September 9, 2012

Style Etiquette: Cocktail Attire

I recently attended a friend’s beautiful wedding, but when I asked about appropriate attire the bride hit me with the most confusing dress code I have ever encountered – dressy casual. A couple more questions and I had it pinned down to essentially cocktail attire, but this brought to light just how confusing dress codes can be not just for the guests, but for the hosts as well. Not everyone is well versed in the ins and outs of traditional forms of dress and some people may be afraid of misleading their guests.

Cocktail Attire is another catchall that has lost its clarity as we have moved into a more casual society. Cocktail parties and soirees are no longer commonplace for most people, so when asked to dress for one, many are at a loss as to exactly what that implies. Complicating things even further, the farther we stray from Black Tie and Formal Attire the more variables come into play and thus the more confusing it becomes to decipher what is appropriate. Everything from time of day, season, location, and type of event has an impact on the intended meaning of the requested dress code. Luckily for men, cocktail attire has a set of basic guidelines that you can riff off of depending on how those variables come into play.

A suit is always a safe option, but if you know the setting is more casual a jacket and trousers can be substituted. The evening traditionally calls for a darker suit and a daytime event for a lighter one. In the summer or in warmer climates, linen is totally acceptable and often expected. Personally, I really like windowpane and plaid suits in shades of grey because they inject some fun in what could potentially be just another suit.  There is more room for expression if you go with a jacket and trousers, but be careful not to go too far out of the box unless you really know the context of the event.

Some people are of the opinion that black suits should be reserved exclusively for weddings and funerals, but if you only have a well-fitting black suit, don’t worry about it. I will often wear a black suit to events because it is classic and will go with literally everything. Plus, I think that a black suit gives you a clean palette to have fun with the rest of your outfit (and I’m a big fan of accessories). The right choice of accent colors and accessories can make a black suit anything but boring.

Now, when it comes to the type of dress shirt to wear, anything could be appropriate but this is where things can get tricky. A solid shirt in a muted color is always a safe choice, but if you are attending a party as opposed to a more structured event like a wedding or anything with a seated dinner, then you have some room to make more sartorially daring choices (bright colors, busy patterns, or a combination of the two). Don’t forget to match your collars to the desired level of formality.

Ties, in my opinion, should always be worn with a suit. Suits are by nature formal enough to warrant a tie, plus a tie lets you get even more creative with your color and pattern pairings. If you are really intent on going the open collar route, go with the jacket and trouser option instead, but be careful with the size and shape of your collar and lapels to make sure you don’t venture into Saturday Night Fever territory. I have seen way too many unintentional homages to John Travolta’s chest hair lately.

Shoes are a pretty easy one. Any dress shoe will be acceptable, regardless of where the event falls on the spectrum. Cocktail parties are a great place to break out those brogues or burgundy loafers you have been waiting to put some miles on. When in doubt, go with a black (or brown, depending on your leather choice) Oxford or derby. Just don’t wear sneakers of any kind – that look was never stylish, just trendy.

Lastly, when it comes to accessories you should always have fun with them. Pocket squares, cufflinks, perhaps even a silk scarf (but not a tux scarf) are all available to you. Cocktail attire is the perfect occasion to try some things that might be out of place in a more formal environment but are suited perfectly to the more relaxed setting. In the fall and winter, I also like to pair an odd vest with my suit to break it up and, practically, to add another layer of warmth.

Jeans, short sleeves, and tee shirts are never appropriate to wear when cocktail attire is requested. It doesn’t matter how ‘dressy’ they are, who made them, or how much you paid for them; they are just simply not appropriate. A simple suit from H&M will be infinitely more acceptable than some Dolce jeans and a Burberry knit.

There are countless combination of variable that could affect what you decide to wear, but this should give you a pretty good starting point. If you have a specific event you are dressing for,  hit me up with a question and I can give you more specific advice.

Update: Because of the popularity of this post, I supplemented it post with a Dressing for the Occasion post on Cocktail Attire to give some visual reference here.

Stay stylish,
- JJ


  1. is a lightweight wool suit acceptable for a summer evening wedding where cocktail attire is requested?

    1. Great question! I think a suit is always appropriate for a wedding, unless formal attire is required. Since it is an evening wedding, I would go a little darker (while trying to avoid black) than a daytime wedding, maybe with a grey. If you are worried about looking too formal or out of season, you can use your shirt, tie, and pocket square to bring some summer into your look by using seasonal fabrics or patterns. Enjoy the wedding!

  2. I feel like the previous anonymous and I are going to the same summer evening wedding where cocktail attire is requested... Anyway, when I flew to my parents' I had thought the dress code was more casual, but upon looking at their website, it says "cocktail attire". So, my clothes that fit me well are at home, and I'm left to my father's wardrobe, which is in general too big for me. Would it be acceptable to ditch the jacket? I feel like I would look better in no jacket than one that's too big for me.

    Additionally, my shirt options are... limited, to say the least. The shirt I brought that fits is solid lavender, and my dad actually has a very nice tie that goes well with it (same shade of lavender, checked with silver).

    A bit on the bride and groom: mid-20s, rather bohemian, the wedding is taking place in a cute rural chapel, and the reception on the groom's parents' farm. I think this is why I had thought it would be more casual than what the website says.

    Thoughts on this? Any advice? As I said, my parents and the groom's parents are in a rural area, so finding something new isn't really feasible.

    1. This is actually not an uncommon problem to run into. The good news is that there is a lot more leeway with 'cocktail attire' than with most other dress codes and the fact that you are making the effort goes a long way. I have seen people show up to a 'formal attire requested' wedding looking like they just came from a camping trip.

      I think your instincts about the jacket are spot on. Going less casual in something that fits is definitely preferable to wearing anything either too big or too small.

      Without seeing the shirt/tie combo I can't form too strong of an opinion. It sounds like it could definitely work, I would just caution against crossing the line from coordinating into matching. If they are exactly the same shade, you run the risk of straying into prom territory, but the silver could easily break that up enough to make it a non-issue.

      It seems like you have a pretty good grasp of what does and doesn't work for you so I would trust your instincts and not worry too much about it. In my experience (and with what you have shared of the couple and the wedding), if you show up in the nicest, properly fitting clothes you have at your disposal, the bride and groom have so many other things going on that day that they will probably barely notice, if at all. Hope I was of some help, let me know how it goes. Thanks for reading and enjoy the wedding!


  3. I have a wedding this weekend....Cocktail Attire. My choices are: Tuxedo dressed down with a black grey strip tie. Or searsucker pants, blue blazer and tie. What do you think?

    1. If the invite specified cocktail attire, I would go with the pants/blazer/tie option. Odds are very good that the groom will be the only person there wearing a tuxedo, so you don't want to upstage the wedding party. Unless of course you are the which case go with the tux! 😀

      Enjoy the wedding!