Cocktail attire is a semi-formal style catering to late afternoon and early evening social gatherings, events, and occasions.
In a unique blend of casual and formality, cocktail attire draws inspiration from fashion styles across decades, from the 1920s glitzy dresses to Old Money-style black-tie suits and current fashion trends.
This article is a comprehensive guide on dressing cocktail attire for women and men, occasions, and lots of style tips to ensure you respect the cocktail dress code.
Hailed as one of the best fashion designers of all time, Christian Dior was the first to name the evening dresses of the 40s as ‘cocktail attire.’
The cocktail look was designed to fill the stylistic space between casual daytime and fancy evening wear, so it was dressier than the daytime smart-casual looks but more casual than the formal diner black-tie ensembles.
Initially, cocktail attire was adopted by the wealthy as a tool to showcase influence and social class status.
Over time, cocktail attire has shifted towards more functional garments that retain stylistic elements of the past while meeting the needs of contemporary people.
Nowadays, cocktail dresses and suits blend formal and casual, hence their suitability at high-class early-evening events.
Cocktail attire varies according to the location, time, and type of event, such as opera or theatre, birthday party, after-work events, professional settings, evening festivities, and more.
Ideal Cocktail Attire for Women
Falling between business casual and black-tie formal, cocktail attire for women has a nice balance of elegant traditional and casual comfort.
While cocktail attire for women is not conservative, it must be reserved and sophisticated.
Cocktail dresses are made of luxurious fabrics such as silk and satin and detailed with sequins and embroidery.
Lenght-wise, the cocktail dress was created as the in-between attire of the in-between time of day.
Therefore, ‘in-between’ is also the best approach with the length of your cocktail dress, with the hemline falling right above the knees.
Ruched Chiffon Mini Dress
Ruffled and Florals Midi Dress
Glitter Drape Dress
Satin High Slit Dress
If the cocktail party is more relaxed, you can swap the dress for an equally flattering and flowy cocktail jumpsuit.
The bonus of wearing a cocktail jumpsuit is that you can style it with several evening shoes, though slingback pumps and wedges remain ideal.
A tailored pantsuit or appropriately styled dress pants can be a fabulous outfit choice for a cocktail party.
Cross Front Jumpsuit
Like everything else in the cocktail attire, the shoes should balance fancy and casual.
Leave your boots and sneakers at home and wear dressier, formal shoes.
Wearing tall stilettos would be overkill, so a simple pair of heels, mules, or even women’s flats are best for a sophisticated look.
Choose cocktail shoes in neutral colors such as black, nude, or navy, or go for glitters and floral patterns if you want to be bold.
Pump-style heels are equally subtle, stylish, and the perfect accompaniment to any cocktail dress.
Diamond Strap Sandals
High-Ankle Cocktail Sandals
Matching accessories are a lovely way to showcase your personality, but don’t go over the top.
Avoid statement jewelry that could detract from your overall ensemble; a cocktail party is not Cinderella’s ball!
Match the necklace with a hair accessory or earrings, or wear a couple of ultra-thin bracelets to catch people’s attention without detaining from the rest of your outfit.
Finally, choose a clutch or small designer purse that color matches your shoes rather than your dress, and no matter what you do, don’t bring your work bag.
Soft Crystal Clutch
Cocktail Attire Tips for Women
Oversimplified, there are two principal cocktail dress codes: formal and semi-formal.
The cocktail attire for evening parties is formal and requires appropriate dresses, shoes, bags, and accessories.
If the cocktail dress code is more relaxed (semi-formal), you can be creative with your look, but don’t exaggerate.
1. Wear Event-Related Dresses
Check these cocktail dresses curated according to event type to ensure the correct dress for a specific event.
If you’re attending a formal event, ensure your cocktail attire maintains a fun, tasteful, even-appropriate style balance.
Wear cocktail dresses in flattering cuts and lengths that skim your body but don’t restrict movement.
