generally I avoid buying new clothes for something like a funeral for that very reason — it gets infused with the emotion of the event.

        I think your philosophy – modest but not necessarily black, is totally appropriate. If you had a unique relationship with the person and want to wear something that personifies that, a uniform, a hat, a bright pink outfit, I think it’s OK. It’s all about expressing your love and respect.

  • lauren.

    thank you for including no white or cream to weddings! i saw something last spring showing a cream dress (lace, no less!) as appropriate for a wedding guest and i couldn’t believe it. on a side note, if the wedding “colors” are known, i would avoid those too, so as not to appear in the wedding party.

    • Meshell

      Unless you ask the bride first! I recently attended a close friend’s wedding, and she had no problem with me wearing white (as it was a hot Texas summer). Mind you, I wouldn’t wear that again as I feel it might have offended some people, but the wedding isn’t about the people attending, it’s about the couple getting married. Both were ok with my choice of clothing (asked several weeks ahead of time), but as I said, I wouldn’t do it again.

      I suppose I am saying that people should communicate with the event planners/hosts far prior to the event to ensue that their potentially questionable choice is ok. In my situation, they thought it was a hoot to break social norms.

  • http://www.jenontheedge.com Jen on the Edge

    Further elaboration about funeral attire: Just because it is black does not mean that it is appropriate. The perfect example of this is the black chiffon sleeveless cut-down-to-there cocktail dress that someone wore to my grandfather’s funeral. (And I would also suggest that if you are the deceased’s mistress and/or the mistress’ family, you just stay home, because the deceased’s wife, children, and grandchildren will be offended by your presence. But that’s a different story for another time.)

    To that I also add: No flip flops (even if they’re black), no jeans (even if they’re your best jeans), and no fleece (again, even if it’s black). I also think that pallbearers should wear woven (not knit) shirts with a collar and a tie, a dress coat, or both.

    Some cultures have different traditions about weddings. It used to be that in the South, red and black were also verboten, but not so much anymore.

  • http://seraphinalina.blogspot.com/ Seraphinalina

    I love wearing jewellry that has significance to me for important events, my Nana’s necklace for anything on my Mom’s side of the family, my husbands great-great-grandmothers locket to his grandparents internment. Then I find clothing that fits the situation around that. Having something with meaning makes big events either more special or easier to get through.

    I also like navy and brown for funerals. Not quite as stark as black, but then most of the funerals I’m attending are for people 80+. I don’t feel it’s as sad of an occasion when there is so much life to celebrate.

    Personally, I avoid straight black for weddings. A pop of colour somewhere softens the look, maybe a pink broach, shoes, shawl, just something to break it up.

  • Victoria

    Been to waaaay too many funerals lately….
    Black, navy, dark brown, darker shades of gray or any other dark, sober color is acceptable. Unless you’re from a culture (or going to a funeral) where the color of grief is white, then dress in white, off white, tan, light gray etc. Ditto for simple, subdued patterns like what Sal demonstrated. When in doubt, default to black (thank you global culture). Minimal accessories and black shoes unless you know the deceased and the family of the deceased are a little more liberal in their tastes. Then it’s okay to have subdued accent pieces.

    Style wise: no date clothes (plunging necklines, short hem lines) business casual or semi formal is okay. I’d also add the category of “church clothes” but church attire has gotten a lot more casual since I was a kid/teen and learning this stuff.

    As for the other formal occasions… ask. Private celebrations have gotten both more casual and more formal, depending on who is in charge of things. If you can’t/don’t want to ask, business casual is a safe default and you can be a little more bold in your accessories, but simple is also a good default. Sal’s got the rest covered.

  • http://www.amidprivilege.com Lisa

    Sally, I’ve noticed that people wear black and gray less and less. It seems also that more and more memorial services are held, instead of a full-on funeral. Dressing respectfully is sufficient in these cases. And if the person being remembered had a specific style legacy, I notice people wearing clothes to commemorate that. Nautical for a sailor. Outright festive for a rock and roller.

    • GingerR

      I think wearing things that memorialize the person’s interests is respectful.

  • Lynn

    I agree with Emily. While it may seem difficult to buy appropriate clothes before a loved one dies, it is even harder to do so while planning the funeral or other services. After a terrible shopping trip after my father-in-law died, I try to make sure that I, my husband and children have something suitable in our wardrobes that fit. This is also true for more festive occasions like weddings because after paying for travel and gifts a new outfit may not be possible. Great and thoughtful post.

  • http://www.alreadypretty.com Sal

    I’m kind of amazed by the number of folks who’ve mentioned wearing black-but-racy items to funerals. I didn’t think that needed specifying, as I assumed most folks would know that a black minidress isn’t funeral-appropriate. Wow.

