It is great fun to receive a wedding invitation in the mail. You open it up and read the happy news, and then you see it in the lower right hand corner: "creative black tie", "casual elegance" or "black tie optional". What is the meaning of these terms and what on earth do they mean you should wear to the wedding?
It used to be that the only designations that would appear on a wedding invitation were "black tie" or "white tie". The good news about those forms of attire is that they have very specific meanings, both for men and women. They also let you know how formal the wedding will be. Any book of etiquette can tell you exactly how you will be expected to dress for a black tie or white tie wedding, which is great because you will not be left wondering what to wear.
More recently, however, couples have started using terms like "dressy casual" or "casual elegance" on their wedding invitations. The problem with these terms (and why you should never use them for your own wedding) is that they don't actually mean anything. They are recent inventions, and are so vague that it leaves guests wondering what the heck the couple is actually expecting them to wear. For some reason, couples do not want their guests to make their own choices about what to wear to their wedding.
So let's say that you are the unfortunate recipient of one of these invitations. Where should you begin? You might start by calling the mother of the bride and asking her for a more clear definition. The problem is that "casual elegance" means something different to everyone; There is no shame in asking the bride's mother what it means to her family!
A general place to start is to err on the side of being overdressed, rather than underdressed. If you are a little fancier than some of the other wedding guests, well at least it is better than looking like a slob. Weddings are very special events, and putting in too much effort will always look better than not enough. Female guests should plan to wear a dress or at least a skirt if at all possible. Men should always wear a tie. If you arrive at the wedding and see that no one else is wearing a tie, you can always slip yours into your pocket to fit in.
Now onto the specifics … "Black tie optional" is actually the easiest designation to decipher. It means that the bride and groom really would like for their guests to wear black tie, but are afraid to come right out and require it. So for this type of wedding, the men should wear a tuxedo, and the women should also dress for a black tie event. Look for either a floor length gown or a very dressy cocktail dress. Either one should be accessorized with your best wedding jewelry, whether it is pearl or crystal.
For "creative black tie", the men should again wear tuxedos, but they should add a dash of color, such as a tartan or paisley bow tie. A male guest could also choose to wear a red bow tie and cumberbund instead of the traditional black. The female guests can basically wear whatever they would to any black tie wedding, although you might try to spice up your outfit with a stand-out accessory, such as a spectacular handbag or pair of shoes.
When it comes to the more vague terms, like "dressy casual" or "casual elegance", things get a little trickier. In fact, they may really be telling you more about the reception than they are a hint about what to wear. (For instance, you might expect to find a buffet instead of a formal seated dinner.) I would suggest that the men wear a suit or dressy slacks and a blazer, perhaps paired with a festively colored or patterned tie. The women should just wear whatever they would normally wear to an afternoon wedding, something along the lines of a pretty day dress with pearl wedding jewelry.
If you get an invitation calling for one of these confusing forms of attire, don't panic. Just do your best to dress appropriately for a wedding celebration, and you will do just fine.