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Dress Code Guide: What Does Cocktail Attire Mean?

Friends dressed up and drinking champagne at a cocktail party
gpointstudio/Shutterstock

“Cocktail attire” is one of the most common dress codes for fun events and celebrations, from company holiday parties to weddings to birthday bashes. But while the name implies what you might be drinking at these events, it does little to help you decide what to wear.

Luckily, this dress code offers some flexibility. It gives you the chance to be festive and unique, within event-appropriate reason. The weather’s getting warmer, and with summer comes parties, so make sure to save this guide to help you navigate those invitations.

Cocktail Attire: A Definition

As the name suggests, cocktail attire is what you’ll typically see at parties where the expectation is to look classy. (The name “beer attire” would have a slightly different connotation, we think!)

However, this isn’t a very formal dress code, so it leaves some room to play with your look. Cocktail attire lets you try out new trends and show your style.

For events with this dress code, you won’t want to show up in jeans or a t-shirt, but you don’t need to look like you’re ready for work, either. Slacks, suits, dresses, skirts, and much more can all work well as cocktail attire.

You may also see dress codes that say “festive attire,” especially around the holiday season. This is essentially the same as cocktail attire but suggests that you might add pizazz with bright colors, bold jewelry, sequins, and other flashy choices.

When to Dress in Cocktail Attire

Cocktail attire shows that you put in the effort to look nice for an event, but falls short of looking overdressed, so it works well for many occasions. Good times to wear cocktail attire include:

  • Dinner dates
  • Parties
  • Casual networking events
  • Weddings

Cocktail attire is typically best for evening events—it’s more appropriate for a dinner date than a brunch date, for example. It can also work well at work-related social activities, like the office holiday party, unless your workplace is very formal. However, make sure to save this attire for social work events, not events where actual work is happening (like a client meeting).

Cocktail attire is also a failsafe choice for most weddings and parties when you don’t know what other people will be wearing. It’s not too formal, but still looks “dressed up.”

Cocktail Attire Ideas for Women

Cocktail attire for women includes items like these:

  • Short dresses and skirts
  • Jumpsuits
  • Suits
  • Dressy rompers

Trendy items, like rompers and fashionable suits (as opposed to conservative business suits), make great women’s cocktail options. A dress is one of the more common choices (this is the perfect time to break out your beloved “little black dress”). Short, above-the-knee lengths work well, but a maxi dress can work too, as long as it’s not too beachy or too formal.

This dress code lets you have fun with bright colors and textures—even more so if the dress code says “festive.” Bold jewelry and accessories can liven up your look. Try chandelier earrings, statement necklaces, bangle bracelets, or whatever speaks to your sense of style. Feel free to express yourself with makeup, too. For shoes, you can wear boots, heels, or dressy flats.

Cocktail Attire Ideas for Men

Men’s cocktail attire looks can include:

  • Slacks
  • Dress shirts
  • Blazers
  • Suits

A suit always works well here, but it doesn’t need to be the most conservative, work-ready suit. A tie is typically a good choice, but it’s not necessary for more casual cocktail occasions. Wear a dark-colored suit and tie for dressy cocktail events like weddings, though.

Opt for nice shoes like loafers or oxfords, and don’t forget a belt. Wear socks that match your slacks. Since men’s clothes offer fewer choices than women’s clothes, your cocktail attire will probably overlap with your business professional or even business casual clothes. Cocktail attire events are a great time to play with subtle accents, though—like a flashier pocket square than you might wear for a formal business meeting.

When dressing for cocktail events, don’t shy away from trying out trends and expressing yourself. However, as with most dress codes, cocktail attire can range from more laidback to more formal. Always keep a few different cocktail options in your closet so you can easily dress for all the weddings, parties, dates, and other events to which you might get invited this year.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »

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