    • Eleanorjane

      Well, not even racy but just ‘dressy’ in the wrong way… My sister-in-law (who is lovely in every way, by the way) turned up to my mother’s funeral in black stiletto sandals, black footless tights under a short skirt and a fairly casual black t shirt/top thing that showed a reasonable amount of skin. (This was in winter). This is no way showed disrespect, she just didn’t have any suitable clothes and that’s her style.

      Mum would have been fine with it and I’m sure no-one else was offended.

  • http://courtinkitchen.com Courteney @ The Oven Whisperer

    The biggest rule I’ve heard is to not wear bright red to a funeral. And I am sure that it would come off as garish, but I personally think a dark burgundy would suite even for such an occasion. As long as you aren’t trying to draw attention to yourself (unless of course its your day) you’ll be fine. That’s my philosophy anyway.

  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I think these are good guidelines, including Elizabeth Ann’s suggestion to ask ahead, if possible. So many dress-etiquette standards have loosened, but I think it is always OK to go conservative at these occasions. At your OWN wedding, OTOH, be the star!

  • Mel

    I agree with try to have your outfit figured out before the person dies (if that’s possible), so you can spend the time after they die doing meaningful things – like spending time with your heart-broken brothers after their wives die – rather than shopping.

    Also, try to have the dying person’s outfit figured out also, so you’re not rooting around trying to find their glasses or their watch or their favorite pearl ear-rings. I never did find my mom’s favorite glasses, and had to bury her with the new pair, which she hated. I feel so bad about that.

    My cousin had requested that we all wear her favorite color purple to her funeral. Which I did….but I also wore red shoes just to make her smile on her way to heaven. My brothers wore purple shirts & ties, and one had purple shoes. Except for the brother that spilled on his purple shirt at breakfast and thus wore an off-white shirt with his Rodney Dangerfield pants.

    But no problem! For the photos, I photoshopped his shirt to purple.

    Her siblings were so pleased to see that we’d managed to honor her request. They’d felt they shouldn’t do the purple thing, being the siblings, and they all wore appropriate black outfits.

    But we wanted to honor our cousin’s spirit….which was totally thumbing her nose at societal expectations. I still smile when I think of her funeral. She would have loved it.

  • Emily I.

    On the other hand, once in a while there are good reasons for inappropriate clothing choices. My nephew’s tight schedule meant he would be headed to my father’s funeral straight from the airport. Unfortunately he got airsick all over his suit and was the only grandchild to show up dressed like James Dean — jeans, white t-shirt & black leather jacket — his other outfit for the weekend. Or maybe that’s a lesson in having back-up clothes and taking anti-nausia medication. I don’t know (or care) what anyone else thought, but I know Dad would have been fine with it. (And thought maybe it was a good thing Mom had already passed away.)

  • Anonymous

    The last funeral I went to, the entire family was in full-black, but they didn’t have the money to have funeral attire, so it was “interesting” black. I wore a long dark green skirt and a white blouse, and I felt appropriately dressed. I think a white blouse is pretty much invisible in such situations. SoCal trends much brighter in all situations though, so take that with a grain of salt.

    Accessories to funerals should be minimal, and religious in nature – so long as your religion isn’t upsetting to the bereaved. A small chain with a pendant, small neutral earrings, a watch.

  • Dee

    I have to agree with the comments about having an outfit ready for a funeral. When my FIL died we had to get suits for our two young boys, maybe they just wore shirts and ties, I cant even remember now, but we still had to go out and get dress clothes and dress shoes for them. Not a fun shopping trip. My husband had plenty of dark suits but not all men do and its not easy to pick up a suit and have it altered quickly. At least if the adults have outfits they can wear you might have to make just one trip buy the kids outfits. (Children grow out of clothes so quickly I really can’t reccomend buying too much ahead of time unless you have other functions at which they can wear them.) I did buy a new dress for the same funeral and like the other commenter said I could not wear it again for fear it would rbe a reminder to my husband of his father’s passing.

    • Anne

      Okay, I no longer feel horrible about the fact that about five days after my MIL’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer I went out and bought a black dress. I even had the hem dropped (She’s a stickler for decorum and convention) I am happy to say that my dress purchase has functioned a bit like the umbrella you carry to ward off the rain or the car wash you get to bring it. My mother in-law is still with us and hopefully the dress will continue to hang in my closet unworn.

  • rb

    This may sound terrible, but unless you are actually the grieving widow, I would not wear black on black head-to-toe to a funeral. I agree that business-type clothing is the way to go. In addition to black (broken up by a blouse or something lighter) I think gray, navy and dark brown are also safe choices.

    I have been to way, way too many funerals. :(

    • Courtney

      Hmm. My recent funeral-going attire was a black 3/4 sleeve dress, plain black pumps, and a small necklace. I was part of the family, but not the widow, and felt appropriately dressed. Is there a full-on black you’re thinking of, more than a dress and shoes? Would black stockings have somehow been too theatrical/attention-drawing?

