What Not To Wear To A Funeral, According To Etiquette Experts

Put away those spaghetti straps and Nike swooshes.
Dress to show respect for the nature of the event.
RubberBall Productions via Getty Images
Dress to show respect for the nature of the event.

There is a time and a place for everything, and a funeral service is definitely not the place to test out your flashiest outfits or trendy accessories.

That being said, deciding on what’s appropriate for a funeral can be tricky. You want to look presentable and also be respectful of the deceased and their loved ones. Funerals are a time to remember those we’ve lost, not bring attention to ourselves.

To help determine what is and isn’t appropriate for a funeral, we spoke to three etiquette experts who provided some helpful insight. If you’ve ever found yourself in the situation of asking yourself, “What do you wear to a funeral?” take note.

Do you have to wear black to a funeral?

Traditionally, black has been the color of choice for attending funerals. In Western culture, black has been associated with mourning for centuries, but the tradition of wearing black to funerals dates back even further to the Roman Empire, according to Wonderopolis. The custom was also reportedly adopted by Queen Victoria, who wore black to funerals to show her dignity and respect for the deceased.

It should be noted, however, that various cultures around the world have different customs when it comes to funerals. In China, for instance, the traditional color of mourning is white, while in Thailand widows wear purple while mourning their spouses. And traditions, in general, continue to change. Not everyone chooses to mourn in the traditional sense, and some may instead opt for a celebration of life service, which can be less formal.

Still, black remains a popular choice for funerals, especially in North American culture, but it’s not necessary.

“Everyone thinks you have to wear a black suit to a funeral. Well, you may not have a black suit if you’re a man, but you could wear [a dark suit],” Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas, told HuffPost, adding, “If you’re a woman, you don’t have to wear black, but wear something that’s not going to make you stand out and make you look as if you’re celebrating.”

“You want to honor the spirit of the event,” Daniel Post Senning, co-host of the “Awesome Etiquette” podcast and co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th Edition, told HuffPost. “Traditionally, that [meant wearing] things that were darker tones. It didn’t always have to be black, but the idea was that you weren’t really festive. The idea was that you were expressing mourning.”

Senning went on to explain that traditions have changed over the years, and “not everybody wants to approach a funeral service in the same way.” For instance, as Elaine Swann, founder of the Swann School of Protocol, told HuffPost, “sometimes the family may ask everybody to wear a particular color, because it was the deceased’s color.”

“You basically want to allow the family to set the tone for that sort of thing,” Swann added.

All three experts agreed, though, that choosing more subdued tones like black, gray or navy is definitely a safe choice, because, as Gottsman said, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.

What To Avoid

It may seem like common sense, but there are a few items of clothing that don’t have a place at a funeral service.

“You definitely want to stay away from athletic wear and activewear. That is something you should definitely not wear to a funeral,” Swann told HuffPost. “That’s at the top of the list.”

Swann also advised against wearing jeans, noting they could be acceptable when paired with a collared shirt or blazer. For Senning, jeans wouldn’t be a first choice, either.

Another big thing to avoid is clothing that is too revealing, such as super short skirts, low-cut dresses and spaghetti straps.

“Short is fashionable, but it’s too short when people are taking second and third looks because you can’t sit down, that’s too short,” Gottsman said. “We know it’s not inappropriate to have something above the knee, it’s inappropriate when you bend over to look at the deceased and people can see your underpinnings.”

“As far as skirts are concerned, you want to choose something that is more modest in nature, so at the knee or just above the knee is a good idea in terms of the length,” Swann said.

Senning suggested applying what he calls “the rule of too,” telling HuffPost, “If you hear that little discretionary voice in your head asking: Is this too much? Is this scent too strong? Is this hemline a little too low or too high? Is this fabric a little too sheer? Is this knot in my tie a little too creative?” you should err on the side of caution.

Other things that should be avoided include anything too glittery, like sequins or flashy metallic fabrics, or heavy cologne or perfume, as it can be quite distracting. In terms of footwear, Gottsman suggested choosing a shoe that can easily take you from a funeral home or place of worship to a burial site, where you might be walking in grass or gravel. And definitely no sneakers.

″[Sneakers are] a no,” Gottsman said. “I think it just says, ‘I tossed something on to come here and I’m getting ready to leave.’” The same goes for flip-flops and canvas slip-ons, she added.

At the end of the day, it all comes back to being respectful with your choice of attire and choosing to go with more conservative options if you’re in doubt.

“I think regardless of how formal or informal, the clothing should still be respectful and subtle, as opposed to out there,” Gottsman said. “You have to show that you made the effort. That’s the bottom line. You have to show that you made some effort to come and show your respect for the deceased and the family members.”

What About Visitation Or Calling Hours?

The experts we spoke to agreed that visitation or calling hours are typically more casual than the funeral service itself, but you should still “stay away from the shorts and flip-flops, or jeans and sneakers,” Senning said.

“You still want to make an effort to show respect to the solemn nature of the occasion,” he said.

As Senning pointed out, there isn’t really a dress code for the visitation or calling hours, as many people often attend straight from work and may be wearing whatever they had on during the day.

When In Doubt, Ask For Help

Gottsman and Senning both agreed that if you’re really unsure of what to wear to a funeral, there’s nothing wrong with asking for some guidance.

“When in doubt, you don’t have to call the person who lost a loved one, but you can call a family member and say, ‘You know, it’s going to be outside, I’m driving in, are you going to be wearing a suit?’” Gottsman said.

“If there’s a question in your mind, call ahead, ask the house of worship, ask the funeral director, ask the family of the home you’re visiting, call and ask a friend who you know is going, what they’re going to do,” Senning said. “Really, it’s OK.”

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