Cocktail Attire Styling Guide by Occasion for Women and Men

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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.’

Cocktail Attire by Christian Dior in the 1940s
Cocktail Attire by Christian Dior in the 1940s – The VOU.

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.

Evolution of Cocktail Attire from the 1940s to now
1940s Cocktail Attire vs Contemporary Cocktail Attire – The VOU.

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

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.

1. Dresses

The centerpiece of any cocktail attire for women, cocktail dresses differ from regular streetwear or work dresses.

Cocktail dresses are made of luxurious fabrics such as silk and satin and detailed with sequins and embroidery.

Cocktail dresses

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.

Amaria Formal Ruched Chiffon Mini Dress

Ruched Chiffon Mini Dress

Ruffled For Florals Cocktail Midi Dress

Ruffled and Florals Midi Dress

Scarlet Formal Glitter Drape Cocktail Dress

Glitter Drape Dress

Chelsea Satin High Slit Formal Cocktail Dress

Satin High Slit Dress

2. Jumpsuits

If the cocktail party is more relaxed, you can swap the dress for an equally flattering and flowy cocktail jumpsuit.

Jumpsuits for cocktail attire for women

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.

Asymmetrical Cut Out Jumpsuit

Asymmetrical-Cut Jumpsuit


Britt Champagne Jumpsuit

Champagne Jumpsuit


Nadine White Jumpsuit

White Jumpsuit


Laurien Cross Front Jumpsuit

Cross Front Jumpsuit

3. Shoes

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.

Cocktail 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.

Duponi Cocktail Sandals

Diamond Strap Sandals


Favari Cocktail Shoes

Square-Tip Sandals


Taros Cocktail Pumps

Cocktail Pumps

Haviva Cocktail Shoes

High-Ankle Cocktail Sandals

4. Accessories

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!

Cocktail Attire Accessories

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.

Carlita Carnivale Clutch

Carnivale Clutch


Sasha Hoops

Ear Hoops


Stevie Statement Choker

Preppy Choker


Dianna Soft Crystal Clutch

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.

Cocktail Attire Dress Code dos and donts

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.

Cocktail Attire Dress Code dos and donts

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.

What undergarment is good for cocktail dress

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.

Cocktail attire what to wear and not to wear

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.

Avoid Backpack or Workday Tote

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.

Cocktail Attire for Men

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.

Wear Preppy-style sports jackets at relaxed cocktail events and BCBG or Old Money full suits at events that require a stringent cocktail attire dress code.

As for shoes, keep it classy with dress shoes that color match your belt, watch, and tie.

1. Suits

Suits are preferred for strict cocktail dress code parties and informal evening events.

Cocktail Suits for Men

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.

Ludlow Slim-fit unstructured suit

Slim-fit Navy Suit


Ludlow Slim-fit Unstructured Suit

Slim-fit Black Suit


Ludlow Slim-fit Unstructured Sui

Slim-fit Cream Suit


Slim-fit Glen Cocktail 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.


Blazers for Cocktail Attire

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.

Italian Black Cocktail Wool Blazer

Black Wool Blazer


Italian Plaid Cocktail Linen Blazer

Plaid Linen Blazer

Italian Brown Cocktail Knit Blazer

Brown Knit Blazer

Italian Wool Cocktail Grey Blazer

Italian Wool Grey Blazer

3. Shirts

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.

Dress Shirt for Cocktail Attire

Polo shirts are ok, ideally classic Ivy League style or retro-inspired styles.

Athletic Fit Dress Shirt

Athletic Fit Dress Shirt

Cotton Dress Shirt

Cotton Dress Shirt

Slim Dress Shirt

Slim Dress Shirt

Athletic Fit 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.

The Roll Neck for Cocktail Attire

Opt for cotton, silk, or merino rather than traditional heavier wools, or you’ll look sweaty at your cocktail party event.

Cashmere Turtleneck Sweater

Cashmere Turtleneck Sweater


Wool Turtleneck Sweater

Wool Turtleneck Sweater


Soft Cotton Polo Turtleneck

 Polo Turtleneck


Slim Fit Rib-Knit Wool Sweater

Rib-Knit Wool Sweater


5. Pants

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.

Cocktail Pants for Cocktail Attire

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.

Bowery Slim-fit Stretch Wool Pants

Slim-fit Stretch Wool Pants


Bowery Slim-fit Oxford Dress Pants

Slim-fit Oxford Dress Pants


Ludlow Slim-fit Suit Wool Pants

Slim-fit Suit Wool Pants


Bowery Slim-fit Stretch Wool Pants

Slim-fit Stretch Wool Pants


6. Shoes

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.

Cocktail Shoes For Men

Or, even better, a pair of sleek-as-hell Oxfords that match your wrist accessories.

Trumanm Oxford Cocktail Shoes

Oxford Shoes


Legacy Cap Toe Oxford Shoes

Cap Toe Oxford Shoes


Tazewell Cocktail Loafer Shoes

Cocktail Loafers


Watkins Cocktail Slip-on Shoes

Slip-on Shoes

7. Accessories

The rules for cocktail attire accessories for men are simple: no bow tie, no cufflinks, and no pocket squares.

Cocktail Attire Accessories For Men

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!

CUBITTS Rectangular Tortoiseshell Acetate Sunglasses

Tortoiseshell Sunglasses


SULKA Wool and Silk-Blend Jacquard Tie

Jacquard Tie


M.COHEN Sterling Silver Lapis Signet Ring

Lapis Signet Ring

JUNGHANS Limited Edition Automatic Watch

Automatic Watch

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.

Cocktail Pants for Men dos and donts

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.

Cocktail Shoes for Men what to wear and not to wear

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.

Men Cocktail Attire Accessories

However, avoid wearing too many accessories or stylistically irrelevant ones like Punk style rings, Gothic-style bracelets, or, even worse, a Hawaiian-style flower necklace!

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.

Cocktail Attire For Men dos and donts

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.

Also, Cocktail attire is not your average streetwear apparel, an upper-class Sloane Ranger style outfit, or a black tie suit.

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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Keep up with the latest in fashion, beauty and style!

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.

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  1. Adorable collection! These all outfits are looking amazing. These are perfect looks for day night and weekend outings. I’m so excited to try them. Thanks a lot for sharing.

  2. Beautiful selection of cocktail outfits, the ensembles are all gorgeous, especially the dinner gala-like combo for him and her.

  3. My partner was invited to a work cocktail party and we both had no idea what to wear. Did a google search, this article came up and it was an absolute life saviour as I was ready to go in jeans and sneakers!


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