      I will note that funeral clothing for kids, including pre-teens but maybe not as much teens, is hard to come by. At the above-mentioned funeral, my daughter and my niece wore very similar black print dresses which were fine for the season and occasion but read, to me, a bit like “party” dresses (in the little girl sense – slightly poofy skirts). It was what we had, and wasn’t a big deal, but was one more wrinkle in an already tough occasion.

      • Maura

        Yes, dark, simple clothing is nearly impossible to find for little girls. At a (non-funeral) event a few years ago, our family was requested to wear black for some photos. I have three girls, including a baby at the time, and there was NOTHING in black for baby girls. Babies just don’t wear black! I begged for the photo dress to include other dark colors (hard enough to find for children) but this was planned by a family member without any children, and she wouldn’t relent. I spent several hours shopping, all the while building resentment toward this person :( I think it’s much better to settle for the token dark color of the season than insist on an impossible standard, especially for the little ones.

        • Velma

          I’m a collector of old etiquette books! According to Emily Post and older etiquette writers, plain white is “full mourning” for children. Babies and children under 10 should never be put in black.

          • Deb

            Velma, thank you! I didn’t know what Emily Post would say, but I completely agree with her. Children are always the “light” at our family funerals. Couldn’t get through them without the light they bring.

      • Eleanorjane

        My friend did a great job dressing her four year old daughter for her mother’s (the daughter’s grandmother) funeral. Plain black long sleeved top, grey tulle skirt (a bit tutu-ish, but longer) and a silver/grey headband with a flower. She looked lovely and very appropriate. Her 8 year old son was in a white shirt and formal trousers and looked very appropriate also.

      • Erika A

        Agreed about dressing kids. When my paternal grandmother died I was about nine, and I remember wearing a long-sleeved dressy dress that was a dark plaid in red-black-white, with black tights. Seeing the pictures years later, it was totally appropriate for the occasion. Kids clothes just need to look somber, and they need to be clean. Other than that, most people are aware that children are often too young to really understand the meaning of wearing black to a funeral, and are being dressed by their parents for the occasion, and thus are given some appropriate latitude.

      • rb

        Courtney, it’s kind of like competing with the bride by wearing white to her wedding.

        If you think about Jacqueline Kennedy at JFK’s funeral in her black dress, stockings and mantilla, that’s sort of the ultimate “grieving widow” look.

        If you are not the widow, and show up dressed like Jackie when the widow is wearing a plain navy dress, you’re going to look, in your words, overly theatrical. And you would feel uncomfortable.

        Since you can’t really call the grieving widow (or widower or mother or whatever) and ask what they’re wearing, it’s best to be not too dramatic in your own outift.

        That said, your black dress and shoes sounds fine. Adding black stockings and a black shawl (or god forbid a black hat with black veil) would have been over the top, I think.

    • GingerR

      I’m not a fan of full-on black either.

  • http://musclemilkisnotaeuphemism.blogspot.com malevolent andrea

    As far as dressing inappropriately for funerals (either too casually or too scantily), I think the worst offenders are usually young people who really don’t have anything but casual clothes and going out clothes. I know I didn’t when I was in my late teens and early 20s. When my dad died last year, I would have been fine with someone coming to the visitation in their best jeans and a plain shirt, rather than NOT come or go out and buy something specifically for the occasion. My own (24 year old) son wore a dark brown sports coat (his grandfather’s!) and khakis because he didn’t have a dark suit that fit him anymore and to run out and buy one would have been too stressful and expensive. I think he looked fine, and appropriate.

    • Halo

      I completely agree with you. When I was about 21 and so poor I paid for groceries in change, there was a rash of deaths in both my and my best friend’s families. I had no appropriate clothing because I wore a uniform to work and owned about 3 t-shirts and a pair of jeans. I thrifted a black skirt and a deep pink silk sweater, bought a pair of tights at the dollar store, all with money I borrowed from my mom ($10), and proceeded to wear that to at least a half dozen funerals that year. It was my only option.

      • JI

        Wear whatever you want to a funeral, just show up! My husband died in July, and I own a lot of black…my sons wore whatever made them comfortable, one wore jeans, and and that was fine. One friend wore metallic and stones, very dramatic, and it was her way to celebrate his life. As for gossiping about who wore what to church, that is why I don’t affiliate with any organized religion!

  • Mel

    Another comment…..in case it will help someone else out….

    Men’s Wearhouse is FABULOUS about getting a suit altered quickly if you tell them the circumstances. One time they had it done later that afternoon, and the other time they had it done the next morning. And they were so respectful about helping us choose something suitable for the occasion. Can’t say enough good about them. They helped us get through a difficult time just a little bit easier.

  • http://smackingdowntheapathy.blogspot.com D

    My Mom is the only person who seems to notice (and criticize) what I wear to funerals, so I always plan on having more than one backup outfit so I can deal with her, and any differences in climate that I may not have anticipated (I live in a much cooler climate than most of my family, and its easy for me to forget just how HOT south, south Texas can be).

