We’ve had many questions lately about modern wedding invitation etiquette. Couples today feel very unsure about the formalities – and whether they are even needed.
The answer is “yes,” and “no” – but it’s important to know when and how to follow convention.
Today there is a much broader range of what is socially acceptable, and that applies to weddings as much as anything else.
However, modern couples still want to present this extraordinarily special day in their lives to friends and family in a polished and careful manner, exemplifying its importance. Plus, plenty of friends and relatives from previous generations may have certain expectations as to what they will find in an invitation, even if the wedding itself is very informal.
Also, in addressing invitations, it’s important that you don’t refer to any guest incorrectly, and risk offending them. This has gotten very tricky, with so many divorces, second and third marriages and blended families, couples living together without marriage, same sex couples, and both marriage partners having titles or advanced degrees.
If you are using a traditional invitation stationer, he or she can answer many of your questions. But some questions will arise early in the planning process, when you don’t yet know who will make your invitations. In addition, many couples are now turning to online suppliers, where they usually will not get the same guidance.
So let’s get started!
The timeline for stationery ordering and mailing
First, here is a timeline for creating, ordering and sending out wedding stationery:
- At the start of your planning: Establish your guest list! It can take quite a while to track everybody down and get all the names right, so this should be a top priority at the beginning of your planning.
- 8-9 months out: Order your Save the Date cards. If you don’t have this much time available, just order them as soon as possible. (If your wedding date is only 3 or 4months away, it is not really helpful to send Save the Date cards. Also, see below as to destination weddings.)
- 6-8 months out: Mail your Save the Dates. However, if you are having a destination wedding, particularly one that is out of the country, send them as early as possible. Tip: Even though your accommodation decisions may have been finalized, it’s a good idea to include in your Save the Date a link to a website that will give hotel and booking information.
- 4-5 months out: If possible, order custom design invitations. But don’t panic if you don’t make this schedule. Many companies and designers can turn things around pretty fast. But you do want sufficient time to examine proofs and make changes. Semi-custom designs can be ordered 3 months out.
- 3 months out. Order any rehearsal dinner invitations. You can also order signage and place cards/escort cards (menus and programs often need to come later).
- 6 – 8 weeks before your wedding: Mail your invitations. This is far enough out for your guests to make specific plans but close enough for the date to be in the forefront of their minds. Also order any menus and programs, if you have not already done so.
- 1 month in advance: Mail any rehearsal invitations (you don’t want the rehearsal invitations to arrive before the wedding invitation).
- 1 month after your wedding: Mail those thank you cards!
Invitation content & Wording
Back in the day, under traditional wedding invitation etiquette invitations were almost always sent out by the bride’s parents, who also were likely paying for the wedding, and the wedding was usually in a house of worship. As a result, the etiquette was that the invitation would come from the bride’s parents and would “request the honor of [the guest’s] presence at the marriage of their daughter [Sally] to [James Dean], son of [Mr. and Mrs. John Dean] of [Garden City, Colorado].”
These days both the bride’s and groom’s parents, as well as step parents, may play a role in planning and financing the wedding. Or the couple themselves may be paying for it all. So all sorts of variations in wording and who sends the invitations out, are perfectly acceptable. The couple might join with one set of parents or the other, or both, depending on who is footing the bill. Or they might make the invitation “together with their families,” regardless of who is paying. Or they may leave family mention out altogether, and simply invite guests to “join them in celebration of their marriage” or the like. All of these approaches are fine. The one rule that is usually kept is that if the wedding will be in a church, synagogue, etc., the words “request the honor of you presence” are used.
The invitation can be formal or informal in paper and design, wording and script, but it should generally match the design and feel of the wedding. Perhaps it is stating the obvious, but don’t send a casual, rustic invitation when your wedding is at the Ritz Carlton with 400 guests.
In addition to the couple’s names and perhaps those of their parents, all invitations should contain: 1) the location of the ceremony; 2) the day, date and hour of the ceremony; and 3) the location of the reception (this may be a separate card). Either the invitation or the RSVP card should contain the date by which RSVPs must be returned. The RSVP card should be worded such that you will know exactly how many bodies will show up.
Optional items include directions or a map, ideally a separate insert.
Do not put your registry information on the invitation. However, you can put a link to your wedding website on an information insert (or your Save the Date), and then put the registry on the website. Make sure there is a clearly marked registry tab.
Do be sure to clarify who is invited (more on this below).
The outer envelope.
The outer envelope is addressed conventionally and with reasonable formality, using titles, first, (middle), and last names. Although middle names are permissible, do not use abbreviations or middle initials.
Titles are abbreviated (Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr.). However, all other words such as “Street,” or “Boulevard” are spelled out. State names may be written either in full or use the two-letter postal code abbreviation. Generally, an invitation to parents and minor children is addressed to the parents (but see below regarding the inner envelope)
Forms of address.
