When Is Cocktail Attire Appropriate?

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When the dress code on an invitation reads "cocktail attire," it suggests a dark suit worn with a tie (a navy or charcoal grey suit is best) for men, and a shorter, party-ready dress for women, such as a little black dress or even dressy separates like a skirt and blouse. Cocktail attire is less dressy than "formal" attire and much more casual than "black tie."

There is a playfulness and festive attitude implied with cocktail attire, which is why you'll often see it on invitations for holiday parties, weddings, receptions, class reunions, and anniversary celebrations. 

Ideas For Cocktail Attire For Women

These days, dress codes and attire suggestions aren't nearly as limiting as they once were. Cocktail attire for women can encompass a broad range of looks that of course includes the classic little black dress, a more festive or colorful dress with a print/texture, or a pairing of a top and bottom.

The best way to determine what kind of cocktail attire you should wear is to consider what you think the host might wear, and go from there. If your host is older or rather traditional, go with a look that is more classic — but don't be afraid to have fun with accessories and shoes. If your host is creative and stylish, echo that vibe and wear something trendy like a pair of silky jogger pants, a cashmere turtleneck, and pointed-toe pumps.

Different Types of Cocktail Dresses

Cocktail dresses come in many varieties and hemlines now, too. Your only guidelines should be that for a true cocktail party, your hemline should hit below the tips of your fingers when your arms are at rest, and should not go so far as to skim the floor. Knee-length, midi, and mini dresses are all acceptable. 

  • The Little Black Cocktail Dress: It can be both timeless and trendy — there's no reason not to have more than one in your closet for a variety of occasions.
  • The Embellished Cocktail Dress: These dresses tend to be more trend-forward, but they are by far the most playful and festive cocktail dresses.
  • The Lace Cocktail Dress: Lace dresses are the most feminine and potentially proper style of cocktail dresses — perfect for Easter Sunday, daytime weddings and even date night!
  • The A-Line Cocktail Dress: We love the flirty, glamorous silhouette of an A-line dress, they can be strapless, cap-sleeved, spaghetti strapped — you name it.
  • The Long Sleeve Cocktail Dress: This is a trendier, fun style of cocktail dress, but it can also be incredibly elegant in a longer, midi length.
  • The Strapless Cocktail Dress: If you've got an hourglass figure or shoulders you love to show off, a strapless dress is a dressy, pretty option.

Ideas For Cocktail Attire For Men

For men, the cocktail attire dress code hasn't changed much in the past few decades. A suit is required, but how you wear it can vary. Our best advice (as mentioned above) is to consider your host and hostess, as well as the venue for the occasion. A more traditional or older host may prefer that male party guests wear dark suits and ties, and probably a classic solid-color shirt.

If your host is younger or more creative by nature, feel free to relax the requirements a bit. Keep the dark suit (and make sure it's expertly tailored to fit you), but feel free to add in a trendier element such as a knit tie, a pocket square, a printed shirt or colorful socks. We suggest wearing lace-up brogues/oxfords or loafers as a rule and make sure your grooming is up to snuff, too. This is not an occasion to test-drive that whole "sneakers with your suit" look they often promote in magazines, nor is it an occasion to wear a t-shirt under your suit jacket.​

When Is Cocktail Attire Usually Required?

Depending on your lifestyle and the stage of life you're in, you may not attend events that require cocktail attire all that often. Most commonly, cocktail attire is requested at weddings, holiday parties, retirement celebrations, school reunions, anniversary, and engagement parties. The key word is, of course, party. Cocktail attire is meant to be worn for fun, dressy events that are celebratory in nature.

One more tip to keep in mind? Any time an invitation lacks a dress code (which they so often do), you're better off being overdressed than underdressed, as a rule. If you have any doubts, reach out to the host or hostess for advice.