When my cousin married her Puerto Rican-American husband one Sunday over a decade ago, the women in my New England family slipped into their most appropriate sundresses and headed to the ceremony. The groom’s family arrived soon after in short, black cocktail dresses and sky-high heels. When they laid eyes on the conservative sea of neutral colors, their faces betrayed their confusion. Had they just interrupted a surprisingly cheerful funeral?
Later that afternoon, the two families made an awkward attempt to integrate on the dance floor, but I stayed close to my plate, observing self-consciously in whatever I was wearing – something so nondescript I have no recollection of what it was. I do, however, have vivid memories of one Lycra dress with a diamante spider web woven across its open back, gliding to “The Electric Slide.” On a sunny Sunday, it was so inappropriate. It was so sparkly. It was so fabulous.
The moral of this sartorial tale is that there are no cut and dry rules when it comes to getting dressed for a wedding – but it helps to know what you’re getting into before you drop a few bills on something to wear. Like anywhere in the world, wedding dress codes in Lebanon are determined by an undefined mix of religion, culture, location and hard-to-pinpoint social factors. I enlisted the help of Serene Abbas and Narina Najm, co-founders of shopping search engine Raghunter and wedding regulars, to try to piece together some semblance of a guide. And now, how to dress for a Lebanese wedding:
1. Read the invitation, then read between the lines
Timing and venue are the two biggest dress code clues. “I’d recommend asking around about the wedding location to get an idea of how fancy it is,” says Serene. “For example, a daytime beach wedding in Jiyeh will most likely be less formal than a day wedding in a restaurant like Lola’s in Bikfaya.” Day of the week is also a factor: Sunday afternoons imply a fun, casual affair, while Friday and Saturday nights tend to indicate more elaborate events.
Of course, the character of the happy couple is also an indication. “If it’s a dry wedding, for example, you might be comfortable wearing something a little bit more reserved,” Serene says of super short, super tight or super revealing looks. “Because it’s a formal event, even conservative guests won’t care if you’re out there,” she says, “but it might just make you feel less in the spotlight.” If you’re not close to the bride or groom, put on your private investigator hat and do a bit of digging – it’s better to be safe than sultry.
2. Color within the lines
If there is any universal wedding rule, it’s that white is off limits for guests. “Never ever wear white to a wedding. Ever,” says Serene. “Big faux pas.”
But while I grew up thinking black was reserved for funerals, that dictate doesn’t hold up in Lebanon. “Black is a-okay,” Serene confirms. “It can be dramatic and sexy.” She’s quick to add, however, that for certain occasions it can be too dramatic and sexy, especially in warmer months. “Why go for black when you can opt for shiny, happy colors?”
3. Shop smarter
The Lebanese are as generous with wedding invitations as they are with invitations for coffee or a home-cooked meal. If, like me, you arrived in Beirut with one suitcase, a wedding-worthy gown was probably not a top contender for space. And, like me, you’re probably regretting it now.
According to Narina, the trick once you get here is finding one perfect, versatile dress. “You don’t need to pay crazy money for a dress, because prices for evening gowns in this town are insane. Buy one with the goal of wearing it over and over again. For example, if you choose something simple, body conscious and black, you can alternatively wear it on a night out.” Dress up a basic look with a statement accessory, which you can update frequently without too much damage to your wallet.
4. Your usual beauty routine? Do that, but more.
I tend to err on the side of lazy, and rely on a chignon and a swipe of red lipstick to look pulled together. Surely the Lebanese find this laid-back, all-American look endearing? “There’s a word in Arabic they’d probably use: mrattab, meaning proper. They wouldn’t think it looks mrattab,” Serene says bluntly.
Of course you’re not the kind of woman who’d let a crowd of perfectly coifed glamazons bully you into getting a LL12,000 ($8) brushing. But why not use this as an excuse to pamper yourself just a little? Every woman deserves to have soft, shiny hair once in a while.
5. … But don’t go too far outside your comfort zone
Be conscious of the scarlet “M” (for mrattab) but don’t try to be something you’re not. “Don’t overdo it,” says Narina, who is currently planning her own wedding. “Wear something short and wear comfortable shoes – dancing is the most fun part of the wedding and I want my guests to dance comfortably!”
Serene agrees. “You can also do pants or a nice, full skirt with a crop top, but it has to have traces of eveningwear: beading somewhere, silk or a bit of lace.” Long, dabke-prohibitive gowns, she says, are typically reserved for guests closest to the bride and groom.
At the end of the day, you may decide that a navy sundress and an imperfect updo are right for you, and that’s ok. “It’s very rooted in Lebanese culture to get dressed up. In general, we tend to be fancier than Europeans and Americans, even with our daily dress,” says Serene. “Keeping that in mind will help you understand the mindset if, as a foreigner, you feel more simply dressed than the people around you at a Lebanese wedding.”
Looking for more wedding-worthy shopping tips tailored to Lebanon? Raghunter’s got you covered here.
Have wedding style advice or personal experiences to share? We welcome your comments!
All images courtesy of Vanity Fair Italia.