Certain dress codes within the world of men’s style can be highly ambiguous at the best of times but none more so, perhaps, than cocktail attire. These two little words have left ordinarily well-dressed men flummoxed on countless occasions. The main reason being that the loose definition leaves some unsure of how formal or informal to go. After all, you don’t want to be the only guy who shows up in a suit. Or worse, the only guy who doesn’t.
The truth is, cocktail attire isn’t nearly as difficult to master as some imagine. In fact, equipped with the right knowledge, you may find it becomes your dress code of choice, whether there’s a whisky sour in front of you or not. There’s more room for manoeuvre than with black tie, yet more sophistication than smart casual or business casual. Put simply, it offers up the best of both worlds.
So, to help you stride stylishly into your next event feeling confident, we’ve delved into the subject headlong to bring you up to speed with everything you need to know.
What Is Cocktail Attire For Men?
The truth is, the exact definition of cocktail attire is cloudier than a white Russian. But, for an easy way to get your head around it, just think of it as dressing up for a big celebration and keeping things fun and formal in equal measures. As the name suggests, it’s not about sobriety.
That means no lounge suits, but also making more of an effort than a typical Saturday night. Your fallback going-out shirt isn’t going to cut it. Whether you go for dressed-down tailoring or dressed-up something else, there should be an element of occasion to your outfit. It’s an excuse to be festive, glamorous, colourful or, dare we say it, extra. Likewise, it could also mean stripped-back elegance if that’s more your thing.
Unlike black tie, this is not a very prescriptive dress code. It’s perfectly acceptable ditch the full suit in favour of blazer and trouser separates. You can forgo all-black and experiment with colour, texture and pattern. The bog-standard poplin shirt can be subbed for a turtlenecks, patterned shirts and more. Just keep it interesting. Keep it fun. But keep it classy.
When To Wear Cocktail Attire
1950s Manhattan and cocktail parties are (sadly) no longer a mainstay of our social lives. So when exactly should a man wear cocktail attire? It might not say so on the invitation but we’d argue that any of these events are worth getting the glad rags out for:
- Wedding receptions
- Christmas parties
- Business receptions
- Opening events and galas
- Networking events
- Noteworthy anniversaries, birthdays and other celebrations
Of course, you don’t really need an excuse for cocktail attire, just like you don’t need an excuse for cocktails. If you want to go out one evening looking and feeling your best, just grab your velvet jacket and hit the town.
Cocktail Attire Key Pieces For Men
Like all good outfits, the perfect cocktail attire getup is comprised of several key pieces. Stick to them and you can’t go wrong.
If you want to play it safe, a dark suit should be your first port of call. But stay away from plain grey or boring navy – i.e. anything that could be confused for officewear. Instead, try a bolder or pastel blue or jewel tones such as green or burgundy. If you’re not comfortable straying away from the safety of neutrals, instead opt for some sort of print, such as windowpane checks, pinstripes or houndstooth.
Doing away with a traditional suit creates an opportunity to get more creative when it comes you your jacket. As long as your trousers are clean and sharp you can go for something a little more flamboyant than usual up top.
Think rich colours, textured fabrics such as velvet and corduroy and quirky detailing such as lapels made from contrasting cloth. It doesn’t have to be a dinner jacket, but there’s no harm in it. Your jacket is your ticket to express some personality through your outfit, so it deserves plenty of careful thought and consideration. Team with a formal button-down shirt with a pointed or stand collar.
Where the jacket makes a statement, your pants should do the opposite. Dress styles with minimal detailing are best suited to the job. However, if you want to keep things up to date then opting for something with pleats or a relaxed/cropped leg could work nicely too.
Chinos aren’t entirely out of the question either. Just make sure to choose a neutral such as grey or navy. Steer clear of beige, especially if you’ve elected to wear a double-breasted jacket – the last thing you want is to arrive at the soiree looking like Alan Partridge. Team with traditional business casual shoe styles.
But this being the dress code of pomp and personality, you can also go a little rock ‘n’ roll here if you want to. A polka dot shirt under a black jacket or loud shirt with a 70s-style collar in a 70s colour will add some retro-modern styling to the right occasion.
Unlike most formal dress codes, a shirt is not compulsory in cocktail attire. A roll neck can work just as well, especially in the cooler months. Just keep it fine-gauge and elegant – this is not the place for a chunky fisherman jumper.
A high-quality T-shirt isn’t completely out of the question either, provided it is styled thoughtfully. This means wearing it under your jacket and tucking it in nice and neatly at the waist. Try using a military tuck to eliminate excess fabric bunching visibly at the front. In either case, stick with plain, sober colours.
Monk straps or loafers are the cocktail attire shoes of choice. If they’re leather, make sure they’re clean and well-shined. Of course, that should go without saying for any dress code. Generally speaking, you’ll want to avoid overtly casual shoe styles here, and that includes desert boots and brogues.
All that said, if you’re doing cocktail attire correctly, it’s one of the few dress codes where your shoes won’t be the first thing people notice. So if you want to wear your Oxfords because they go with your suit, or your Chelsea boots or even a pristine pair of minimalist sneakers, you’ll get away with it.
