What to Wear to a Funeral

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Deciding what you should (or shouldn’t) wear to a funeral or wake can be confusing. Is it actually important to wear all black? Are there certain off-limits colors, items, or fabrics you should avoid? And what about kids—do they have to follow the same guidelines as adults?

Before going to a funeral, the first thing you should do is consider the setting, says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and founder of The Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California. “First, get a little background information on the family and their traditions,” she says.

Swann points out that different cultures and religions often have different expectations about what is and isn’t appropriate to wear during a time of mourning. Bare shoulders are typically discouraged at Roman Catholic services, for example, so be sure to pack a scarf or sweater, even if the weather is warm. On the other hand, if a family is planning a funeral that’s less focused on religion and more a celebration of the person’s life, less-solemn clothing might be appropriate.

There are a lot of factors to think about, and each family’s situation is unique. In general, though, these guidelines from etiquette experts can help you determine how to dress for a funeral.

What women should and shouldn’t wear to a funeral

When in doubt, a pair of dark-colored pants or a not-too-short skirt with a simple blouse, sweater, or jacket is a safe choice for women. While black is almost always appropriate, Swann warns against reaching for anything that you might also wear to a cocktail party. “A lot of times, the only black we have in our closet is that little black dress,” she points out. “Don’t wear your LBD.”

Contrary to what you may have heard, head-to-toe black isn’t mandatory; dark, solid hues that are subdued (think navy blue, gray, or a deep green) are fine as well. “Just try to stay away from red and primary colors that really stand out,” says Swann. That includes yellows, purples, pinks, or other bright colors, which are probably a little too flashy for the setting.

Prints aren’t completely off-limits, Swann says, but if you choose to wear something that is patterned, make sure the design has mostly neutral colors rather than anything that might be perceived as loud or attention-grabby. Same goes for fabrics that are shimmery or sequined, or accessories that feel overly formal, such as ornate jewelry you might wear to a black tie event

At a religious service in particular, jewelry should be simple and unobtrusive; bracelets or necklaces that dangle could make noise that’s distracting to churchgoers.

When choosing your footwear, think about where the funeral is being held. Although Swann says open-toed shoes might be okay if they’re nice and go with your outfit, if you’re going to be outside on the grass, spiky heels could be difficult to walk in.

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to grab an extra sweater, jacket, or scarf before you head out the door. “Avoid showing too much skin, whether it’s a front cut, a back cut, or even spaghetti straps,” says Swann. “It’s better to cover up a little bit more.”

What men should and shouldn’t wear to a funeral

Although a classic suit is a go-to for men attending a funeral, it’s not a hard and fast rule. “I can’t say that you’re supposed to wear a suit because not everyone is quite that formal, but I would say dress respectfully,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. “That might be a pair of slacks and a nice button-down suit for some men, or it might be a suit and tie.”

Many of the same guidelines for women also apply for men. Colors should be on the subdued side, and men should avoid wearing anything that calls attention to themselves, such as a brightly-colored shirt or sweater, or tie with a distracting or whimsical pattern.

As a general rule, sandals are probably too casual for funerals, says Whitmore, although she adds that there could be exceptions depending on the location. ”There are all kinds [of funerals] nowadays,” she notes. “Some might be held as a memorial on the beach, where of course you would wear open-toed shoes or no shoes at all.”

Items to avoid include graphic T-shirts, any clothing that has words on it (such as apparel from your favorite sports team or Alma Mater), denim, baseball caps, sneakers, or activewear like shorts, sweatpants, or sweatshirts. All of these are too casual for the solemn setting, etiquette experts say.

What children should and shouldn’t wear to a funeral

Dressing your child for a funeral can be tricky, especially since children’s clothing tends to be playful and bright, and they may not own many items in their closet that are appropriate for a time of mourning.

In general, Swann says that the guidelines for children can be a little looser, especially if they are young. “You don’t have to dress children in their Sunday best,” she says. “But try to dress them nicely and avoid having them wear ‘play clothes’.” Items to steer away from include denim, sneakers, sweatpants or sweatshirts (or other activewear), or anything ripped or stained.

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