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How to be the perfect wedding guest

Michael Hennegan, society editor of ES Magazine, on how to navigate every wedding guest conundrum

6 April 2023

Image: Shutterstock

How to be the perfect wedding guest? It’s a minefield out there, with no rule book to help navigate your way through these particularly turbulent social waters. There are those who say that the wedding party is the bride and groom’s gift to those who have attended the ceremony, but there are still certain social rules which must be abided by – even if it’s a knees up at the local pub. 

Wedding etiquette, the outfit, the plus one and the gift all require a certain amount of thought, so here is what we know. Hopefully, this article will lend a helping hand to get you through the upcoming summer wedding season.

The outfit, depending on class, location and ceremony, can vary massively. Remember that anyone with a family seat (or a double-barrelled surname) or getting married in the chapel on their grandparents’ estate will, without doubt, be sticking to a dress code of morning dress. Never, ever make the mistake of turning up in anything but. You’ll look like the staff. As a host, the best gift you can give your guests is a dress code. “If there’s a clear dress code then always follow it,” says the super-stylist Luke Day. “It’s so uncouth to go off-piste.” 

Anyone taking a slightly more modern approach to their nuptials, say heading to the local registry office (the Chelsea office is as popular as ever), will be potentially taking a lighter approach, but as the saying goes, ‘never assume; it makes an ass out of you and me’. 

“It doesn’t hurt to ask a member of the wedding party. You don’t want to be mistaken for a bridesmaid or groomsman, ever,” adds Day. Socialite and party-planner Henry Conway advises, “Take the temperature of the wedding – you don’t want to turn up in full regalia when everyone else is in summer suits”. Sensible. He also adds: “If you’re a flashy dresser and confident then people will appreciate what you’re wearing. Remember, confidence is key – you can be a bit outré. I wore a pink suit to my brother’s wedding, which was maybe a bit too much in retrospect, but everyone still seemed to love it.” 

Stick to the simple rules: never wear black; men should try to find something a little more exciting than a navy suit (also known as the ‘first-court-appearance’ suit) and women should never wear anything too light. Also of note is to remember that cravats are always naff. No exceptions. 

And what about the plus one? Sadly, unless it’s a mutual friend, lover or partner, it’s poor form to take a random person to someone’s wedding. On these occasions, you’ll have to pull on your big boy, girl (or they) pants, fly solo and make friends at the bar. And besides, you should know other people attending the event. If you don’t, I’d take that as a red flag that you are filler and stay home. 

It may be terribly old fashioned, but don’t be offended by the ‘no ring, don’t bring’ rule: unless they’re a long-term partner or the relationship been officiated then you may be asked to leave significant others at home. One well-heeled wedding regular told me that they’d had 26 first cousins at their brother’s wedding so, unless you have Westminster Abbey at your disposal, the guestlist fills up very quickly. Likewise, if a space does become available then don’t be offended by a last-minute invite.

It’s also a very British thing to feel the need to accept a wedding invitation. Similarly, some people feel compelled to send an invitation to long-standing acquaintances when, in fact, no such obligation exists. If you happen to be on the receiving end of one of those, simply politely decline the invitation and buy them something nice from the wedding list instead. You’ll save them an invite extended out of misguided duty and yourself from a day of potential torture. 

Whatever your reason for declining a wedding invitation, “Do it early, do it quick, and keep it vague – apologise for having a prior engagement and leave it at that,” advises Conway. Just remember to go full blackout on social media on the day of the wedding…

For gifts, stick to the registry; end of. And don’t leave the choice to your PA. True story: one snappy, time-poor banker asked theirs to get the most expensive item on the registry and unwittingly bought the lucky couple a car.

Then again, if the recipients haven’t given any gift suggestions, always ask. “Wedding gifting is a really funny thing,” says event designer Fiona Leahy. “If you’re going to a destination wedding then you don’t need to get a gift – you’re spending a fortune just getting there. I actually think the idea of wedding gifts is redundant in this day and age. When people come to your celebration then that’s your gift. But if you do want to buy them something then you can get monogrammed linens or napkins – something that’s thoughtful.”

Next, to table talk. Remember that every awkward table needs a cheerleader, or chair, as it were. Hopefully someone else will pick up the baton, but alas, at times you will have to play court jester. Keep the conversation flowing, ask questions of each guest, introduce everybody to each other, try to find mutual points of interest, involve others in your conversation, keep it light, keep it cute. There’s no harm in channelling a bit of Owen Wilson’s and Vince Vaughn’s Wedding Crashers enthusiasm.  

Failing all of that, talk about the weather – you’re at an English wedding, after all. 

The last word, as ever, goes to the DJ Fat Tony, who’s played more celebrity weddings than we’ve had hot dinners, including last year’s mega-bash that was the Beckham-Peltz nuptials in Palm Beach. His advice? “Firstly, never upstage the bride in any way, shape or form; secondly, don’t snog the best man and thirdly, don’t stick your fingers in the wedding cake.” Simple.

Michael Hennegan is a writer, author and creative consultant. He has curated events for brands including Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, Selfridges, Soho House, The NoMad Hotel and GQ Style, and writes for titles such as ES Magazine, The Evening Standard, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, GQ and 10 Magazine.
Anya Hindmarch wedding leather journal, £395 
Smythson wedding card, £12
Jo Malone London Wild Bluebell candle, £55
Dolce & Gabbana towel set, £465
Fiona Finds napkins, £42
Dolce & Gabbana silk dress, £3,200
Brunello Cucinelli suit, £2,870; polo shirt, £370; pocket square, £170
Emilia Wickstead Mara dress, £1,750
Valentino wool suit jacket, £2,250; trousers, £825

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