Rehearsal Dinner Etiquette

Have you been invited to a rehearsal dinner and are wondering what etiquette to follow? We're here to help. Read on to learn about rehearsal dinner etiquette.

By Rachel Varina

Rehearsal Dinner Etiquette
Photo by Katie Osgood Photography

Being invited to the rehearsal dinner—whether you’re a part of the bridal party, a family member, or a friend—is a great honor. It means the couple not only wants you to celebrate their “I dos,” but they also want you there for the intimate events leading up to the big day as well. As you’re packing your bags for the festivities or planning your weekend attire, you might be wondering what, exactly, you should wear to the rehearsal dinner. Depending on the venue, the season, the guest count, and the formality, it can get a little confusing.

That’s why we’re breaking down everything you need to know about rehearsal dinner looks. From casual dinners to formal parties, here’s everything you need to know about selecting the perfect rehearsal dinner guest outfit that’ll dazzle without distracting from the couple of honor.

Table of contents:

Is There Really a Rehearsal Dinner Etiquette?

While you might not have considered any etiquette surrounding rehearsal dinners, knowing what to wear, bring, and do at the event will not only ease any pre-event jitters but will also show the couple how much you respect their celebration. Whether the wedding rehearsal dinner is limited to family and the wedding party, all out of town guests, or serves as an open house for the entire wedding guests list, knowing what to expect and how to present yourself at the wedding weekend festivities is essential when making a good impression as a guest.

Part 1: Proper Rehearsal Dinner Etiquette: Everything You Need to Know

From traditions seen at rehearsal dinners to whether or not you should bring a gift, here’s everything you need to know before attending the popular pre-wedding event:

What Is a Rehearsal Dinner?

In short, a wedding rehearsal dinner is just that: a dinner centering around the wedding rehearsal. Since oftentimes there are a lot of moving pieces that go into a wedding ceremony, from when the bridal party walks down to the aisle to where everyone needs to stand, and how to execute the recessional, spending some time before the celebrating marking everything out has become customary. After getting your group together to go over music cues and positions, a rehearsal dinner typically takes place as a way to celebrate your close-knit friends and family. This gives the couple the chance to unwind with their VIPs before the larger celebration (which usually requires more small talk and provides less one-on-one time).

Traditionally at least the wedding party and family are invited to the rehearsal dinner, but some couples choose to invite more people, like all of their out-of-town attendees, or even their entire wedding guest list, to make the party weekend last even longer.

What’s the History of Rehearsal Dinners?

While many aspects of a wedding celebration can be traced back through hundreds of years and various cultures, wedding rehearsal dinners are one of the newer elements added to modern weddings. It’s unclear when, exactly, these pre-ceremony events became commonplace, but a good guess would be around the 1950s. That’s when the wedding industry saw a boom, and nuptials became more of an event than they were in the past.

Prior to the ‘50s, weddings were typically much more casual and usually consisted of a church or backyard ceremony and a BBQ-style dinner/party afterward. As weddings became more intricate, a rehearsal was needed so everyone could be in the right place at the right time —especially since things like photographers and videographers became customary.

Who’s Invited to a Rehearsal Dinner?

It’s completely up to the couple who to invite to the rehearsal dinner. If you’re wondering whether or not you’re going to receive rehearsal dinner invitations to the pre-wedding event, here’s who typically gets asked to attend the rehearsal dinner:

  • The couples’ immediate family
  • The wedding party
  • Any VIP family members (like grandparents or close relatives)
  • VIP friends/ceremony members (such as godparents, ceremony readers, and/or the officiant)

Beyond the basic invitees, the rehearsal dinner guest list can vary widely depending on the couples’ budget, rehearsal dinner venue, and preference. Some couples prefer a small, intimate group, so they can get plenty of one-on-one time with their VIPs prior to the wedding, whereas others like to invite all out-of-town guests, or even the entire wedding guest list, to turn the wedding into more of a weekend-long event.

When Do Rehearsal Dinners Take Place?

Rehearsal dinners typically take place after a couples’ wedding rehearsal. The rehearsal is to help everyone in the ceremony learn where to stand, specific music cues, and have the opportunity to practice walking down the aisle before the big day. This normally happens the day before the actual ceremony, but some couples choose to have their rehearsals a few days before the ceremony or even on the morning of the wedding, depending on factors such as timing and venue/bridal party availability.

Regardless of when the actual rehearsal takes place, the rehearsal dinner is often the night before the wedding as a way to bring the couples’ VIPs together ahead of the ceremony.

What Should You Bring to a Rehearsal Dinner?

If you’re heading to the rehearsal venue, there are a few things you’ll want to grab, including:

  • Photo identification (especially if you’re over 21 and plan to order alcohol at the rehearsal venue or afterward)
  • Cash (to tip bartenders/waitstaff)
  • Cash or card for after dinner (oftentimes, couples and their friends gravitate toward a bar or two after the rehearsal dinner, so make sure you have a card or cash on hand)
  • The rehearsal dinner invitation (in case you forget the address while you’re en route or need to show it for admittance)

Do You Need to Bring a Gift to a Rehearsal Dinner?

