Decoding the High-End Invitation — Our Etiquette Ambassador Breaks Down Everything from Weddings to Society Parties

What Your Host is Telling You That You May Not Know

BY // 04.26.24

In her recurring column, “Social in Security,” modern etiquette ambassador and Bell’INVITO founder Heather Wiese walks us through a list of trusted tips you can rely on. Today’s topic: the etiquette of decoding the wedding and high-society invitation. 

You’re invited. The paper arrives. It’s thick enough to cut cold butter. It has texture and intention. You immediately look for the date and time. What else do you really need to know? The truth is that there is a wealth of information tucked into every line and phrase. The high-end wedding and society invitation is a treasure trove of host tells and their expectations of you, the anticipated guest. The next time you’re included as a host summons the social butterflies of high society, be sure you’ve read this article. I’m writing to you, dear friends, to reveal the code.


Your First Clue: The Delivery

Today, a party that doesn’t happen via last-minute text is a statement in and of itself. These seemingly innocuous cards, or increasingly, their digital doppelgängers, are not just requests for your delightful company if it is convenient. The first rule of thumb is to match their effort. Pay attention. You can easily read the effort on the part of the host simply by looking at how the invitation was both designed and delivered. Make no mistake. The invitation you have received is the initiation of an age-old dance by your host. Now it’s your move.


The Society Two-Step

You have two opening moves to make from here.

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First, the reply.

This is most important. You must reply decisively. No one wears “Maybe” well. Don’t even try it on. Also, if you are bringing someone (very important: see the following section) reply with their full name(s) as well as your own. Not attending? Send simple regrets in the requested form, and if an explanation is in order, do it in person or at least by phone. The in-writing reply is simply, “Thank you for the invitation. I am unable to attend,”  or something similar in your words. Keep it free of excuses.

Second, the gift.

While your presence is a gift, let’s not assume and stop there. To bring or not to bring: that is the question. A society invitation is often reciprocated with an appropriate gift or a thank you note afterward.

– When you are invited to a shower or birthday, bring a gift for the guest of honor.

– When you are invited to a dinner party, bring a gift for the host. (This is NOT a contribution to what is being served.)

– When you are invited to a party that says, “No gifts, please” do not bring a gift.

– When you are invited to a home for a fund-raiser or commercial event, do not bring a gift. Do write a thank you note to the host following the event.

– When you are invited to a large come-and-go cocktail party, be sure your small gift has a tag and quietly leave it in an appropriate place if your host is busy. Do not bother your host to point it out.

I’ll never forget a chastising comment on Instagram concerning a gift brought to a wedding (as opposed to being sent via registry). As mentioned earlier, every subsect has its subetiquette. Speaking for polite society, bring a gift if you have not sent one ahead. Rest assured; you can do either without receiving a citation from the etiquette police.


Who to Bring

This one is the easiest. Look at the envelope. The name or names just above the address line. This is who is invited. If there is an inner envelope, the guests listed specifically on that envelope are the only ones invited from the household. If you don’t see “and guest” then you do not have a plus-one. You, alone, are invited. If you don’t see your children’s names or “and family” stated, they are not invited. If you have three children and only two are listed, only those two are invited. Never bring anyone who is not invited. 

high society wedding invitation etiquette coat-of-arms_gold-emboss_bespoke-wedding-invitation_partial
A bespoke embossed wedding invitation by Bell’INVITO.

The Original Attire Etiquette Clue in a Wedding Invitation

Here’s the scene. You’re invited to a wedding. It is for your office bestie. Weekends letting loose with her are always fun. Your crew has a strict no-posting policy on those nights for good reason. As you pack for the weekend, you anticipate dancing into the wee hours of the morning. The perfect flirty little dress is packed. You arrive. and as you approach an unexpectedly breathtaking church, you realize that you are dressed differently than the guests ahead of you. Suddenly you’re a bit self-conscious and feel some side-eye. What did you miss?

In the case of a wedding, here are the clues you need to know. When correctly used, if the “honor or honour of your presence” was requested, you have been invited to a religious ceremony at a sanctuary or place of worship. Typically, you can tell from the venue listed later, but not always. The implication is that your clothing is respectful. No one is telling you not to wear the sexy little number for the reception, or expecting you to perform a wardrobe change, but throw on a wrap or jacket and by all means, at least effort to minimize the cleavage in the church.

