A Guide to Cocktail Attire for Men and Women

Get your look just right with these expert tips.

Women and men holding drinks and wearing cocktail party attire

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Cocktail attire is arguably the leader of all wedding dress codes, but when it comes to deciding what to wear as a guest, the popular choice can get tricky. What is cocktail attire? Ultimately, it aims to strike a balance between formal and casual, as well as elegant and comfortable. For an event with this dress code, such as a wedding, men typically wear a suit and tie while women wear a cocktail dress. If you're still not sure what to wear, we've taken the guesswork out of choosing a cocktail attire wedding outfit with the help of a few etiquette experts. 

“Cocktail attire is meant to bridge the gap between day and night,” explains bridal consultant LauraLee Baird. “It is still an occasion to dress up, but a full-length gown is not necessary. This merges the silhouette of a garden party dress (shorter) with the fabric and embellishments of a formal gown.” Think somewhere between a sophisticated formal occasion and office or party wear, adds Alena Kate Pettitt, author of English Etiquette: The Motivation Behind the Manners.

Still, with so much ambiguity, cocktail attire could mean different things depending on the venue, the time of day, and the season. Read on to learn more about deciphering this common wedding dress code.

Cocktail Attire for Men and Women

“The most important idea to take away from the cocktail dress code is that your goal is to create an elegant look wearing a knee-length, tea-length, or midi dress,” suggests social etiquette advisor Maria Lucrecia Arguello. “This is not the time to wear a gala gown or a short mini skirt.”

If you do opt for a longer dress, ensure it’s in a less formal fabric so as to not appear overdressed.

During the day, think natural colors and fresh styles. In the evening, feel free to utilize darker hues and embellishments such as sequins or feathers (so long as your dress doesn’t sweep the floor). Remember: The goal is to look polished and dressy, but not so much so that you take away from the bride. When in doubt, your best little black dress, a pair of sensible heels or dressy flats, some nice earrings, and a classy clutch will always work for a cocktail event, no matter the venue or time of day. In addition to a traditional cocktail dress, women can also wear dressy suits or nice jumpsuits paired with heels or formal flats.

For the men, all experts agree: a suit and tie are required for cocktail attire. Go with darker hues in chillier months or for evening events, but feel free to wear lighter grays or blues in warmer weather or for daytime celebrations. As for shoes, keep it classy with a nice pair of dark dress shoes that match your belt.

Even if the wedding will be held at a more relaxed venue (such as a beach, barn, or vineyard), if the couple chose a cocktail dress code, it means a jacket and tie are a must for men. During the formalities, the jacket and tie need to remain on, advises Pettitt. "The only acceptable time to remove your jacket and tie is after the formalities have ended and the sun has gone down and/or the groom or senior male attendants have removed theirs." Traditionally, this means the jacket needs to stay on during dinner, but feel free to scan the crowd, and if others are shrugging out of them before sitting for the first course, it’s fine to do so as well.

Cocktail Attire Etiquette

While a cocktail dress code isn’t as strict as white or black-tie, it’s not an invitation to wear just anything. The bride and groom are expecting you to dress up for the occasion, and this should be reflected in your outfit. Anything too tight, short, or revealing is a big "no," as well as jeans, ripped clothing, shorts, and sandals (for men).  “Having made an effort shows regard for the event and creates a jovial collective mood for all those who attend,” says Pettitt. “Adhering to the dress code is not only polite, but it will help you feel at ease in your surroundings.” If you’re still at a loss, feel free to reach out to the mother of the bride or the maid of honor (never the bride) for further clarification to ensure you look and feel your best.

The venue will also give you a clue as to how strict you need to be with your attire. "Read the invitation for the setting of the event, as cocktail attire for an afternoon outdoor vineyard wedding would likely be less formal than the cocktail attire of an evening wedding taking place at a private club," advises Baird.

  • What should I wear to a wedding with a cocktail dress code?

    When attending a wedding with a cocktail dress code, your goal is to look polished and put together without being overly elaborate. Take cues from details like the formality of the venue, the season, and even the vibe of the invitation to determine what to wear.

  • What is summer cocktail attire?

    For a summer wedding with cocktail attire, opt for light and airy fabrics such as chiffon, linen, or organza. A floral maxi dress, a pastel midi or knee-length dress, as well as a jumpsuit, are all great options. Elevate your look with simple accessories and a pair of wedges or block heels.

  • What is semi-formal attire?

    Semi-formal attire is another term that is often used interchangeably with cocktail attire. Like a cocktail dress code, it represents the middle ground between formal wear and casual wear.

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