    For funerals I tend to stick to solids, and make sure to have black or gray included. I wore a dark pink dress with a black cardigan to the first part of my grandpa’s funeral earlier this year, and a long gray dress for the second day. It seemed to work out.

    I also tend to wear my nicest jewelry for weddings and funerals, though I don’t know if that is an expectation.

    Also, if possible, at weddings you should avoid wearing the exact same dress as the groom’s sister! I did this a few weeks ago, totally by accident (and it was actually more hilarious than anything). We did get some good pictures :)

  • Pamela

    Count me as another who keeps a “funeral” dress in her closet at all times. As a little girl, I saw my Grandma stress-shopping to find a dress to wear to her father-in-law’s funeral, and I swore that I would never be in that position. Not that I want anyone to die, of course, but if they do, I don’t want to have to go shopping on top of everything else! I, personally, choose to have a black or gray dress (not pants) and closed-toed shoes as my funeral outfit; the religion I grew up in is very conservative and pants on women or peep toe shoes would be considered disrespectful. I figure those items would still be appropriate in a less-conservative environment, so I could wear them elsewhere as necessary.

    On a less sober note, I also keep a dress in my closet to wear to weddings. I hate getting a wedding invitation in the mail and then not having a clue as to what to wear! So, I have a default dress. I love it; the only problem is that at 2 of the last 3 weddings I’ve attended, the bridesmaid’s dresses were the same color as my dress! I had no idea ahead of time, so I was kind of embarrassed by that. Oh well…I do the best I can :)

  • Beth

    I have this same problem, I feel like I can put together work and casual outfits that I really like, but not for more formal events. I totally freaked out trying to dress for my brother’s wedding this summer! I was not a bridesmaid, and the bride did not decide on a color until very late, and every solid color dress I saw seemed like it could be a bridesmaid dress. All of the bigger retailers – Ann Taylor, J. Crew, Nordstrom – are doing bridesmaids dresses now, and it makes it very difficult to find something that is suitable but not an actual bridesmaid. I eventually found a dress, but ultimately was not thrilled with it. It didn’t feel like “me.” Of course it was still a lovely wedding and a wonderful memory.

    My sympathies to all of you who have had to deal with dressing for the other end of the spectrum for funerals. I think if you are the immediate family of the deceased, you should wear what makes you comfortable, what reminds you of your loved one, whatever is clean, even. You are dealing with enough already.

  • Nebraskim

    My brother is a high school principal in Kansas. The school has a dress code (not super strict, but does say things like “no exposed midriffs, shorts/skirts must not expose butt cheeks, no sagging pants, exposed underwear, graphics on shirts must not be explicit, etc. Completely reasonable rules.). He sent a girl home once because she was dropped off late and was wearing a spaghetti strap cropped halter top and black low-rise shorts that were about the length of volleyball shorts, and flip flops. When the parent came to pick up her, he asked why the girl was late and why she was inappropriately dressed. Parent said, “well, we’d just come from her great grandfather’s funeral and she didn’t have time to change.”

  • Kat

    I have a few plain black knee-length “office dresses” that are also appropriate for funerals, nondescript enough that you’d have trouble remembering it was the same one if I wore it again. I did once wear a very nice black and white dress to the funeral of an uncle who died very suddenly, and now I don’t think I can ever wear it again around that part of the family.

    My mother requested that people wear party dresses to her funeral. Some people couldn’t quite bring themselves to; I wore a purple one that she had given me for Christmas and have thought fondly of it ever since–it doesn’t really fit anymore but I am still hesitant to give it away.

    Almost all of my “nice” clothes are black–fortunately most of my friends are pretty casual about weddings, but I have a “normal” wedding to attend in spring, and realize that despite the size of my closet I have nothing to wear to it!

  • http://bibliomomia.blogspot.com Amy

    So spot-on! I tend to gravitate toward simple shapes and jewel tones for these kind of occasions.

    A note on some specific religious ceremonies: most Catholic churches require covered shoulders, so if you’re going to something like a First Communion, remember to bring a cardi or shawl to wear over your sundress.

    Many Jewish temples require covered legs (and covered head, but they’ll always provide scarves for that_. This is something you can certainly ask your friends and family about, if you’re actually invited to services for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or a funeral. But you might need tights.

    ABSOLUTELY no white or ivory at a wedding. Even if you “ask the bride.” These days, no bride is going to tell you “no,” but I can guarantee that her mother will be giving you stink-eyes all evening. It’s simply not a nice gesture to make on her big day.

    Personally, I wore I vibrant royal blue sweater to give my grandmother’s eulogy (because it was her favorite color), and my entire family wore Hawaiian shirts for my grandfather’s memorial (because it’s all he wore after he retired). However, those were very special and intimate choices I made because they were people I loved–if I was going to a funeral of someone in my husband’s family, I would certainly choose black or grey.

