What is Cocktail Attire?

If you ask this question, there is a good chance that you are a staring at an invitation that specifies cocktail attire. If you have visions of a long party dress or evening gown, reign in your imagination! Cocktail dress actually specifies a mix of casual wear and elegant evening attire.

What is Cocktail Attire as Opposed to Formal Wear?

Men should wear a dark suit, such as would be appropriate for a wedding, upper echelon business meeting or funeral. A tie is becoming an optional accoutrement, although you will find that the more mature generation most likely will still insist on it. Women have a bit more leeway and should look to the proverbial “little black dress” or another knee length party dress. Resist the temptation to dust off the ball gown or opera dress; this would be a mite too dressy for a cocktail attire occasion.

Cocktail Attire Challenges

Since cocktail dress is the fashion version of being neither fish nor flesh, it is easy to err on the side of over dressing or under dressing. Men have the option of casually losing the tie and keeping it in a jacket pocket, but for the overdressed lady at the party there is precious little she can do to dress down after the fact.

Novices to the world of dress-up find that layering dress options is a great solution when it is not clear in which direction the majority of guests will interpret the call for cocktail attire. Thus, a hip length, smart black jacket can easily cover up the gold silk top that is, well, over the top.

Another bone of contention is accessorizing. Overdo the accessories, and you may find yourself as overdressed as the woman wearing the leopard print dress. Skimp on the accessories, and you will find that you might as well hug the walls or hide behind a large potted plant. A good compromise is the strand of pearls, which really goes well with any occasion, and the matching earrings. Men should bring along a pair of cufflinks and insert them at the party, if it appears that other men have interpreted the invite to require such lengths.

Matching Cocktail Attire

The unwritten rule demands that a couple will attend wearing cocktail dress that matches in formality. Thus, a man wearing a casual sports coat while his better half appears dressed to the nines is inappropriate. In a curious twist of etiquette, the overdressed party is actually expected to dress down and match the underdressed party, even if this requires intentional misinterpretation of the call for cocktail attire. When seen together, the couple should harmonize rather than make a difference in formality glaringly obvious.

Final Thoughts on Footwear

While you can now answer the question “what is cocktail attire,” you may still be somewhat in the dark with respect to footwear. As a man, you already know that the black dress-up shoes are the only way to go. As a woman, however, you may be tempted to reach for the stiletto heels. It is interesting to note that small to medium heels are actually considered cocktail attire while high heels fall under the umbrella of formal wear.


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