Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

When Your Friends Start Getting Married: HC’s Wedding Survival Guide

Every collegiette remembers her first time seeing a classmate’s engagement announcement on Facebook. As we move towards graduation and beyond, many of us are faced with the potentially terrifying task of attending a peer’s wedding. It’s no longer an aunt or your former babysitter – things just got real. Compiled here are tips for understanding the invitation, dressing appropriately, keeping a positive attitude, and ultimately conquering the social behemoth that is your first “real” wedding.

My own matrimonial revelation came this past semester. As I scrolled through my newsfeed during a Finals Week procrastination session, the picture of an engagement ring and the words “WE’RE GETTIN’ HITCHED” suddenly appeared on my computer screen.

I’m sorry, what?

Who were these happily “hitched” adults and what had they done with my friends? A mix of jealousy, inadequacy, and rom-com-level sappiness washed over my sleep-deprived brain and I promptly burst into tears. After spending the next hour hiccupping Vitamin C lyrics to my roommates, I finally accepted the fact that we are young adults – with a growing emphasis on the “adult” part. Shoulders back and head held high, I decided that if there was a way to “win” as a wedding guest, I would be on the awards podium with a gold medal. Thanks to HC’s breakdown of everything you need to know before your friend’s big day, you can be, too.

Invitation Translation

Their formal language and font can strike fear in the bravest of hearts, but despite their flowery shells, invitations are both harmless and informative, providing the essentials for acing a wedding.

An invitation will either contain a separate card for the reception or will have the reception information included alongside the ceremony details. Oftentimes, there will be a date provided by which you should RSVP. Do both yourself and the bride’s family a favor and answer immediately, or as soon as you are able to. You do not want the bride’s mother calling your house and asking plaintively why they never heard from you. Ultra-embarrassing, so not adult-like, and, all joking aside, inconsiderate. RSVPs allow the couple to calculate the amount of food, place cards, wedding favors, and chairs to order in addition to allowing them to construct the seating arrangements. Bottom line: respond promptly.

With a rough economy and looming student loans, the concept of a “plus one” for single guests is becoming increasingly rare. If it isn’t explicitly stated on the invitation, meaning either “[Your Name] and Guest” on the envelope or simply “Plus One” on the reception card, it isn’t an option. Don’t fret – as Tristan Coopersmith, love-life guru, points out, this means there will be a contingent of unattached guests looking for dance partners and impromptu dinner dates. Coopersmith suggests the following pick-up line, applicable to 100% of the reception’s population: “How do you know the bride or groom?”

Dressing to Impress

Oftentimes a couple will indicate on their invitations the dress code for their special day, but for those of us who spend the majority of our time in jeans, interpreting “The Wedding Dress Code” can be a bit of a headache. After consulting Diane Forden, editor-in-chief of Bridal Guide magazine, I created cheat-sheets for every dress request:

1. White Tie: While these events are rare, particularly with the current generation of young brides, White Tie weddings are the pinnacle of formal dress codes. We’re talking floor-length gowns (black is your safest bet—never white!), your nicest heels, and that pair of mega-watt earrings you’ve been saving for your dream wedding to Prince Harry. You want to aim for conservative elegance, though, rather than outright glamour, so leave the cleavage-bearing tops and mini-dresses at home.

2. Black Tie: You know that “Little Black Dress” that every woman is supposed to have? Events like this are where it comes into play. Depending on how you accessorize it, a black, knee-length cocktail dress can function as the base for Black Tie, Black Tie Optional, Formal, and even Semi-Formal ensembles, perfect for a limited collegiette budget. If you don’t already own one, J. Crew and  ModCloth has a specific section of their inventory dedicated to numerous variations on the LBD, as does Forever 21 have great options. Look for classic shapes, flattering cuts, and details understated enough to be dressed up or down. Don’t be afraid to spend a little extra money on this wardrobe staple. Consider it an investment; the higher quality and better constructed the piece, the longer it will last.

