“Cocktail attire” is a nebulous dress code, which is often asked for events around the holidays. Therefore, it can add unnecessary stress to the season as you’ll ask questions like whether cocktail dress needs a tuxedo or a suit and if you need to wear a tie.

Typically regarded less dressy than black tie but dressier than the average office garb, it’s important to know how to dress for a cocktail party or a wedding that calls for cocktail attire.

In the following guide, you will discover your wardrobe options and anything else to consider when preparing:

Simply use the links to jump ahead or scroll down to read it all.

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What Is Cocktail Attire?

two men in cocktail attire“Cocktail attire” is a dress code typically called for in the evening. It often shows its face on holiday party invitations, but can also be requested by hosts for other events.

It’s definitely a celebratory dress code, and while there’s some formality expected, it’s understood that the hosts and guests are looking to have some fun, much of which will be liquor-fueled.

The concept of having a good time should be the guiding light of this dress code.

Traditionally, it called for more formal clothing for men and women: dark colors with little wiggle room for fun. Nowadays, the rules can bend a bit, but the most important thing to keep in mind is your host.

Ask yourself, “How would my host dress for this?” and make your sartorial decisions from there.

How Men Should Dress

man in cocktail attire suit

Men should adhere to the “optional” part of the “black tie optional” dress code when dressing for a cocktail party. It’s perhaps helpful to think of cocktail attire as “fun black tie optional.”

The actual level of formality will change based on what you know of the host and the other guests, not to mention the season. We invite you to visit our comprehensive guide to cocktail attire for men where we go into much detail regarding what men should wear.

How Women Should Dress

man and woman in casual cocktail attireCocktail attire for women typically revolves around the Little Black Dress, sometimes abbreviated to “LBD.” As with men, women should make their decisions around the specifics of the dress code based on the host and how formal the event will be, not to mention the season.

A long-sleeve dress may work beautifully for a holiday party in December, but not so much for a garden party in July.

Take a look at our comprehensive guide to cocktail attire for women to learn more about what women should wear to an event that calls for cocktail attire.

Which Occasions Call For Cocktail Attire?

Cocktail attire is most often called for for holiday parties, but is also common for garden parties, wedding receptions, and other celebratory events.

However, you should never wear cocktail attire to a job interview or a funeral.

Weddings

Certain wedding receptions will call for cocktail attire. If a wedding invitation requests this, it’s more likely than not that the ceremony will occur during the day while the reception occurs in the evening.

The few hours in between is an opportunity for guests to rest and freshen up while the wedding party gets photographs taken.

Note that it’s generally better to dress in a bit more of a muted fashion for most weddings, as the attention should be on the bride and groom.

If you’re curious about other aspects of dressing for a wedding, see our complete guide to weddings.

Anniversaries

Milestone wedding anniversaries: ten, twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty years- will sometimes call for cocktail attire. The level of conservatism with which you choose to dress should be dictated by your knowledge of the hosts regardless, but generally speaking, the more years you’re celebrating, the more conservatively you should dress.

Formal Sporting Events

Certain races require a smarter approach to getting dressed, and cocktail attire is often requested of attendants. Note that “races” in this case means of the equestrian variety, not NASCAR, which only requires that your wear pants. Maybe.

Other Formal Celebrations

Holiday parties, engagement parties, garden parties, and similar events are all fair game for cocktail attire, so don’t be surprised if you see this on an invitation to such an event. These events are often a little less formal, and as such you can have more fun with your accessories.

What Next?

Cocktail attire is fun to wear, but there are plenty of other dress codes to be familiar with. Explore them in detail with some further reading:

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