The classic little black dress is a top option, but don’t be afraid of a bit of color.
Rose gold, bold teal, and fiery red are the most popular in 2023, but many colors look amazing on a cocktail dress.
2. Wear Relevant Shoes
Dinner events are always the perfect excuse to wear those fancy shoes you have, but…
Regarding cocktail attire shoes, safe styles are recommended, and pumps are still a timeless choice.
Go for a sophisticated pair of pumps made of premium material, but don’t forget a fun touch, like a hint of sparkles.
Don’t wear sports or casual shoes; even the best women’s sneakers are unsuitable for cocktail attire.
Equally important, match the color of the shoes with a sparkly clutch or purse.
3. Wear Subtle Undergarments
Keeping your undergarments subtle is one of the many unwritten cocktail attire rules.
Avoid anything that sticks out; wear stick-on or strapless bras and seamless panties, or wear under-dress shapewear.
Do not let your undergarment peek out from underneath your dress, even at more relaxed venues (such as a beach, barn, or vineyard).
Also, don’t show too much cleavage; your neckline should not be distracting from your outfit.
4. Avoid Miniskirts or Shorts
While cocktail attire can undoubtedly be fun, it should always be tasteful.
The primary goal of a cocktail dress is to create an elegant look, and a mini skirt or shorts are far from that.
To guide the level of ‘fun,’ you can infuse in your cocktail attire and imagine how close ones will see you.
Are you comfortable wearing a nightclub-like miniskirt if your parents attended the event?
If not, try adding a blazer over a slinky dress or wearing tights underneath a skirt that’s on the shorter side.
5. No Backpacks or Workday Totes
There’s a time and place for oversized bags, but not at a cocktail dress event.
The ideal cocktail attire dress code is meant to draw attention to your look, but for good reasons.
Nevertheless, while many modern interpretations of cocktail outfits and accessories exist, any cocktail attire must abide by the above rules.
Ideal Cocktail Attire for Men
While the cocktail event dress code isn’t as strict as a black tie (or white), it’s not an invitation to wear just anything.
The event type, the venue, the location, and the season should always give you clues regarding the stringency of your cocktail attire.
An afternoon outdoor vineyard visit would require a less formal outfit than a business event at a private club, where a jacket and tie are necessary.
Prioritize darker colors in colder months or for late evenings and lighter grays or blues in warmer weather or early evening celebrations.
As for shoes, keep it classy with dress shoes that color match your belt, watch, and tie.
Suits are preferred for strict cocktail dress code parties and informal evening events.
However, the cocktail party suit is different than the one you wear at the office; it is a different color and material matching the time of the day and the season.
Slim-fit Navy Suit
Slim-fit Black Suit
Slim-fit Cream Suit
Slim-fit Glen Suit
2. Jackets and Blazers
Sometimes, suits are too dressy for a cocktail party, so separates such as a Navy jacket and straight-pressed pants in neutral colors are preferred.
The blazers can have details not found on conventional suit jackets, like a silk grosgrain shawl collar, turn-back cuffs, or a low, single-button fastening.
Black Wool Blazer
Plaid Linen Blazer
Brown Knit Blazer
Italian Wool Grey Blazer
The shirt must always match the event’s theme, but avoid white shirts with buttons down to the navel.
Wear monochromatic shirts at formal cocktail events and a bit more relaxed and colorful for informal parties.
Moreover, you can showcase your unique personality with a funky shirt but avoid veering too far into ‘smart casual’ territory or wearing a t-shirt.
Polo shirts are ok, ideally classic Ivy League style or retro-inspired styles.
Athletic Fit Dress Shirt
Cotton Dress Shirt
Slim Dress Shirt
Athletic-fit Dress Shirt
3. Roll Necks
A perfect alternative to the cocktail dress shirt, the roll neck frames the face in an inherently more relaxed way.
Moreover, the roll neck doesn’t look lost without a tie, unlike the open-neck shirt.