There’s usually a table reserved for gifts at the actual wedding ceremony (and a safe place to store them during the reception). You don’t want the couple to have to lug around a coffee maker or cash if they decide to go out for a drink after the rehearsal festivities.

Good news: You’re under no obligation to bring a rehearsal dinner gift. In fact, you shouldn’t bring one for the couple that day at all. While you might think it would be easier to just bring your wedding gift to the rehearsal dinner, it’s better to wait until the wedding, since the couple won’t have to keep track of your gift after the rehearsal (and wedding venues typically have vaults to store gifts in during the celebrations).

If you want to give the host or hostess something in appreciation for putting on the rehearsal, a bottle of wine, chocolates, or even just a nice card and heartfelt greeting will go a long way. Whether or not you give the hosts a token, be sure to go up and thank them for the wedding invitation.

Can You Bring a Plus-One to a Rehearsal Dinner?

Rehearsal dinners are typically much more casual than wedding receptions, but that doesn’t mean you can just invite a plus-one on a whim. Typically, if you’re given a plus-one to the reception, chances are they’re invited to the rehearsal dinner as well. That said, if the rehearsal dinner invitation is unclear, it’s a good idea to ask the couple (or someone close to them), so you don’t show up with a date only for them to be turned away.

What Do You Wear to a Rehearsal Dinner?

Figuring out what to wear to a rehearsal dinner doesn’t have to be daunting. You’ll want to focus on the venue’s formality, the season, the time of day, the location, and the overall theme of the weekend to select the appropriate attire.

Part 2: 5 Common Types of Rehearsal Dinners

Rehearsal dinners vary as widely as the couples themselves. Some love birds prefer an intimate formal dinner, whereas others choose a day filled with games, barbecue, and their entire wedding guests list. Here are a few of the most common rehearsal dinner types, broken down:

1. A Formal Dinner

Many couples opt for a formal rehearsal dinner at a favorite restaurant or catered from their wedding venue. You can expect a plated dinner (you’ll probably get a few meal options to choose from) and to see other wedding party members and close family.

2. A Casual Get-Together

More and more nearlyweds opt for more casual rehearsal dinners to include more guests and show a different side of their personalities during the wedding weekend. Don’t be surprised if the more laid-back couple chooses to have a casual backyard barbecue or dinner at a trendy diner or fun pizza place.

3. An Open House

As per the open house format, this type of rehearsal dinner might not be a traditional sit-down dinner, but instead include small bites and drinks and less of a structured feel. Odds are you’ll be allowed to pop in and say “hi” versus expected to stay for the duration of the event. That said, it’s important to check the formal invitation and wedding website for additional details, so you don’t arrive late expecting a beer and basic apps only to see everyone sitting down to a full meal.

4. A Rehearsal Brunch or Lunch

Some couples would rather have their rehearsal meal earlier in the day to ensure they have plenty of time to unwind and get shut-eye before the wedding. That’s why a rehearsal brunch or lunch—especially for Sunday weddings—is becoming more commonplace. These typically follow the same format as a rehearsal dinner, but take place earlier in the day and might gravitate toward a lighter or more brunchy-type of menu.

5. Something Outside the Box

Since the rehearsal dinner is typically just a time for the couple to visit with their wedding party and close family, there’s really no set format or expected event type. While some couples have a standard dinner, there’s no rule that says you can’t do something creative in place of a traditional meal. Perhaps you have a day of field games followed by a cookout or an evening of cooking classes and cocktails. There are really no rules when it comes to how you want to cap off your wedding rehearsal.

The Difference Between a Welcome Party and Rehearsal Dinner

If you received a formal invitation to a welcome party in addition to—or in lieu of—the rehearsal dinner, you’re probably wondering if these are the same event. While some couples combine the two, oftentimes, the welcome party is actually quite different from the rehearsal dinner. A welcome party usually happens during destination weddings for when out-of-town guests arrive. This is a way for them to catch up with friends, loved ones, and the couple and kick off the wedding weekend. Being invited to the welcome party doesn’t necessarily mean you’re invited to the rehearsal dinner, since the welcome party is typically more casual and takes place after the rehearsal dinner.

Part 3: What Happens at a Rehearsal Dinner

Rehearsal dinners—while somewhat similar to weddings—are actually usually pretty different from the formal wedding day “I dos.” While couples can choose to make their rehearsal dinners their own, here’s what you can typically expect to see go down at the event:

You’ll Have a Meal

As the name suggests, you’ll typically have some sort of meal at a rehearsal dinner. There will typically be a few different entree choices, but if you have dietary restrictions, it’s a good idea to alert the couple ahead of time. It’s also not a bad idea to have a light bite or meal before heading to the rehearsal festivities in case your dietary requests didn’t go through, or you’re not a fan of the dish served.

