Cocktail attire is usually described as less formal than formal attire, but not too casual. Similar to but usually slightly less formal than semi-formal attire, it typically means a dark suit or slacks and a sport coat for men, and a cocktail dress or nice blouse and skirt for women. What is appropriate to wear when an invitation asks for cocktail attire can vary depending on the location and event; the most important element is that the outfit fits well and looks sharp.
For men, the definition of cocktail attire is relatively simple, although there is room for variation. A dark suit or well-pressed pants, sport coat, and a crisp dress shirt and tie is sufficient for most occasions. For less formal events, a man might not wear a jacket or, alternately, wear a suit without a tie. It's usually a good idea to bring both along, however, just in case they are needed.
Cocktail attire is usually requested for events like weddings or celebrations, so there is some room for personality. A sweater or sweater vest might be worn over the dress shirt, with or without the jacket. Some style experts suggest that dark jeans — without holes or other obvious wear — can be acceptable, depending on the context. If jeans are worn, a jacket should be as well.
Little details can greatly affect the perception of how well a man is dressed. Shoes should be leather lace-ups or professional looking loafers, and they should be polished. A handsome set of cuff links and a stylish watch could complete the look.
There is more range in cocktail attire for women, although there are a few standard guidelines. Hemlines for dresses and skirts are usually relatively short, at or slightly above the knee. Long, dressy pants with a silk blouse or cashmere sweater could also be appropriate.
The traditional choice is a cocktail dress. These dresses can range from strapless and flashy to a more conservative little black dress, so a woman should be able to find a look she's comfortable with. It's usually best to choose an outfit that is more elegant than showy, and isn't too short or too revealing. Again, the context of the event is important, and it's usually better to be a little conservative than to be too flashy.
Typically, cocktail-wear is knee length, though if a woman is wearing a simple straight skirt, longer is acceptable. A skirt and jacket or evening suit could be worn to a cocktail event, especially if paired with dressy top. Cocktail attire usually suggests fun, so a woman shouldn't look like she is going to a business meeting.
Seasonally appropriate high heels or boots can match with cocktail attire. Unless they are going to be a major accent piece, the height and flashiness of the shoes should be kept to a minimum to allow the focus instead to be on the elegance and grace of the outfit. Sneakers and flip-flops are inappropriate for cocktail attire, but dressy sandals or pretty ballet flats can easily fit the style.
Jewelry and Accessories
There is room for a little flash and sparkle in cocktail attire, but it's best to practice restraint. One piece of jewelry that matches the outfit or will catch attention can really enhance the look without being showy; a cocktail ring, watch, or pair of earrings are all that is really needed. Handbags should typically be small, such as a clutch, evening bag, or stylish wristlet.
Cocktail attire is often required for dinner or happy hour events, or nights that will include a broad range of activities, from dancing to award presentations. Knowing the nature of the event can help a person determine how formal he or she should dress, but it's possible to work some versatility into an outfit; both men and women can add a jacket to the outfit, for example, which can be removed in less formal situations. Clothing or shoes that are uncomfortable or make the wearer self-conscious are usually not a good choice, as they can make it very difficult to enjoy the event.