Opt for cotton, silk, or merino rather than traditional heavier wools, or you’ll look sweaty at your cocktail party event.
Cashmere Turtleneck Sweater
Wool Turtleneck Sweater
Rib-Knit Wool Sweater
If you’re breaking up a suit or plan on ditching your cocktail jacket to hit the dance floor, you’ll need pants that anchor your look.
Jeans are a big NO, regardless of the wash or cut.
Moreover, if you’re gearing up for a warm-weather occasion, creamy trousers are a pro move.
Bonus points if they come pleated and with a high waist.
Slim-fit Stretch Wool Pants
Slim-fit Oxford Dress Pants
Slim-fit Suit Wool Pants
Slim-fit Stretch Wool Pants
Time to think beyond the brogues, as you’re not wearing a tux.
Skip the patent leather pumps and go for a dusty-hued pair of derbies in a belt-matching color.
Or, even better, a pair of sleek-as-hell Oxfords that match your wrist accessories.
Cap Toe Oxford Shoes
The rules for cocktail attire accessories for men are simple: no bow tie, no cufflinks, and no pocket squares.
Bust out the statement-making watches, sleazy tinted shades, and ties that are too jazzy to wear at the office.
At fun cocktail events, you can even try a man’s purse!
Lapis Signet Ring
Cocktail Attire Tips for Men
There are ways to approach the cocktail dress codes for men: formal and semi-formal.
The cocktail attire for evening events is formal and requires full suits and appropriate shoes.
The afternoon and early evening events are more relaxed (semi-formal), allowing for jackets, blazers, and casual looks.
And while the jacket must stay on during the cocktail event, scan the crowd, and if others are shrugging them off, do the same.
1. No Denim
Always avoid denim pants regardless of the cocktail dress code and event type.
Denim – even black jeans – is too casual, even with accessories that dress it up.
2. No Sneakers
Sneakers are also too casual to be worn as cocktail attire shoes.
However, you might get away with a pair of Derby lace-up sneakers and a matching-color leather belt.
3. Don’t Over Accessorize
Your cocktail attire is ideal for showcasing your taste and nothing does it faster than well-matched accessories.
4. No Bow Tie or Cufflinks
Another danger to men’s cocktail attire (apart from looking too relaxed) is creating a too-formal look or wearing a black tie.
Avoid cufflinks and bow ties, regardless of their colors, patterns, and styles.
What is acceptable for cocktail attire?
Best cocktail attire for women avoid extremes: knee-length dresses over maxi and mini dresses, pump shoes instead of stilettos, and baguette bags over backpacks.
Similarly, men should strive to achieve a middle ground between casual wear and office style.
What is the cocktail dress code for ladies?
Cocktail attire for ladies describes outfits designed to be worn at evening parties and similar semi-formal events.
Ladies’ most common cocktail dress code comprises a knee-height dress, medium heel shoes, and a hand purse in matching color.
What does cocktail attire mean for a man?
Cocktail attire for men means wearing a dress code: a relaxed suit without a front pocket (or jacket), a shirt, leather shoes, and a tie (never a bow tie).
Avoid sneakers and jeans – regardless of color.
Does cocktail attire mean a suit?
Cocktail attire does not mean a suit but the whole outfit for a particular type of evening event.
As such, a suit can be part of your cocktail attire, together with leather shoes, a shirt, belt, and tie – see the article above on how to put together the best cocktail attire for men.
What’s certain is that cocktail attire is occasion wear reserved for special events and one-off evenings that require further distinction.
As such, the perfect cocktail attire is a blend of formal and informal that matches the event’s location, venue, season, and time.
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With an AA from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles and over five years of experience in the fashion industry, Susan Kim is the founder of Sum+Style Co. - a Seattle-based personal styling company turned online marketplace focused on innovative K-Fashion (Korean Fashion) styles. Kim's expertise in men's and women's styling for the most demanding occasions has her editorial pieces covered by top fashion and style magazines worldwide.