How To Wear The Cocktail Dress Code

What does the cocktail attire and dress code mean? Here’s our guide to decipher the standards and execute your look with style and ease.

When someone hands you a cocktail during a night out, you’re most appreciative of the complimentary drink. However, upon receiving a wax-stamped, embossed cream envelope with an invitation inside that reads “cocktail attire”, many a modern gent are left puzzled, rather than pumped, by the chance to dress up a little.

Let’s talk cocktail attire: are suits obligatory? Or are jeans and blazer acceptable today? And, in our sportswear obsessed, luxury world, do clean white sneakers cut it? Wondering what to wear is a common concern. Why, there’s black tie, smart casual and business casual already putting you through your dress code paces. So relax, breathe deep. We’re here to put your mind, and wardrobe, at ease. We’ve debunked the cocktail dress code once and for all. And put a contemporary spin on it.

Definition of Cocktail Attire

Cocktail attire gained popularity in the Twenties and Thirties, when it became common in wealthier, fashionable households to enjoy pre-dinner drinks and canapés in the hours between day and evening. Back then, social events, activities and ostentatious occasions required men to ‘change’ their kit to be more suitably dressed. And, so a new dress code formed.

Essentially, it’s a semi-formal look or outfit that will take you from day to night; bridging the gap between casual day wear, which is too relaxed, and formal evening attire, which is too prim and proper.

In a modern context, the ‘between the hours’ dress code applies to cocktail parties, obviously, but also weddings, anniversaries, formal birthday celebrations and the timeless sporting events such as the races. Basically, where a little more refinement is required, old chap.

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Cocktail Attire Do’s & Dont’s

Cocktail attire

While we’re not ones to set the style rules in stone, we are indeed big on learning the rules. Knowing the guidelines means you’re equipped to bend the rules a little (without looking like a sartorial mess). Appeasing your individual style, and mastering the cocktail manual, here are some do’s and don’ts to follow:

  • Do go for something tailored. A tuxedo is too much, but a suit or blazer/trousers combo is required.
  • Don’t upstage the guest of honour. If you’re attending a birthday or any other occasion in which the spotlight is meant to be on someone specific, leave the bright colours and flashy accessories at home.
  • Do add personal touches, but consider them carefully. You do not want to be remembered as the “neon pink jacket guy” from your friend’s wedding.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re ever unsure about what constitutes appropriate attire for an event, ask the person hosting it. They are, after all, the most invested in avoiding confusion and uncomfortable situations.

Still in doubt? It’s always safer to over-dress (but still, leave that tuxedo at home).

Key Cocktail Attire Pieces

The beauty of cocktail attire is that, while it’s a relatively formal dress code, there is still room for creativity and personal interpretation. Here’s what you should be wearing:

Tailoring

Cocktail attire

Tailoring means the suit: a two piece, peak or notch lapel number in a slim fit. Black is suitable but more contemporary still, is navy or grey. Light grey is fresh for a summer wedding while dark grey is the perfect winter look, and is far more sophisticated.

If you know the dress code isn’t super strict, explore colours (always dark, in this case) such as burgundy, olive green or khaki. Patterns should be kept minimal, sticking to windowpane check (small scale) and pinstripes (never chunky or thick).

Not sure about prints? Opt for texture. This is achieved from suit fabric: mohair for a subtle sheen and herringbone or a slub design for a grainy finish.

Finally, it’s not unexpected to see men wearing separates at cocktail attire events. Mix and match jacket and trousers at your leisure, but traditionalists will frown upon denim, even if they’re the made-to-measure, trouser-esque jeans. Keep your bluey’s for daytime drinks with friends.

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Shirt

Cocktail attire

Keep the shirt in harmonious tune with your suit or blazer. A block colour in a neutral tone – blue, white or grey – is your safest bet, especially when wearing a checked or striped jacket. Wearing a plain blazer? Look to low-key checks or stripes or even a floral jacquard for a romantic edge. Another chic style is a plain black short – no tie – or white for a summer day time feel.

The biggest blunder made with shirting is the collar. Avoid floppy, limp shirt collar types and make sure it’s made from cotton and in crafted from a formal fabric weave. It should feel and look crisp, and sharply pressed on the collar and cuffs. Speaking of which, avoid French cuffs for daytime events, saving them for dapper evening soirees where you really want to impress.

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Ties/Pocket Squares

Cocktail attire

You can now get away with ditching the tie at less formal cocktail events, but at other times it is still a requirement. This is your opportunity to get a little more creative. If you opted for a simple shirt and suit, you can go for a bolder tie.

If your shirt or suit has a pattern, it’s best to choose a simple tie in a complementary colour. It’s a ‘no’ to bow ties (too novelty looking without the presence of a tux), but a big ‘yes’ to pocket squares. Like the tie, the square should be silk and neutral in colour in your jacket is vivacious or patterned and primped if you’ve gone the monochrome manner of dressing.

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Dress Shoes

Cocktail attire

When thinking cocktail, go the Oxford shoe. Black and dark brown are superior colour options for the streamline shoe, while a brogue punch hole design will give you a step up in the texture department, without offending cocktail purists.

Alternatively, monk strap shoes are fittingly formal and have secured themselves as footwear mainstay.   Loafers – from penny to tassel and even horsebit – should be considered only if your event is on the less formal side. Above all, invest in a new pair if it’s a special event or give tired old leather a fresh polish. And be on your way.

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Accessories

Cocktail attire

Saving that embossed, ostrich leather belt for a special occasion? Now’s the time to whip it out. Suede belts are also a nice touch for texture while logo belt buckles like that of Gucci and Hermes are making a comeback, just don’t go for anything cowboy. Eschewing the belt is totally fine too, especially if you’re wearing a waistcoat that obscures the trouser band.

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Finally, finish the look off with calf-length socks (long enough so if you’re seated your leg skin doesn’t show). Stick to socks that complement your trousers or another colour in your outfit such as tie, shirt or blazer. If you’re feeling brave, coloured or patterned socks could be an opportunity to let your personality shine through.

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