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 still, the only guy who doesn’t.

The truth is, cocktail attire isn’t nearly as difficult to master as most imagine. In fact, equipped with the right knowledge, you may quickly find it becomes your favourite dress code of all. 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.

Featured image (top) courtesy of gievesandhawkes.com

What is Cocktail Attire

As mentioned above, the exact definition of what exactly cocktail attire means can be a little cloudy. However, for an easy way to get your head around it, just think of it as dressing up for a big celebration but keeping things on the right side of smart. You want your outfit to be fun and formal in equal measures.

This can be achieved using a few subtle tricks. Firstly, it’s perfectly acceptable ditch the full suit in favour of separates. Next, forgo all-black and feel free to experiment with colour. And last but not least, mix things up a bit – that poplin shirt? There’s no reason not to lose it and wear a roll neck under your jacket instead. Keep it interesting. Keep it fun. But keep it classy.

History of Cocktail Attire

Cocktail attire today is all about dandiness, a smattering of eccentricity and personality. But, in years gone by, things weren’t always 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.

Cocktail Attire 1930

A cocktail party in the 1930 | LIFE Magazine

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 but has become much more relaxed over time. A tuxedo, for example, would have been perfectly appropriate cocktail wear in the 1920s. Today, however, it would come across as a little over the top.

Cocktail Attire Key Pieces

Like all good outfits, the perfect cocktail attire getup is comprised of several key pieces. Stick to them and you can’t go wrong.

The Suit

If you want to play it safe, a dark suit should be your first port of call. But stay away from plain black or grey, which could be seen as a little morbid or business-like for cocktail attire. Instead, try a bolder blue or opt for some sort of print, such as windowpane checks, or, if you want to be on trend, pinstripes. Team with a black tailored t-shirt or black roll-neck sweater, and finish with a pair of loafers or monk strap shoes.

Lazio Blue Check Suit, £299 at SUITSUPPLY >

Remember, though, this dress code is all about showing a bit of personality. So, if you’re going to go down the suit road you’ll want to get creative with your accessories.

The Jacket

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 and quirky detailing such as lapels made from contrasting cloth. 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.

Navy Velvet Dinner Jacket, £690 at FAVOURBROOK >
Black Tuxedo Trousers, £130 at SUITSUPPLY >

The Pants

Where the jacket makes a statement, your pants (see above) should do the opposite. Smart 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 cropped leg could work nicely too. Again, team with a pair of loafers or monk strap shoes.

Chinos aren’t entirely out of the question here 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 a pair of high-shine loafers.

The Shirt

Forget your dress shirt, forget your OCBD. The only thing that will do here is a formal shirt with a pointed or stand collar. A cutaway collar is fine too, provided you’re wearing a tie with it.

Turnbull & Asser White Double-Cuff Cotton Shirt, £195 at MR PORTER >
ARKET Shirt 3 Poplin in White, £45 at ARKET >

Cocktail attire is more about expression than some other smart dress codes. Yet your shirt should keep things grounded and anchor your look. Therefore, avoid patterns and excessive detailing, opting instead for plain, block colours.

The Top

Unlike most formal dress codes, a shirt is not compulsory in cocktail attire. A roll-neck top can work just as well, especially in the cooler months.

John Smedley Cherwell Merino Wool Rollneck Sweater in Black, £145 at MR PORTER >
Sunspel Classic Cotton T-Shirt in Black, £65 at SUNSPEL >

A plain 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.

The Footwear

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.

G.H. Bass Weejuns Larson Penny Loafers in Black, £135 at G.H. BASS >
Crockett & Jones Lowndes Black Calf Double Monk Strap Shoes, £440 at CROCKETT & JONES >

What you should never do is wear trainers (regardless of how smart they are or how much you spent on them) or any other style that could be considered too casual. This includes anything with heavy broguing, desert boots and other more informal types of footwear.

The Accessories

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.

Drake’s Ecru/Navy Spot Print Linen and Cashmere Pocket Square, £30 at DRAKE’S >
Alice Made This Alvar Silver Cufflinks, £130 at ALICE MADE THIS >

If you’re feeling daring you could throw on a neck scarf or a cravat in place of a tie. 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 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.

Do:

  • 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 trainers and jeans.

Don’t:

  • 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 trainers, 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.
  • Go for an eye-catching shirt. This is the element that should anchor your look. You don’t want it to be fighting your jacket for attention.
  • Wear a tuxedo. This isn’t the 1920s.