    • http://www.annsprojects.com/ Ann V

      For what it’s worth, I’ve been a practicing Catholic my whole life, and have never been in a church that required covered shoulders. Maybe this is a regional thing?

      • Jules

        Another life-long Catholic. I expect the shoulder-covering thing is regional.
        I’ve only encountered it in the more-touristed churches in Italy, where they’ll give (or sell) tourists ponchos to wear if their clothing is too revealing.
        I’ve been told of priests who didn’t want brides with exposed shoulders, but I can count on one hand the number of Catholic weddings (including my own) where the bride even had straps on her dress, let alone sleeves!

  • Kate

    Lately I’ve been appalled at the dress I’ve seen at both weddings and funerals, and I’m really not THAT old (middle aged). At both types of events I’ve seen numerous people in shorts, jeans (torn and not), tee-shirts, flip-flops, you name it. I try not to be fussy, but I really think people could go to the effort of putting on something nice for either a wedding or a funeral. I still remember a cousin of my husband who wore jeans to our wedding – he said it was because the wedding was on a boat. It was a paddlewheel river boat with a champagne brunch, not a fishing boat! Personally, I usually go for a dress for either one: dark for funerals, light for daytime wedding, possibly a cocktail type for a fancy evening wedding. Closed-toed shoes are good for both the funeral and wedding, and sometimes I wear open-toe shoes or sandals for a wedding, depending on location, style, my dress.

  • http://corpgoth.blogspot.com/ Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    I’m astounded that more ppl don’t have at least an “interview suit” or similar somber outfit in the back of their closet that they can pull out for a funeral.

    Weddings can be very tricky tho, esp. since ppl host weddings at so many different types of venues & times of day. A daytime beach ceremony followed by an evening reception inside the fancy hotel ballroom near the beach — so is that casual or formal, daytime or evening?

    Also, the strict etiquette breaks down bec. traditionally, guests are supposed to be dressed at the same formality level or maybe one level less formal than the bridal party. So if the bride is wearing a floor-length gown & the groom is wearing a tuxedo, all the women should be wearing floor-length gowns & the men wearing tuxes. This, of course, never seems to happen!

    My wedding was daytime formal in a historic venue, & we made the formality level clear to guests. But one person still showed up in jeans (friend of my husband). Ugh. Glad the photographer avoided him ;-)

  • http://www.annsprojects.com/ Ann V

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s noticed the “must wear black” mindset some people have about funerals. It’s like it’s St. Patrick’s Day, except instead of green people think they need black. My husband’s parents didn’t take him and his siblings to funerals growing up, so several years ago when a relative died his brothers were clueless. My husband was wearing something appropriate but not black, and his brother was insisting that my husband wear his suit jacket, because that way they both could be wearing one black item!

  • STL Mom

    While cleaning my closet last summer, I found so many black clothes that I thought, “Wow, I’m prepared for a funeral at any season of the year!” At the time I thought that was a bad thing: too much black, too boring. But just a few weeks later I had to attend a funeral without much notice and I was very glad to be prepared.
    Now I just need to add in some brighter colors for happier occasions!

  • Flan

    I always keep a black skirt suit in my closet for funerals, as well as black close toed shoes- like someone said above, on the conservative side of my family, women wear skirts (and hose!) and close toed shoes to funerals. I once had to get friends to overnight my funeral clothes to me when an uncle died while I was on Winter break from college, but having that saved me from what I’m sure would have been a terrible shopping trip. I tend to wear black with a muted non-black accent to funerals: a soft blue blouse with my suit, or a maroon shawl with a long black dress, which serves me well.

    I’m at the wedding stage of my life (planning my own, have attended at least 30 in the past five years), and I’m constantly shocked by some of the faux pas I see in wedding clothing. I always cover my shoulders at wedding in churches, simply because I don’t know the norms of that community, and it’s an easy way to avoid offending someone. I can always take off the wrap or cardigan when the party gets going later!

    • Kate

      Having to overnight the outfit for a sudden funeral reminds me of some advice my MIL gave me not long after I married. She said that when she traveled (she & my FIL were retired and took extended trips) she said she always took a black dress and shoes because she never knew when she’d need to attend a funeral.

  • Maura

    In my late teens I bought a navy two-piece dress – not a suit, exactly, but with a straight skirt and a sort of jacket-y peplum top – and that remains the best clothing investment I ever made. Not because it was designer, or great quality, (no, and passable quality) but because it suited every daytime dress need I had. It was somber enough for funerals, festive enough for weddings and graduations, and church appropriate. It was not expensive at all, it looked great on me, and I wore it for at least a decade. I miss it, just writing about it here. I think I need to replace mine, and put it on the list of things I will not let my girls leave home without!

  • T.

