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What is Cocktail Attire?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

Men's Attire

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.

Women's Attire

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.

Women's Shoes

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.

Other Considerations

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.


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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for BeautyAnswered. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon989258 — On Feb 26, 2015

Casual dress shirt and nice jeans and shoes?

By anon977021 — On Nov 07, 2014

Try a nice dress pant with a dressy top or just a silk blouse with a nice necklace, or a pantsuit.

By anon968451 — On Sep 03, 2014

@anon21419: Your type of personality is actually perfect for cocktails. With cocktails, everything is about balance. I would leave anything garish, clunky or chunky -- simplicity is better. But remember that is is easier to "dress down" on the spot than the opposite. You can easily find a modest yet modern and stylish dress for a reasonable price. It is an investment, not an expense. I use the the 4 Cs to dress in any type of occasion: Comfort, Color, Confidence, Classic. Think Audrey Hepburn:

1. It must be comfortable. We are not all size 0, so dress for your body. A lot of people have difficulties with the length of the dress. I recommend to keep it just above/below the knee; mid-calf is perfect. Anything shorter and you will look ready to go to the cabaret; anything longer will put you in a pew. For men, I always wear a jacket, and carry an assorted tie. I can take both off anytime.

2. Colors vary, but the classic LBD (little black/blue dress) is a shoo-in. I suggest to marry your dress colours (or its accessories) with something -- your skin, hair, the season, the area where you are going (outside/in a hall, etc). I hate dark suits for a cocktail so I normally dress in a neutral grey/blue.

3. The cocktail party is an event where you should mingle and meet people so the next thing is confidence. You must feel confident that your are dressed for the situation, but also be ''confident'' that you will not have a Nicki Minaj incident. Accessories are key and can even make last year's dress look totally different. There is a common misconception that women need high (way too high) heels. No need for anything higher than 3 inche heels. As it is an accessory, it is more important that the shoe marries with the dress and the effect sought.

4. Finally, each region has a tacit understanding of what is/is not an acceptable dress for the occasion. I suggest that if you travel you do a little research on what is considered classic attire for the region. I showed up in business attire -- Eastern style in the Vancouver region and I absolutely looked like I was from another planet!

By anon960089 — On Jul 08, 2014

Just the fact you have to dress up makes it not fun. For women it’s heels, hose, hair, makeup, etc. It is the typical stereotype that all women enjoy dressing up and it is a drag. Being uncomfortable is not fun. Feet hurting, feeling like you've been stuffed in a sausage casing -- how lucky we women are.

I am sure you fashion snobs will be very critical (fashion police). We are so shallow to judge people by what they wear. The one guy’s comment about I don't think a "tank top and jeans" could ever be considered cocktail attire (no kidding). I'm not sure that's even "fun". It just looks like you didn't bother to make an effort. You can only have fun being dressed up? Explain how dressing up is fun?

Give me a chance to dress causally, have a few drinks and hang out with friends. That’s much more something to look forward to and much more fun.

By anon344363 — On Aug 08, 2013

What is chic attire?

By fabrizzo — On Apr 18, 2013

It's so inelegant for a woman's dress to be so short as to be above the knee, if it is already sleeveless. Such a dress may be sleeveless but should "make up" for it by billowing all the way to the ground. After all, in these functions, men wear blazers over their shirts and well pressed pants.

By anon309069 — On Dec 14, 2012

This article is sort of misleading, in my opinion. Cocktail attire for me means a dark, formal suit. Not an informal suit. Cocktail attire is one half step down from a tuxedo.

By anon267277 — On May 09, 2012

One thing you totally forgot about: most of the manufacturers with provided links do not offer plus-size clothing. Period. You should post some sites with appropriate clothing in that category since we are not all shaped like ballerinas! May I suggest the Encore Department at Nordstroms?

Before you go crazy with complaints about the prices, they have a clearance rack, and dresses and dressy blouses can be reasonably priced. Ulla Popken offers many beautiful dresses in plus sizes and they are reasonable with free returns if they don't fit and you order another size.

By anon225107 — On Oct 25, 2011

I agree with anon80383. Having fun and worrying about what I am wearing doesn’t go together. There's a ten year class reunion coming up and I wish it was just a cookout in someone’s backyard. I just want to show up, show off my wife, job, PhD degree, say "nenner nenner nenner to Mr. popular”, and leave. Don't need to dress up for that.

By anon162480 — On Mar 23, 2011

I don't think a "tank top and jeans" could ever be considered cocktail attire. I'm not sure that's even "fun". It just looks like you didn't bother to make an effort.

By anon150497 — On Feb 08, 2011

@anon58946: Try flat front pants, button down shirt with no tie and top button undone, jacket or no depending on season, of course a nice belt and clean shoes.

By anon80383 — On Apr 27, 2010

To anon58946:

Most women I know don't consider dresses that cost $100 and more and dressy shoes (which are generally heels) to be "dressing down." (For certain outfits you can also add "appropriate undergarments," too.)

My idea of dressing for fun is a tank top and jeans. Try to remember women put a lot more effort into their outfits than most men. And just as men often appreciate a nicely-dressed woman, we women don't overlook that you put on a tie, or that your shirt is crisply pressed, or that your suit is well-fitted.

By anon58946 — On Jan 05, 2010

"be careful to avoid looking like you are going to a business meeting; remember, cocktails imply fun."

Hey girls, what's good for the goose is good for the gander! If cocktails imply fun and I'm not supposed to look like I'm going to a business meeting, what the hell am I wearing a suit and a tie for?

If you women can dress down and look fine for drinks, men should be able to, as well.

By anon21419 — On Nov 16, 2008

Thank you, wiseGEEK, so far this is the most informative article I have found -- although I am still unsure of what to wear. I do not go to parties generally, I dress modestly (so no skimpy dresses for me), and have limited money to buy anything not in my wardrobe. But, you have at least given me some ideas outside of the "cocktail dress with heels" (no, I don't wear heels, either). I wouldn't even go to this party, except it is a company Christmas party hosted by our company's President and his wife (who helped me to get my current job six months ago). Anyway, just wanted to thank you -- there isn't much info out there for people like me.

The former "BookLady149"

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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