No one is trying to force you to conform to anything. This is your chance to show that you have the wherewithal to show respect. Alternatively, when the “pleasure of your company” is requested, feel free to arrive ready to party. And my dear friends, neither of these necessarily speaks to the formality of your attire. We’ll get there in a moment.


Today’s Word on Attire

This is by far the most confusing aspect of the invitation for many. Creatively worded attire suggestions are the bane of most guests’ preparation. No one wants to stress about the dress. I have been asked for well over a decade to help frustrated guests decode the ever-popular “—chic” added to any number of themes and seasons in the attire corner of an invitation card.

In a search for higher wisdom on this, I asked a multitude of fashionable socialites for interpretation, but by far the best deciphering came from the founder of The Conservatory, fashion guru Brian Bolke. He said, “Chic to me means to be thoughtful. Thoughtful of the host’s environment, the potential guest list, and also is permission to take a risk.” Well said. This we can follow.


Be Well-Heeled

An invitation arrives with a venue’s address and adds a simple mention of the garden. The host is subtly signaling that flat footwear might be wise. When lawns or beaches are mentioned, leave the stilettos at home. Wedges and flats are the correct attire.  


How Formal Is It?

Today, many modern hosts lean into giving you an attire suggestion, however, the traditionalists adhere to the IYKYK attire-free standards and leave guests to prove their comprehension. The phrases that indicate formality are twofold. The first can be found in how names are written, and second, more importantly, the time of day of the event. Formally speaking, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor Carmichael Smith are written as such. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor Smith is slightly less formal, and Haley and Taylor Smith are signaling a casual gathering. Additionally, if Mr. and Mrs. Taylor Carmichael Smith are inviting you to an event after 6 p.m., evening attire is correct. Tuxedos for men. Long gowns for women.


Other Little Invitation Clues about Attire

Remember the last time you started at a new job or were around a new group of friends and realized they had a jargon or a little insider language everyone knew? Society’s parlance involves the proper use of titles and small phrases such as half-after versus half-past — no, they are not interchangeable. Half-after is used formally and half-past is used informally and casually. 

As for deciphering your host’s seriousness on the subject of what “formal” means to them, a socialite notes the details. When all formal phrases and details are correctly deployed, which includes capitalizations, punctuations, and even placements at times, the message received goes beyond the directives on the paper. Additionally, Black Tie, White Tie, Cocktail, and other society-used terms can be deciphered via a quick online search. Know your reputable sites.

When a host uses indecisive language like “optional,” they are trying to be nice, but they really want to say, “We are asking you to dress up and take the attire seriously.” Society etiquette discourages indecisive language. It’s most kind to let your guests know exactly what is desired of them and to graciously accept their best from them, whatever that may be.


Your Transportation

In polite society, hosts anticipate your transportation needs, and if they make a recommendation, like “Rideshare encouraged” strongly consider their sage advice because there is likely limited space for parking, or they anticipate serving up a generous evening of drinks and want you to get home safely. If “Valet parking” is mentioned, be ready to tip or even pay for the valet. If “Valet provided” is the wording, this means they are paying to provide the valet service. Many guests will still tip the valet, however, technically the terminology implies the host is taking care of that as well. 


What the Arrival Time Actually Means in Polite Society

There are two times you can and should be early to a social event: weddings and funerals. Otherwise, dear reader, this is not a job interview. Do not arrive early.

Also, do not be fashionably late. In case your invitation was lost in the mail, you are cordially invited to the twenty-first century, where we all understand that it is rude to be late, regardless of who you think you are. So, what is late, socially speaking? More than 10 minutes.


Take Your Bow

Interpreting a party invitation is a learned art, requiring grace, knowledge of polished societal norms, a bit of grammar education, and a keen eye for detail.

Here’s the best part: while etiquette today involves learning the finer points of society’s language, it also allows for all types of personality and creativity. My favorite part of expanding your world with a little knowledge of the finer things is precisely that it’s expanding your world rather than trying to fit you awkwardly into a rigid, uncomfortable one. Let’s not forget—the invitation is an act of inclusion. You’re invited! The social dance is afoot. It’s your move.

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