    For funerals, I think you can add navy to your list of black and gray. I think if your base color is a somber color (black or gray or navy), you can wear a deep color with it. I wore a black skirt with a dark purple blouse to my father-in-law’s funeral. For other funerals I have worn navy skirts or dresses with discreet floral patterns.

  • Erika A

    In regards to weddings: I agree that it’s essential to know what you’re in for going in. I was invited to a wedding last year where the bride asked us all to wear all-white outfits, and then she and the groom wore bright red with pink and gray accents. It was a stunning effect and really fun. I’m also going to a wedding at the end of October that’s a costume Halloween wedding. I know these are not the norm, but both times I checked in with the bride to make absolute sure I knew what she was going for in the look she was requesting from guests.

  • Stephani

    For my grandmother’s funeral several years ago, not long after I graduated college, I wore a plain daytime skirt suit–of the type appropriate for church–in lavender, which was one of her favorite colors. Not everyone was wearing black (in fact, I can’t remember anyone wearing head-to-toe black) but everyone was dressed appropriately, not in anything flashy.
    For my grandfather’s funeral a few years later, people dressed very similarly: mostly in church-appropriate (rather than business) suits. For the visitation at the funeral home the night before, I was in kind of a bind, but I ended up in a black wool skirt with tights, and a pale pink cardigan trimmed with tiny seed-beads (it was pre-holiday season and I had to shop for an outfit and there was nothing with less decoration than that).
    I think the key is an appropriate level of coverage, and quiet rather than flashy or bright colors. It’s not that any color other than black is inherently disrespectful, it’s that funerals aren’t occasions to draw attention to yourself.
    Weddings, on the other hand, are celebrations. True, one doesn’t want to show up the bride–but really, what are the odds of that? Everyone’s face is directed toward the front of the room where the bride and groom are standing. As long as you’re not dressed as Jessica Rabbit, a disco ball, a strip-club hoochie, or in a long white dress that strongly resembles a wedding gown, anything goes–as long as it’s appropriate for the time of day, the season, the formality of the wedding, and the venue or theme. There are enough wedding magazines and etiquette guides out there that these things really shouldn’t be mysteries, although many of them do have conflicting opinions. I think even white can be appropriate for a wedding guest to wear–when it’s part of a print with another color mixed in (even black). Odds are, no one is going to mistake you for the bride unless you’re standing near the front of the room. But when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to ask a (female) member of the wedding party.

    • STL Mom

      I attended a casual back-yard wedding at which one guest wore a tea-length white lace dress, white shoes, and white hat. She looked more bridal than the bride, who wore a simple ivory dress. At least one person did mistake this guest for the bride from the back!
      I think the bride would have been happier if that guest had shown up in shorts and flip-flops.

      • Stephani

        I blame the whole “brides wear white” tradition. Says who? It’s become the default uniform and for no good reason based in modern thinking.
        When in doubt, look to the front of the room, and the person in front of the officiant repeating vows is the bride. 9 times out of 10.

  • lesliele

    This topic is a particular pet peeve of mine… I’m only 31 years old, yet feel like an old fogey grumbling about basic DECENCY at weddings and funerals.

    The past three weddings I’ve been to, I’ve been appalled at the outfits I’ve seen. Women with thong underwear hanging out of their skirts; polyester “club wear” with full cleavage and underwear on display; SHORTS with flip flops; tennis shoes; t-shirts & jeans…

    The last two funerals I’ve attended were almost as bad. I understand that a viewing is different from a graveside service or full mass, but COME ON people– gym clothes are not appropriate. Have some respect.

    AND GET OFF MY LAWN! *stamps cane*

    • Kris10

      Big resounding yes! And I’m only 27!!! I live in Nebraska, where clothing etiquette is…not what I’m used to. (I’m originally from the mid-Atlantic.) After being to several friends’ weddings in which people were way too dressed down, my husband and I decided to specify no jeans on our wedding website for our rather formal evening wedding and reception last year. It was still a little too casual. There is a huge difference in what Nebraskans and Pennsylvanians will wear to an evening wedding (and no, Pennsylvanians, you’re not always on the mark, either). The same goes for funerals. So many men in jeans!

      And then, I know a huge group of people in Nebraska that never, EVER dress down. It drives me crazy. Who wears black pants to an outdoor concert and picnic in 100+ degree weather?

      I think my point is, lots of people need lessons on the proper employment of jeans, and appropriate dressing in general. I hope I’m setting a good example!

  • lesliele

    Oh, and I forgot my main point– I was always taught that “church clothes” were appropriate for ANY occasion. Dresses, skirts, sweaters, buttoned-up shirts, etc. Don’t wear anything you would be embarrassed to wear in front of your grandmother.

  • http://www.tumblr.com/tumblelog/nathaliad Natalie

    I recently wore a very light pink dress to a wedding – it looked great but in the low lighting, I was scolded by my cousin, the bride. And subsequently, made fun of by the rest of my family. My cousin wasn’t truly offended but I still felt bad – it definitely looked pink under bright lights but in the dim lighting, it was washed out and looked like it was white or off-white.

