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Etiquette Advice for New York Wedding Guests

What to Wear, What to Give, and How to Deal with Sticky Situations

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Something New by Elise MacAdam

Are you ready for wedding season? Weddings are meant to be times of celebration, but they sometimes raise sticky etiquette situations for guests. How much should you spend on your gift? Can you bring a guest? How do you say no to being a bridesmaid again? Can you wear that hot white dress to your friend's wedding?

We asked Manhattan-based wedding etiquette expert Elise MacAdam, author of Something New: Wedding Etiquette for Rule Breakers, Traditionalists, and Everyone in Between, to answer some of the most common questions that come up for New York City wedding guests.


Wedding Guest Dilemma #1: What should I do about the wedding present? Do I buy off of the registry? Give money? How much? Should I bring it to the wedding?

Elise's Advice: There are no rules about wedding presents and while that policy applies universally, it is especially the case in New York where people come from so many different backgrounds with different traditions. Some only give cash, others only presents, etc. (There were a lot more rules in the New York of the 19th century, when wedding couples hoped that guests would refrain from giving presents, especially things like linens or house wares that presumed a certain amount of intimacy.)

The bottom line is that guests do not need to "pay for their plates" and there is no prescribed amount for presents. They should give what they can afford and what they feel like giving. If they are too broke to give anything, they should send the wedding couple a card congratulating them and saying how happy they are to have been included in the celebration.

Generally, it's not the best idea to bring presents to the wedding itself. The newlyweds will be stuck trying to figure out how to get everything home at the end of the reception and the chances of your present getting lost or broken are much higher than if you had it shipped.


Wedding Guest Dilemma #2: An old but not too close friend asked me to be in her wedding party. I have been a bridesmaid six times in the last three years and I really can't afford it right now. Is there any way to bail out?

Elise's Advice: The expectations people have of bridesmaids keep getting larger and more expensive. There are ways to beg off, but only with extreme delicacy and good behavior.

The bride is your friend and should know the circumstances of your life. Before you refuse the job, talk to the bride and let her know about your limitations. If she has only minimal expectations, you may not have to give up the honor (you might not even have to buy a dress). If you are supposed to be the bride's only bridesmaid, or one of only a couple of people, it will be much harder to turn down the request, but it will be easier for you to talk to your friend about your financial limitations and reach some sort of compromise. Really, no one should have to go into debt to be a bridesmaid.

Of course, if the wedding party is quite large, you will still need to tell your friend that you aren't in a position to take on an additional financial commitment and don't want to let anyone down. Say that you are thrilled you were asked to be in the wedding but that you think you would be more comfortable if you remained a "civilian" guest.


Wedding Guest Dilemma #3: I was invited to my co-worker's wedding. My name was the only one on the invitation. I don't think he knows that I have a live-in boyfriend. Do I RSVP for both of us or do I have to go solo?

Elise's Advice: This is a case where you really need to talk to your colleague. You should neither add someone who wasn't invited to your response card, nor should you just show up with your boyfriend. Since you are in a long-term committed relationship, you and your partner should be invited to weddings as a couple. There is nothing wrong with asking politely if you and your boyfriend can attend the wedding together. If you are told that you must attend solo, you can then choose to go on your own or sit the wedding out.


Wedding Guest Dilemma #4: I have a white dress that I love and I look really hot in it. It doesn't look like a wedding dress. Can I wear it to my friend's wedding?

Elise's Advice: Why stir the pot? It is generally considered poor form to wear white to a wedding unless you're the bride and attending in that dress could easily earn you some dirty looks.

Of course, there are exceptions to this policy. Sometimes brides outfit their bridesmaids in white and there are theme weddings in which guests are instructed to wear black or white (Truman Capote made this party style famous with his notorious 1966 Black and White Ball honoring Katherine Graham at the Plaza Hotel).

But unless you absolutely know you won't look like you're trying to steal the bride's spotlight, find something else to wear. Think of this as an opportunity to go shopping.


Wedding Guest Dilemma #5: I was invited to an engagement party. Do I have to bring a present?

Elise's Advice: There are no present mandates for engagement parties. It is strictly up to you. If you do want to bring something, you don't have to go overboard. Attractive, consumable gifts like wine, chocolate or other luxurious edibles are great options and don't tend to be overly laden with symbolism, so you can give them without having to think too hard about the gesture.


Planning your own New York nuptials? Read Elise's advice on wedding planning etiquette for New York brides and grooms.

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