Women’s cocktail attire typically consists of a dress, heeled shoes, jewelry, and an accessory like a clutch or a wristlet. There are many different types of dresses and shoes that can be worn with the cocktail attire dress code, and this detailed guide will cover everything you need to know in order to dress appropriately for your next occasion that calls for holiday attire.
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Note: If you are interested in men’s cocktail attire, visit our complete guide on cocktail attire for men.
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Women’s Cocktail Attire
Women’s cocktail attire is not nearly as limited as what it used to be, as is the case with many dress codes. While the little black dress is still a go-to favorite of many women, there are indeed other options, like colorful, festive dresses or even pairing a top and bottom.
A good rule of thumb (for men or women) is to consider what your host will be wearing, and go from there. Furthermore, consider your host’s taste. Is (s)he a free spirit who exudes vibrancy and color? Here’s your opportunity to bust out some fun high-waisted trousers with a cashmere turtleneck or silk blouse and some fierce pumps.
On the other hand, if the host is more traditional, the little black dress with a clutch and black almond-toe shoes is the way to go.
The cocktail dress is far and away the most popular option for women’s cocktail attire. Knee-length, midi-, and mini-dresses are all acceptable. Anything that skims the floor is generally considered to be too long for cocktail attire, so avoid maxi dresses.
A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t want your boss to see you in it, don’t wear it. A cocktail party, while still a party, is different than a night on the town.
Black is the most popular option, but any color, so long as it’s dressy enough, will work.
Types Of Dresses
- Little Black Dress: The number one option of the number one options. It’s best to have a couple of these in your closet, as they’re never out of style. The very definition of timelessness.
- Lace Dress: Lace is synonymous with femininity, and a lace dress is potentially the most “proper” of all the cocktail dress options. These are perfect for weddings, religious events (such as Easter Sunday), or, frankly, for any woman who likes a bit of lace.
- Embellished Dress: A trendy option, these dresses tend to be more playful and fun due to their embellishments (jewels or sequins sewn to the fabric, for example).
- A-Line Dress: A-line dresses tend to have a glamorous, Old Hollywood vibe to them and work wonderfully as cocktail dresses.
- Long-Sleeve Dress: When the weather cools off, a long-sleeve dress is a smart option. A long sleeve dress, especially in a midi length, also has a certain elegance to it that just can’t be replicated in other dress styles.
- Strapless Cocktail Dress: If you’ve got some great shoulders and / or an hourglass figure, a strapless cocktail dress is an effortless way to slay everyone in the room.
Generally, pumps (shoes with heels) are best, but actual heel height is up to you and your comfort level, both physically and relative to your date (some women refuse to be taller than their dates, others don’t care). It’s advisable for practical reasons to not wear heels higher than four inches, and this is really at a maximum.
As for color, black is the standard, but various metallics -bronze, pewter, gunmetal, that sort of thing- will work too.
Whether or not the shoes are open-toed can be based on season: warm weather gets open-toed shoes, cold weather gets closed-toed shoes.
Wedges and thick platform heels should be avoided, as they lack the elegance required for cocktail attire.
Jewelry & Accessories
First and foremost, the clutch bag is your friend when wearing cocktail attire. This or a mini shoulder bag -preferably with a strap made mostly of hardware- are your best options for this dress code, as they offer both dressy refinement and sophistication.
As for jewelry, a necklace, earrings, rings, and bracelets are all fair game here. With that said, if you’re going to have a statement piece, keep it to one. One statement piece makes a statement that’s stylish and elegant. More than one is the sartorial version of yelling “HEY LOOK AT ME!”
When To Wear Cocktail Attire
There are various events at which cocktail attire is written into the dress code. In the event that it isn’t (and in this day and age, there’s a good chance that it won’t be), reach out to the host to confirm what you should be wearing.
Below, however, are some very common events for which cocktail attire is typically prescribed:
As it relates to cocktail attire, weddings can be a little tough. Sometimes the reception will be held immediately after the ceremony. Sometimes there’s a break of a few hours in between each part of the wedding. The invitation should have the information you need, but if it doesn’t, contact either the bride or groom to confirm.
The focus should be on the newlyweds, so it’s advisable to keep your cocktail attire on the quiet side. The classic LBD with black pumps, a black clutch, and quiet-but-tasteful jewelry will generally work.
With that said, if you know the bride and groom to be fun-loving, different kinds fo folks, have some fun with your cocktail attire and go for some gold satin shoes or a black dress with an all-over rose print. If you know them to be a bit more staid, opt for a more conservative look.
With divorce rates being what they are, if you make it to a milestone wedding anniversary, you deserve a fancy party. While it’s still important to let the couple take the spotlight in the sartorial sense, a good rule of thumb is the inverse-anniversary rule: the more years being celebrated, the less flashily you should dress.
Some Sporting Events
Many sporting events (most of them equestrian-themed) call for cocktail attire. In these instances, you should let your creative side out and have some fun, breaking away from the LBD into something less common.
Other Semi-Formal & Formal Occasions
Retirement parties, fundraisers, and work holiday parties often call for cocktail attire. You should certainly have some fun with these events, especially as it relates to jewelry. With that said, keep in mind that you will be around co-workers at a holiday party, and though it’s off-hours time, you still need to see all these people at 8:00 the following Monday morning. Dress like they’re co-workers.
Conclusion: Other Men’s Dressing Guides
We hope you found this guide to cocktail attire helpful. If you’re curious to see more about men’s cocktail attire or perhaps see our suggestions on what grooms, groomsmen, fathers of the bride and groom, and guests can wear to a wedding, see our guide to men’s cocktail wear and our wedding guide.