    So that’s something to bear in mind – the lighting, which I had not previously considered. Black is a staple that can be worn to weddings, funerals and all sorts of occasions and glammed up or down with shoes and accessories. For future reference, I would err on the side of caution and go with colour or a printed dress for weddings!

    On a side note, my mum (who I wouldn’t call particularly interested in fashion) is a sticker for propriety and finds all-black (or rather, head to toe black, if you’re wearing pants) overly dramatic for a funeral unless you’re part of the immediate family. I find most neutral or basic darker colours work. Which is basically what most people have said above ;->

  • http://pacificrain.blogspot.com sarah

    my one tip? no mascara at any of these occasions – inevitably, there will be tears of joy or sorrow. (Or laughter, if you attended my grandfather’s funeral where the priest didn’t know his name and then broke out a little squirt bottle of holy water and squirted it around to bless the grave. Grandpa would have cracked up.)

  • Shaye

    I actually specifically avoid black at funerals, because I don’t want people to see my mourning (hypothetical or otherwise) as ostentatious. (I say hypothetical or otherwise, because – let’s face it – some funerals are harder to attend than others.) I usually stick with navy or gray.

    I have, sadly, been to a lot of funerals lately. It seems like almost no one wears black anymore – at my uncle’s funeral a few months back, it seemed like half the assembly was wearing jeans! It kind of blew me away.

    Dressing for a more emotionally-charged funeral can be another story altogether. I specifically chose my favorite dress for my best friend’s funeral, simply because I loved it and I knew she loved it and I knew I would still be able to wear it later. (I haven’t yet, actually, but only because it desperately needs to be dry-cleaned, and I’m really lazy when it comes to that kind of stuff.)

  • Judy

    I really despise wearing black to weddings, I learned that as a young woman and I still think it is just not a “fun” color. I try to wear happy clothes, a fun color or print, but still respectful and not too “partyish”. I agree with the layering idea, have a jacket or sweater or wrap for the church and then remove it if it is too warm at the reception.

    For funerals, what can I say? My mom just died in June and I went out and bought a nice black dress, I had some appropriate clothes but it was quite unseasonably hot that week and I would have been roasting. But the dress was knee length, quite attractive but not flashy, and I wore it with tan and black snake pattern slingbacks with a mid heel, a pin and necklace of my Mom’s, and yes I did wear pantyhose and so did my sister. Bare legs are not appropriate at a funeral! Many thanks to the wonderful sales clerk at Talbots who helped me pick the dress, shoes and hose in 1/2 hour when I told her what I needed and why. But the best part of the story was Dad, who promised us he had a “perfectly fine suit” but when we made him try it on it was at least 4 sizes too big! My sister and I still crack up at him coming out of the bedroom to show it to us, turning around, and his pants fell down to his ankles. So, we had to buy Dad a suit, shirt, tie, everything but shoes. Thank goodness for Gentlemen’s Wearhouse, who had the (extremely reasonably priced) suit altered the next day. I am planning to take the dress and shoes to my upcoming business trip to Miami as we do have a “night out” type of event. I have no problem wearing it again!

  • http://www.robinabrahams.com Robin Abrahams

    Great article, Sal! I write an etiquette advice column for the Boston Globe and I plan to link to this from my blog.

  • Elizabeth

    I had a Wednesday afternoon courthouse wedding. We invited only our parents, his parents and his sister-in-law, who brought her boyfriend. I will never, as long as I live, forget the fact that she wore black fishnets with high-heeled boots. The rest of her outfit was all right — a cardigan twinset and a straight skirt — but whenever I think of my wedding, that’s the image that pops into my head, LOL.

  • http://clothesinteralia.blogspot.com gina

    I never really got the no-white and no-black for weddings. Black is popular and cool. White isn’t exactly going to be confused for a wedding gown at most weddings. My mom wore a cream mother-of-the-bride suit at my wedding 10 years ago, and my grandmother wore navy (looked black). My grandmother’s sister was very disapproving, but I (the bride) didn’t care in the slightest.

    On the funeral front, someone mentioned not wearing something you really liked… Speaking from (unfortunately very recent) experience, I wore a black dress that I really liked to the viewing for my grandmother and a relatively new black suit to the funeral. I made a point of then wearing the same items to work the following week. I pulled out the dress, then put it back b/c it made me think of my grandmother’s funeral, then I thought of the Jezebel post and pulled the dress right back out again so that I wouldn’t lose both the dress and suit b/c I thought of them only as “the clothes I wore to my grandmother’s funeral.” I then deliberately wore the suit the following day. It’s only been a few weeks, and I’ve already stopped associating them with the funeral b/c I just kept wearing them like normal.

    I still get sad and think of my grandmother when I wear her jewelry, but her jewelry has always reminded me of her and my grandfather, so that’s not new. And the sadness is to be expected shortly after her passing.