This is where the opportunity presents itself for a spot of peacocking. Accessorising for a cocktail dress code is a chance to get more creative than you perhaps would otherwise. A pocket square, statement cufflinks and a high-quality watch are your go-to staples, but it doesn’t end there.
If you’ve always wanted to try a neck scarf or a cravat in place of a tie, this is the time. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, simply don’t wear anything around your neck at all. Ties are not compulsory here.
Cocktail Attire Outfit Ideas For Men
Cocktail attire at its simplest: mismatched tailoring worn with flair and elegance. Your colour and fabric choices are important because this shouldn’t look like business casual. Eschew the fallback grey and navy combo for something a little starker: black and burnt orange, perhaps, or dark grey and burgundy. Under the jacket, a shirt, tee or turtleneck can all work, depending on where you’re going.
Special occasion, you say? Then it’s all the excuse you need to brush off that velvet jacket that gets precious little air time. Pick out that staple piece of formal eveningwear but leave the bow tie where it is and style the jacket with a roll neck instead.
Texture is key for this look: shiny and stroke-able, it adds the requisite glamour to your outfit (bonus points for bold colours). Corduroy and tweed can do a similar job at less glitzy events.
Don Draper at a garden party is the aesthetic we’re aiming for. It’s a little less formal than some of the other looks and also works well for summer weddings. Simply pair a checked blazer (Prince of Wales, windowpane, houndstooth) with some tailored (non-check) trousers in a complementary colour. A crisp, starched-collar shirt will finish the look but you can also add a pocket square or sunglasses depending on the occasion.
Devilishly easy to wear, tonal outfits are a good fallback when the dress code is particularly cryptic. Pick your favourite colour – from black and midnight blue to earthy stones and burgundy – and basically dip yourself in it.
Each piece would ideally be a slightly different shade and a slightly different texture, so get those velvet and corduroy jackets out again.
See The Light
Back in the day, a white dinner jacket with a carnation in the lapel was a suitable get-up for ordering at Tom Collins at 7pm. Going full Humphrey Bogart might be a stretch today, but light-coloured jackets add a little stylish insouciance, especially in the summer.
Look for off-white or pastel tailoring, and style with an open-collar shirt and something suede on your feet.
Suits can still work for cocktail attire, so long as you pick the right kind. Forget anything that would look at home in the office and instead up the ante with bolder colours (white, green, tan, burgundy), striking patterns (checks, thicker stripes, herringbone), materials with a bit of interest (high shine, velvet, corduroy, tweed) or sophisticated details (shawl collars, silk lapels).
Combine with a neutral or complementary coloured shirt or roll neck and finish with neutral leather footwear to let your tailoring do all the talking.
Cocktail Attire Dos and Don’ts
All of that information can be a lot to digest. So, just to reiterate, here are a few key things to remember when it comes to cocktail attire.
- Express some personality through your outfit and accessories. The goal is sophisticated and stylish; never stuffy.
- Feel free to switch out a full suit in favour of separates.
- Let your jacket do the talking if it’s a statement piece. Keep everything else pared back accordingly.
- Wear loafers, monk strap shoes, Oxfords or Derbies.
- Wear smart, pressed trousers and feel free to experiment with cropped length or subtle details such as pleats.
- Swap the shirt out for a roll-neck, knitwear or even a T-shirt if the mood takes you.
- Adhere to the dress code. Just because it’s not black tie does not give you carte blanche to turn up in your work outfit.
- Allow your outfit to be stuffy. You’re celebrating, not pitching in the boardroom.
- Wear a black suit.
- Go too casual. Cocktail attire may afford you a little more freedom than some more formal dress codes but this shouldn’t be taken to extremes.
- Underestimate the importance of accessories. The smallest details can have the biggest impact on your look overall.
- Wear shoes that could be considered too casual. This means no canvas sneakers, no suede boots and no brogues.
- Be scared to veer away from the traditional. Wear a roll neck in place of a shirt or a neck scarf in place of a tie.
- Wear jeans. Come on, guys, make an effort.
A Brief History Of Cocktail Attire
As you’re now aware, cocktail attire today is all about dandiness, a smattering of eccentricity and personality. But, in years gone by, things weren’t quite so informal.
In the early twentieth century, the upper classes would quite often indulge in a spot of alcohol-fuelled, mid-afternoon socialising. This was a chance to dress up in one’s finery and show off.
It’s debated as to whether the concept of the cocktail party arose in England or the United States; what we are sure of is that it happened during the mid-1920s. One school of thought is that the idea originated with a woman from Missouri, a known socialite who invited 50 guests to her house for cocktails. From then on, cocktail parties became an institution in the States and quickly spread around the western world.
The dress code has been around ever since. To an extent, it’s followed trends in tailoring – flares and huge collars in the 70s, for example – but has become much more relaxed over time. A tuxedo, for instance, would have been perfectly appropriate cocktail wear in the 1920s. Over 100 years later, however, it would likely come across as a little over the top.
That being said, some pundits are predicting a decade of decadence post-pandemic. After spending so much of the early 2020s away from bars in head-to-toe jersey, maybe the roaring 20s are set for a re-run. We’ll drink to that.