As I would eventually learn, one of the key ways to survive a lavish wedding is to let the embarrassing moments slide off you like good caviar. Don’t keep apologizing to people. It only draws attention to the gaffe, and anyway, the sartorial choices of you and your date aren’t the point of the wedding.
Start With the Invite
“We’re fortunate, we live in an information age, so anything you need to know is relatively easy to find out,” said Daniel Post Senning, a co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast and the great-great grandson of the famed etiquette author Emily Post. “The invitation is designed to tell you a lot. Is there a reception? Is there a reply card included? What’s the formality? Once upon a time invitations featured coded language: For instance, requesting ‘the honor of your presence’ versus ‘the favor of your company’ told you whether it would be held in a place of worship versus a home,” he said. “Or the use of the word ‘and’ versus the word ‘to,’ that is, “the marriage of someone and someone versus someone to someone.” The first indicates a Jewish wedding; the second a Christian one.
Know What to Wear
The invitation will also help you get dressed, said Shawn Rabideau, a wedding planning expert, of Shawn Rabideau Events & Design. First, check the dress code; it should appear in the lower-right corner of the invite or on a reception card.
“White tie is fancier than black tie; it’s a white jacket for men,” he explained. “A woman could get away with a beautiful ball gown for either.” If the wedding is indoors and after 6:30 p.m., it’s a fair bet that it’s black tie. If it’s an outdoor wedding, “Chances are you’ll be in the grass,” Mr. Rabideau noted. “Ladies, wear your heel protectors.” An outdoor wedding lends a little leeway in terms of attire: A linen or lighter-weight suit for men can be appropriate, and people might experiment with hat size a bit more, Mr. Post Senning said.
“If you’re friends with the family, ask what their colors are,” Mr. Rabideau instructed. A no-no would be matching the wedding party. “And don’t wear something too revealing. If you’re questioning, ‘Is this too much?’ then it probably is. If you find something elegant that fits the black-tie bill and you have nice shoes that are comfortable, you will fit in. You don’t need to spend thousands.”
Have Fun With Fancy
“A concept that I love is that when things get really formal, they sometimes get a little playful,” Mr. Post Senning told me. “The most formal shoes you can pair with a tux are velvet slippers.” Or consider the increasingly ornate and occasionally kooky hats seen on women at British royal weddings. “There’s a certain casual comfort and familiarity at the extremes of formality that are easy to forget about,” he said. “To have fun in that and play is part of enjoying it.”
When in Doubt, Ask
Anne Szustek, who has attended more than a dozen “white-tie optional” weddings, recommended asking “the person doing the inviting — the couple or the person bringing you as a plus-one — to get an idea and follow their lead” in terms of what to wear. (It’s totally fine to ask this and other questions of formality, Mr. Post Senning said.)
Ms. Szustek added that looking at wedding-focused media that center on the high end of things can be instructive. “Town & Country’s wedding section is the gold standard on this front,” Ms. Szustek said, referring to the lifestyle magazine.
“You can always call with a clarifying question about attire. Or food, especially if you have an allergy. The sooner the better,” Mr. Post Senning said. “You might say: ‘My spouse and I have dietary restrictions. Would it be O.K. if I spoke to your planner about that?’” Mr. Rabideau suggested. “Then it doesn’t become the bride’s problem.”
Pay Attention to the Couple, and Their Parents
It’s only polite, but there’s strategy to it.
“We went to a wedding in the English countryside, and the hat etiquette is that the mother of the bride dictates when all the ladies are able to remove their hats,” said Claire Mickelborough, an American who lived in London for nine years. “Two girls at my table took their hats off, and they were tapped on the shoulder by said mother of bride and told to put them back on until she chose when the time was right.”
Mortifying, and completely avoidable.
Mortifying and “If the bride and the mother of the bride are taking their shoes off, it’s O.K. for you to do the same,” Mr. Rabideau said. “If the groom or father of the bride takes their jacket off or loosens their tie, you can do so as well. Until that happens, you have to suck it up.”
Don’t Freak About Money
Mr. Post Senning advises guests to “know what your budget is and stick with it” with regard to the wedding you’re attending. Don’t spend more than you can comfortably afford on travel, gifts, attire and so on. (The same goes for the couple throwing the party.) He also enthusiastically debunked the idea that a gift should be the equivalent of the dinner you’re served. “It’s not an exchange,” he said. Nor should you compare yourself with others and what they might give. “It’s the thought that counts,” he said. “It’s about the relationship and wanting to reciprocate.”
Do bring a gift, however — that’s customary. “Everybody has different budgets and price points,” Mr. Rabideau added. “If you are a guest, don’t feel the pressure to purchase the most lavish gift. Purchase something that will be memorable.”
Remember the Etiquette Basics
Mr. Post Senning laid out a few “minimums for no matter the wedding” for guests: R.S.V.P. in a timely manner with enough information. (Some indication of the form the reply should take should be part of the invitation.) Having accepted, show up on time: “Five to 10 minutes is great, 20 for a cushion, but you don’t want to become a burden and show up too early.” Then, “be prepared to enjoy yourself. It’s not enough to just drag your carcass there.”
From that, act like the gentle human you are. “One faux pas as a guest is walking up to anyone who is hosting and saying, ‘Wow, this must have cost you a lot of money.’ I’ve heard people say this!” Mr. Rabideau said. “If the food doesn’t come out exactly to your liking, if the coffee service isn’t fast enough, if the room is too cold or hot, keep your mouth shut.”
In that vein, don’t go around taking a ton of selfies. Do spend time observing everyone else and your surroundings. Don’t upstage the bride and groom. Don’t wear white. If celebrities are there, don’t ask for autographs. Do work from the outside in with your silverware. Above all, remember that you’re not the focus, and you should be fine.
In 2015, Jennifer Wright wrote an article for Town & Country about attending the wedding of her friend Katalina Sharkey De Solis to Ashley Hicks, Prince Philip’s godson. The event was held at the couple’s country estate and featured guests like Christian Louboutin and Giles Deacon. Lavish, sure, but “in a lot of ways it was also just the most laid-back wedding I’ve ever been to,” Ms. Wright told me. “I don’t recall there even being a dress code, except the kind you might be inclined to impose on yourself if you know Vogue staffers are showing up. They served pizza from a tent out back. It could have been in someone’s backyard, except it was on an estate.” It was also “the most fun wedding I’ve ever been to,” she said.
Lavish doesn’t have to mean old-school, black-tie events at New York institutions, with caviar ladled out with gold spoons by men in white. It doesn’t have to mean scary, either. And, really, you can take heart in the fact that there simply aren’t that many of them.
“The lavish weddings are probably 1 to 2 percent of the weddings that take place,” Mr. Rabideau said. If you’re invited to one, “pinch yourself,” Mr. Post Senning said. “Enjoy a Champagne that’s expensive, try the caviar, enjoy the views and the experience. It can be a real treat.”