Imagine Black Tie events as the slightly less conservative, slightly more glamorous sisters of White Tie, so pair your LBD with sparkly jewelry and some satin pumps. Have fun with your look, but keep in mind that Black Tie events are still very fancy, very classy affairs. Nothing too low or too short. If black is not your color, then Black Tie translates to either a floor-length gown or a knee-length cocktail dress in another bold shade – except for white. Do not show up to a wedding in a white dress. Regardless of your intentions, it will look like you are trying to upstage the bride.

3. Black Tie optional: If a couple is worried about guests feeling pressured to dress out of their comfort zone, they will oftentimes provide a “Black Tie optional” dress code. Along the same lines as “Black Tie,” this slight variation leans more towards cocktail dresses than gowns. In terms of accessories and and dress-length, follow the Black Tie guidelines.

4. Formal/Cocktail: Again, Formal or Cocktail attire is essentially the same as Black Tie, though it presents the opportunity for dressy separates. In the past, this meant suits; for a more current look, it applies to a high-waisted, knee-length pencil skirt, heels, and a blouse in a high-end (or faux-high-end) fabric. Or, if you’re one of those women who can pull off the tuxedo look, a slimly-tailored suit is another example of separates.

5. Semi-Formal: Pairing your LBD with a pair of bright flats and understated makeup makes for an elegantly casual look. Dressy separates or a slightly above-knee dress in either a fun print or a more understated fabric are also appropriate options. Tone down the overall glamour of your look and choose either a single, sparkly piece jewelry or satin heels, rather than both. Note: Semi-Formal does not mean jeans, shorts, t-shirts, or sneakers.

As an overarching theme, Forden suggests keeping in mind the time of day and location of the wedding, as these elements can oftentimes alter your clothing decisions. For example, evening weddings tend to be, on the whole, slightly dressier, while daytime events require more toned-down, casual looks. Though they’re still uncommon, brunch receptions are gaining popularity, and these events are more casual and dressed-down than their afternoon and evening counterparts.

If you’re attending a destination wedding, the dress code will often reflect the location. “Resort Formal” can mean an above-the-knee dress or a long, flowing maxi dress and dressy summer sandals. If you know you’ll be outside, plan your footwear accordingly; wedges are the safest bet, as they’re less likely to sink into grass, sand, or gravel.

Whatever you do, wear what makes you feel the most confident. If you’re going to be stressed, let it be about interacting with people you haven’t seen since middle school, not about your outfit. Keep in contact with other people who are attending the wedding; you’d check to see what your friends are wearing to a party on campus, right? Same thinking applies.


What you won’t find on the invitation is information about gifts. A wedding, as you may know from the movie Bridesmaids, is not a single-day event; there are oftentimes several gatherings before the actual big day, though most of these are reserved for relatives and members of the wedding party. If you’re a friend of the groom’s, it’s very possible you’ll just be asked to attend the wedding ceremony and reception – meaning you’ll only be expected to purchase a single gift. If you’re one of the bride’s friends, however, it’s likely you’ll be invited to the bridal shower and thus responsible for two gifts: one for the shower and one for the actual wedding.

A bridal shower is an event in which the female guests come together to celebrate the bride’s impending union and to pillage the couple’s Gift Registry site. Information about the registry is often included on the shower invitation, and as Jodi R. R. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting explains, shower gifts “tend to be more of the everyday (toasters, sheets, towels, mixing bowls) and gifts given for the wedding tend to be special-occasion-oriented (china or crystal). Some showers are specifically for the kitchen (or the bedroom!).” If the shower does have a particular gift-theme, it will be noted on the invitation. Just remember that the bride’s mother and older, female relatives will likely be present, so don’t give anything so risqué that you’ll die from embarrassment should it be opened in public.

