The cocktail attire is one of the many puzzling dress codes you might stumble upon in our modern society. While the style has been around since the 1920s and 1930s, most of today’s men don’t have a clear idea as to what the cocktail attire really is about. If you ask around, you’ll likely get answers revolving around a formal dress code, without too many other details.
So how formal is the formal in cocktail attire? How can you define ‘cocktail attire’? It surely isn’t your 9 to 5 business suit. It’s a tad different than a black tie dress code too. But just how different? And how smart should you go with it? These are all questions we’ll try to shed a clearer answer on in this post.
Reserved for special occasions and evenings in which you need something a little bit different, something extra than your usual suit, the cocktail attire is a more flexible dress code and it can even let you add a little bit of fun into what you wear as well.
The History of the Cocktail Attire
Back in the old days, the wealthy had the habit of spending two or three hours between lunch and evening in a new kind of social gathering, discussing and sipping cocktails. It was a social event that required wearing appropriate clothing, usually a formal dress code, which soon became known as a cocktail attire. That happened somewhere between the 1920s and the 1930s.
After World War II, the American society began enjoying a more relaxed and laid out cocktail party, so the dress code loosened up a bit, entering the era of fancy jackets and silk embroidery. That evolved over decades, but kept the same laid back semi-formal style, dress up and show-off intentions behind.
The Cocktail Attire in Modern Society
You might receive an invitation in which cocktail attire is specified, but you surely won’t find a clear definition of it. While for some it’ll mainly be formal, the cocktail attire is a versatile dress code intended for a wide range of events from weddings to evening parties and professional events.
It’s a call to dress up for a party or an expensive dinner, for an anniversary, a new year’s party or any other celebration with a slightly formal tone.
In the past, the cocktail attire followed more specific and rigid rules, but nowadays is takes a more lax and laid back approach. The modern society got a more fun twist out of it while still keeping it elegant and smart. It’s more than business casual but less than a black tie. Think of it like a nice balance between casual and formal.
Cocktail Attire Style Details
While the dress code allows you quite a lot of flexibility, you should always mind the location, occasion and time of day, which will finally dictate how you should dress.
If you’re going to a wedding, keep it elegant and simple. Don’t be flashy. You want to show respect but don’t attract attention away from the bride and groom. A traditional cocktail attire should fit most weddings, but keep in mind what the couple’s style is. If they’re greatly informal or glamorous and colorful, you should keep up, without looking out of place at their wedding.
Cocktail parties. For women, it seems simple and straightforward, but for us, men, it’s not as easy to choose the attire. Cocktail parties and cocktail attire don’t go hand in hand, which means you’ll have to adapt to the type of event.
If there’s a dress code specified, go for it. If not, go for something more relaxed. After all, that’s the purpose of these parties. The classic dark or navy suit will probably be too much there. A flannel with patterns may be suitable in winter time, and something a little more daring would be ok in general.
Evening parties or sporting events tell you a bit more of what to wear. If it’s a business networking event, go for a formal attire. If it’s a new year’s party, take a more chic and daring approach.
In general, the black suit is not needed but it’s a safe option to look good if you have no clue on what to wear.
The Details Matter
The fabrics are important, so pay attention to your choice. The traditional flat, woven clothing may work in most conservative environments, but that’s not the case for a cocktail event. Look instead for something more distinctive, like velvet or silk, with patterns and textures that will give you a cool original look. Windowpane and glen checks, herringbone and sharkskin should work well here.
Earlier we mentioned that a cocktail attire is a nice balance between casual and formal. So keep it more casual than what you wear at the office, but don’t exaggerate. Casual is good up to a point. So no jeans and sneakers here. Maybe a T-shirt, but only under a smart jacket and minding the location, occasion and the time of the event.
When it comes to details, color is probably the most important of them all. It’s where you’ll either shine or go very wrong. If you’re not sure about it, keep it mostly in the accessories. Pinks and turquoises should work well in accessories. A midnight blue mohair should also work well when you’re unsure on what to wear. It looks good in almost any circumstance, from bright lights to photographs and it’s also flattering.
Keeping it fresh and clean is important. Your attire should look properly ironed, neat and polished. It’s a special occasion after all, and sloppy isn’t the way to attend to.
The time of year matters as much as the time of day. Summer allows for something light, including lighter colors, while richer shades and layers fit you better in the winter months. As for the time of day, the later it is, the more bold you can be with your experiments.
There are key pieces of your attire that will give you an edge. Think about the right scarf, socks, maybe a boutonniere. They will all make a difference even if you’re wearing the same suit everywhere.
The Pieces of a Cocktail Attire
A standard suit might work for traditional or more conservative occasions, but separates like a smart jacket and smart trousers work better. Sober trousers and a more unusual jacket will do the trick in some situations for example, so allowing this kind of flexibility is important.
A conventional suit jacket will not have the same kind of details as a separate blazer. You could go for a silk shawl collar, turn-back cuffs or something low with single button fastening. The suit, if you go for one, should be something you’d never wear to the office, either for its color or fabrics.
As a rule of thumb, the more patterns and colors, the less formal it is. If you’re still not sure and go for a conventional suit, choose a navy blue or charcoal one. It will make you chic without being out of place.
The shirt also leaves you some room for experimentation. Just don’t go wild on both the shirt and the jacket. Dress shirts are way better off with a restrained jacket.
If it’s something standard, keep it white or in block colors with a stand-up collar.
If you add a tie to it, choose one that will draw attention through either its color or pattern. The tie expresses your personality and it’s how you differentiate your evening dress from your office wear. Parties allow for more daring tie styles.
The shoes are another critical piece of your cocktail attire. Black or brown Oxford shoes will complete your look and are usually acceptable, especially if you polish them to a bright shine. But if you want something more appropriate, go for a loafer, suede, penny or tasseled.
The Roll Neck
A roll neck will save you from wearing a shirt when you don’t feel like it. Just know it’s a more laid-back and relaxed wear. Perfect if you don’t want a tie, as it doesn’t feel lost without one like an open-neck shirt would. As for the cloth, go for cotton, silk or merino and avoid the more traditional heavy wool.
No cocktail outfit should go without accessories. It’s your chance to express emotions and show your personality. Just don’t go too far with it. A pin on the jacket’s lapel, a silk neck scarf or a pocket square with a touch of color or a nice pattern will work well. Oh, and don’t forget your statement watch.
What You Should Watch Out For
Know where you’re going and respect the dress code. The location, the occasion itself and the time of day matter. If unsure, it’s always better to ask the host so you can prepare accordingly.
Having the right attitude makes a difference.
Dress within your comfort zone. Your outfit should make you comfortable, even if it’s not the ideal impress-everyone kind of wear.
Make sure you don’t overdo it. Don’t become too flashy. Being subtle is key here. And certainly never dress to out-dress others, like the bride and groom at a wedding, the tenor of the event or the guest of honor.
Always ask the host for more details, as your idea of a cocktail attire may be very different than theirs.