The names and addresses on the outer envelope should conform to following (primarily based on Emily Post rules of etiquette):
To a woman:
If she is single and uses her maiden name:
- Ms. Jennifer Smith
- Miss Jennifer Smith (today, ‘Miss’ is generally used only for girls under 18)
If she is married, but has kept maiden name:
- Jennifer Smith
If she is married, and uses husband’s name socially, all of the following are now acceptable; however, do consider the generation of the recipient and which address she might prefer:
- Mr. and Mrs. John Dean
- Mrs. John Dean
- Mrs. Jane Dean
- Ms. Jane Dean
If she is separated, but not divorced, all of the below are acceptable, but again you may wish to discern her preference:
- Mrs. John Dean
- Mrs. Jane Dean
- Ms. Jane Dean
If she is divorced, again all of the below are acceptable, taking into consideration her preference:
- Mrs. Jane Dean
- Ms. Jane Dean
- Ms. Jane Johnson (if she has returned to her maiden name)
If she is widowed:
- Mrs. John Dean (If you don’t know the widow’s preference, this is the traditional and preferred form)
- Mrs. Jane Dean
- Ms. Jane Dean
Unmarried but residing at the same address:
Ms. Susan Smith and Mr. William Brown. Use one or two lines, depending on length.
A married couple:
Invitations are always addressed to both members of a married couple, even though the bride or groom may know only one. See above as to the woman’s preference. The husband is always “Mr,” unless he has another title.
To a married woman doctor or two married doctors, or judges, and the like:
This one confounds a lot of couples. If the woman is a doctor but uses her husband’s name socially, the address is “Dr. Barbara and Mr. James Wright”, and for judges, The Hon. [stands for “honorable”] Barbara and Mr. James Wright. If she uses her maiden name both professionally and socially, it is “Dr. Barbara Brooks and Mr. James Wright” and “The Hon. Barbara Brooks and Mr. James Wright. If the husband is also a doctor or judge, the address is either “The Drs. Barbara and James Wright” or “Drs. Barbara Brooks and James Wright”; “The Hons. Barbara Brooks and James Wright”.
A same sex married couple:
Men: If they use the same last name, Messrs. Samuel and Stephen Jones, or Mr. Samuel and Stephen Jones; if not, Mr. Samuel Cook and Mr. Stephen Jones.
Women: Mesdames Mary and Lucy Flynn; or Ms. Mary and Lucy Flynn; or Ms. Mary Park and Ms. Lucy Flynn.
Entire books have been written on proper addressing of military personnel.
The general rule for wedding invitations is to use full, non-abbreviated, military rank. For officers, do so whether or not they are retired (do not indicate whether they are retired). For enlisted personnel only address by their rank if they are active duty. You do not mention the military branch for either officers or enlisted personnel. For married couples, follow the conventions above. For more detail, and a host of addressing rules for other persons, such as ecclesiastical personnel, senators, congressmen and congresswomen, governors, and many more, Robert Hickey’s guide and blog is a tremendous resource.
The inner envelope
The inner envelope bears the title and last names of the specific people invited, even if they are not all on the outer envelope. This allows the host to be very clear about who is invited, and by omission, who is not invited.
If children are invited but are not receiving a separate invitation, their names may be written on a line below their parents’ names on the inner envelope. If no inner envelope is used, children’s names are written on the outer envelope below the names of their parents.
For example, the inner envelope for Mr. and Mrs. William Darling and the two Darling children, Sarah and Jonathan, would be written:
Mr. and Mrs. Darling Sarah Darling Jonathan Darling
(If grown children are living at a separate address, send them their own invitation.)
It’s also fine to write familiar names on the inner envelope for close family: Aunt Martha and Uncle Bill.
How to add “and Guest”
If you are using the two envelope invitation, address the outer envelope to “Mr. Barack Obama” and the inner envelope to “Mr. Barack Obama and Guest.” If you’re only using one envelope, include a short note with your invitation: “Dear Barack, You’re welcome to bring a guest to the wedding. Please let me know. Best, Donald.” If there’s time and Barack supplies the information, you can send his guest an invitation, too.
Handling and Stuffing the Envelopes
- Make sure your addressing and/or assembly area is clean (be careful with beverages!) and wash your hands before you begin.
- When two envelopes (inner and outer) are used, insert the invitation (folded edge first for a folded invitation, left edge for a single card invitation), so that you see the printed side of the invitation when the envelope flap is opened.
- When there are enclosures—reply card and envelope, map, printed directions, etc.—they are placed on top of the printed side of the invitation, with their printed sides up, in size order with the smallest on top. Again, when the flap is opened, the printed side should be visible. If the invitation is folded, insertions are stacked in size order—smallest on top—but within the fold. Tissues are optional. If used, they are placed on top of the invitation and below any enclosures. If the invitation is folded, they are inserted into the fold.
- The inner envelope is then placed unsealed in the outer envelope, so when the outer envelope flap is lifted, the name(s) of the guest(s) is visible.
- Before sealing the outer envelope, double- and triple-check that the names on the inner and outer envelopes match up.
Before you buy stamps, take an assembled invitation to the post office and have it weighed. It’s likely that the inserts, or even an unusually shaped envelope, will call for extra postage. The post office usually has wedding-themed stamps that will cover the cost of most invitations with enclosures. (Some post offices may be out of stock, however, so leave time to find them at another branch or to order them online).
Lastly, you may want to ask at your post office if it is possible to have your envelopes hand-stamped. This produces a different postmark (often considered more attractive) than if your invitations were run through an automatic sorter.