Gift giving on the actual wedding day is slightly more tricky. If you attended the bridal shower and have already given the couple an item from their Registry, then giving the couple money as the second gift is perfectly acceptable. There will likely be some sort of box at the reception for envelopes. Another option for bridal shower attendees is to give two gifts that function together within a theme, like candles for the shower and candlesticks for the wedding reception.

Physical gifts should be mailed 1-2 weeks prior to the wedding date. When brought to the actual wedding reception, gifts have a tendency to get lost or damaged. They’re also an added strain on the couple and their families who have to try to transport them all out of the venue. Attach a note with your first and last name and a message along the lines of: “[Bride’s Name], I am just so thrilled for you and John. I look forward to celebrating with you next week. Best, [Your Name]”

If the prospect of purchasing 100 sets of crystal makes your wallet quake in fear, keep in mind that nobody is expecting you to shop out of your means. If there are no affordable items on the registry that speak to you, consider purchasing a Tiffany picture frame or making a donation to your shared alma mater in the couple’s honor. Advises Ms. Smith, “Follow the lead from the shower invitation or the wedding registry, but remember these are a guide. Invitations are not invoices.”

And now you have arrived…

Okay, you made it to the reception – now what? For the meal portion, receptions will usually have assigned seats at assigned tables. Hopefully the bride and groom put you at a table with friends, or at least other singles. Even if they didn’t, it’s rude to immediately drag your chair over to another table, especially if you were asked to choose an entrée in advance. Having worked as a catering server, I can speak from experience that the chef and the wedding planner are on the verge of a shared anxiety attack ensuring that the correct plates are sent to the correct seats. Don’t make them suffer.

If there is a band or some sort of music in the dining room and people are dancing in between courses, feel free to flit away for a moment or two to mingle, but be sure to return to your spot until dessert is over. After that, you can find your friends and never look back. Until then, practice your small talk skills. Everyone in attendance is somehow connected to at least one-half of the couple, and thus you have at least one guaranteed conversation topic. Lighten up, relax, and get your mingle on.

If you’re worried about prying questions regarding your own social life, come prepared with one or two lines that will provide an answer but no details, making it clear you’d prefer to keep your private life private. For example, in response to the question, “How is someone as fabulous as you still single?” Tristan Coopersmith suggests saying, “I’m holding out for someone equally as fabulous.”


Ultimately, it is imperative to keep in mind that weddings are, at their core, celebrations of happiness. Marriage is a big deal: your friend has decided that she is so madly in love that she wants to spend the rest of her life with her partner. That’s pretty awesome, and incredibly brave. Be proud of her! And if you end up leaving the wedding alone and misty-eyed over your own fate, remember these words of wisdom from Coopersmith:

“The most important thing to do is to think of your dating life not as a means to a marriage end (which lands a lot of people saying ‘I do’ to Mr. Wrong), but rather a journey in self-discovery that will help lead you to your forever guy. Be confident that your time will come when you are truly ready, not a moment before.”

As difficult as it may be, don’t apply yourself to someone else’s timeline. If you were, as I was, content with the pace of your own life before hearing of the wedding, you should be equally content afterwards. View your peers’ weddings as a positive, if informative, experience; you are witnessing what will become one of the happiest days of their lives, and meanwhile you can evaluate the elements in a relationship that make you happy and be the perfect guest.

Madeleine Foley is a senior English/Creative Writing major at Kenyon College, where she is the Fiction Editor for HIKA Literary Magazine and serves as a student associate for both the Kenyon Review and the Graham Gund Art Gallery. When she's not shopping at Party City Outlets for the latest in tiaras, Madeleine can be found hooting around campus with her all-female a cappella group, the Owl Creeks. This summer Madeleine was the Magazine/Features intern and resident Kennedy stalker at the Cape Cod Times newspaper and its sister magazine, the Cape Cod View, in Hyannis, MA. If you like love letters to Amy Poehler or the hit musical classic "CATS: The Musical," you can follow her at likeimdevastated.tumblr.com.