Speeches Will Be Made

While you were probably expecting speeches to take place at the wedding reception, they’re actually very common at the rehearsal dinner as well. Typically, the hosts of the dinner (which is traditionally the groom’s parents, but could be anyone close to the couple or the couple themselves) will thank the guests for coming, then friends and loved ones will have the chance to say a few words if they’d like. This is a little less formal than wedding speeches, but it’s still a good idea to turn your phone on silent and avoid any boredom-induced scrolling to ensure the speakers get full attention. If you decide to speak, keep it short, sweet, and appropriate. When in doubt, save your sentiments for when you get a chance to chat with the couple privately.

A Slideshow or Entertainment Might Take Place

In addition to speeches, the couple sometimes presents a slideshow of their favorite memories or even of their baby photos growing up. Since this event is newer and doesn’t have as many traditions, they could also opt for other entertainment like a live band, a caricature artist, or even a line dance lesson.

Gifts From the Couple Are Typically Distributed

While you’re not expected or obligated to bring a gift to the rehearsal dinner, this is usually the time the couple will present gifts to their wedding party and VIPs. If you’re a member of the party and receive something special from the couple, make sure it goes home with you, since oftentimes, the gift will include accessories to wear at the wedding or to help you get ready for the event the following day.

The Wedding Party Might Go Out Afterward

After the actual rehearsal dinner, the wedding party might want to keep the festivities going. This could mean hitting up a local bar, heading to the lounge in the lobby, or going back to the lodging for some drinks and pre-wedding bonding.

Part 4: What to Wear to a Rehearsal Dinner

One of the last—but most crucial—questions you might have surrounding a rehearsal dinner is what to wear. You never want to show up somewhere over- or under-dressed, but when it comes to something as special as a wedding event, selecting the perfect outfit is even more essential.

Consider the Rehearsal Dinner’s Formality

One of the best ways to decide what to wear to a rehearsal dinner is to check the venue’s formality. A quick peek at the wedding website or Instagram should give you an idea of the general dress code of the space. Here are a few outfit ideas depending on the type/elegance of the event:

Activity Party

An activity party—which is essentially a party where a certain activity is taking place—usually calls for specific attire. If the rehearsal dinner you’re attending is a campout, hike, beach day, or something similar, you’ll want to dress appropriately for the setting. Things like sturdy shoes, swimsuits, and sunscreen can make all the difference here.

Come as You Are/Casual

A “come as you are” or casual theme is exactly that: an invitation to come dressed are you would normally Check out where the rehearsal dinner is taking place—whether a restaurant, a house, or a rental venue—to get a better idea of outfit inspiration, but elevated casual should be more than sufficient.

Themed

Whether it’s a Halloween rehearsal dinner party, a winter wonderland celebration, or a patriotic summer barbecue, a themed event means you can have a little more fun with your look. As long as you’re comfortable and appropriate, feel free to lean into the theme and dress the part of the party vibe.

*Semi-Formal/Dressy Casual

A semi-formal or dressy c*asual look is pretty common amongst rehearsal dinners. This falls between a cocktail look and a casual look, so think of something you’d wear to a trendy or relaxed interview. A sundress, long romper, polo shirts, and even a nice pair of dark jeans could work here.

Cocktail

Odds are you’ve been to a cocktail event in the past and the dress code is the same whether you’re attending a rehearsal dinner, party, or wedding. Think elevated cocktail-length dresses, jumpsuits, and suits without ties or sport coats.

Formal

A formal rehearsal dinner means you’ll want to dress similar to how you would a formal wedding or another formal event. Think long gowns, a dark suit, a fancy cocktail dress, and a tuxedo are all appropriate for a formal rehearsal dinner.

Consider the Venue/Theme

In addition to considering the venue’s formality, take a peek at its theme or look to see whether the couple is tying a theme to the rehearsal dinner. Maybe they’re having a barn-style barbecue, in which case rocking your boots could be appropriate. Or perhaps they’re having a holiday-themed dinner in celebration of an upcoming festive day, in which case rocking holiday hues or stylings is a fun (but still subtle way) to honor the couple’s well-thought-out weekend.

Consider the Season/Time of Day

Not only do you want to take the venue’s formality and theme into consideration, but the time of the year and day as well. Typically, you can gravitate toward lighter colors and materials during warmer months and darker and heavier hues and fabrics during cooler seasons. Additionally, daytime events tend to be more casual than evening events, so the later the start time of the rehearsal dinner, the more dressed up you’ll typically want to be.

What Not to Wear

Ultimately the rehearsal dinner—just like the wedding—is about the couple, not about what you wear. You want to be dressed appropriately, but not too dazzling that you take away from the reason for the celebration. You’ll want to steer clear of wearing anything too revealing or flashy, as well as any white dresses or super vibrant hues (unless otherwise indicated on the invitation).

Zola: The Ultimate Rehearsal Dinner Resource

Whether you’re looking for the perfect accessory to top off your rehearsal guest look, want a cute gift to give the hosts to thank them for their hospitality, or you just want to purchase your registry items while waiting for the Uber to the rehearsal, Zola is here to help with any and all rehearsal dinner needs.

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