  • gaga

    “No white, cream, or ivory at weddings: It may seem like an antiquated rule, but weddings are attended by plenty of etiquette sticklers and I just don’t see the point of rocking the boat. No one has a wardrobe full of nothing but white, cream, and ivory. Just wear something else.”

    There’s, at least according to what i’ve always learned even more to that rule, – mo black, as that’s gives the impression that you are mourning because of the marriage.

    No red, because that is considered vulgar in weddings and says something about you relation to the groom.

    And, the worst; nothing that is prettier than whatever the bride is wearing. She shall not be outshined. This rule is perhaps most important when you are attending the wedding of someone who are less well off than you.

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  • http://www.etsy.com/shop/pockyandanne Anne

    I know I’m late joining the party, but I just had to make a few comments based on my own wedding. Out of all the 150+ guests at my wedding, there are 2 outfits that stand out in my head several years later. One was my favorite- an artsy, bohemian friend of mine wore a maxi-dress (floor length, but not as “fancy” as a gown) in a gorgeous pink, orange, and yellow flower print. I remember that she was worried about looking inappropriate, but I found the dress perfect for a day that should be all about celebration! She would have looked strange in a more subdued outfit.
    The other one I remember was the dress worn by my husband’s cousin’s girlfriend. It was a tiny white party dress, very tight, that barely covered her butt. I didn’t spend too much time worrying about it (I had too much else to distract me that day!) but I did find it disrespectful, and the fact that it still bothers me says enough. Of course, she also wore basically the same dress in black to my husband’s grandfather’s funeral (another memory that stands out vividly several years later, especially since it was a Catholic funeral and she knelt in front of the church for communion showing everyone there her rear end…)
    I guess my point is that, while you can consider your personal style, you should consider your audience first, and don’t be afraid to ask someone from an older generation if your outfit is appropriate!

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  • http://studentswhostillhavesouls.blogspot.com Tricia

    When I was in high school I bought a black dress for a wedding. It had beaded colorful flowers on it so it seemed appropriate. A few months later I wore it to a school dance. About a year after that a grandparent died. Still being pretty young, this dress was the closest I had to funeral attire, so I wore that. Since then, the couple’s whose wedding I attended got divorced, and the guy I went to the dance with broke up with me. I don’t wear this dress anymore, although it’s such a nice dress I haven’t been able to get rid of it.

    As far as shades of white at a wedding, this rule is getting more flexible. However, I’d avoid anything completely white. Still, if the bride has made it clear that she won’t be wearing white, a few accents or layers can’t hurt.

  • Viktoria

    I went to a wedding three days ago, on Midsumer´s Eve. I agonized for six months over what to wear, and ended up choosing a red dirndl with a white flower pattern and green detailing on it. In Sweden, a “folk dress” is considered appropriate for almost any dressy occasion and this dress is perfect for a summer party. I normally feel strongly about the “no white, no black, no red”-rule, but even etiquette experts disagree with me, it seems. I hadn´t needed to worry. Most of the guests wore some kind of black&white-combo, or blue. The dresscode was “black suit” and some of those dresses was high street bargains, for sure, in cheap cotton jerseys. The bride was very pretty, but bare-shouldered in a Catholic church ceremony. I think I was the only one surprised at this. It seems I´m just almost always more conservative than anyone else and worry in vain.

  • Kate

    I once wore not-black to a funeral – a FAMILY funeral! my mom said not to wear black! – and I was the ONLY ONE. I will never do that again. Black, grey, all over that.

    The opposite was when I went to a friend’s wedding with a couple other friends. I was very careful to pick out something not-black and we were the only ones there in colors. That was less awkward, tho.

    • Texas Aggie Mom

      Something almost identical happened to me! One of the first funerals I attended as a young married woman was the stepfather of my husband’s best friend. I consulted my new mother-in-law on what to wear, as she attended funerals frequently. She assured me that “nobody wears black to funerals any more,” so I chose a cream colored silk dress with a subdued print of gray and taupe markings that was very conservatively cut. I will always remember walking into the funeral and the entire crowd turning and looking at me; needless to say, everyone was wearing black, gray or navy, all of which I had in my closet. I’m in my 50′s now and have attended way too many funerals lately; these days, I prefer to err on the side of being too conservative.

  • MissAmynae

    I have 2 “wedding” dresses- one for Spring/summer, and one for fall/winter. The spring/summer one is just a pretty cotton sundress in an allover print. The fall/winter dress is plum raw silk sheath with a ballet neckline and cap sleeves, matching coat. Teal scarf/shawl/gloves, turquoise jewelry with both. Easy-peasy.

    I will be wearing the purple dress with black accessories to my great-grandmother’s funeral, which is coming entirely too soon. Her name is Violet. If anyone complains, they can take a flying leap through a rolling doughnut- she is my favorite person in the world.

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