Ah, cocktail attire, the ever-convoluted term that many men are baffled by. We’ve all received an invitation with the dress code listed as “Cocktail Attire.” What many of us still don’t know is what exactly that term means. I’ve found that the simplest way to describe it is business attire with a little flair. That is not even close to everything that goes into it, but it may be the simplest reduction of the meaning. Read on to stay dapper and stylish at the next event requiring cocktail attire.
History of Cocktail Attire
The term Cocktail Attire gained popularity during the 1920s and 1930s when a trend of pre-dinner drinks started to require a different dress code from your day wear and dinner wear. Work and day wear was too casual or stiff and dinner wear was too formal or stiff. Societal constructs required men and women to change their clothing to be more suitable for the cocktail party and thus the term was invented. Today, cocktail attire is used to describe the level of formality an event requires, rather than just used for a pre-dinner drink outfit.
Basic Rules for Cocktail Attire
There are many events that use cocktail attire for a dress code. From weddings to birthday parties to business events to fancier get-togethers, this type of attire may be required of you. And that is part of the beauty of cocktail attire. It is formal wear that allows for a little interpretation and creativity on your end. The most essential rule is to know how flashy or simple to be based on the type of event and the host.
If it is a wedding, you don’t want to overshadow the groom or bride, so keep it simple and proper. If it is an actual cocktail party with the intention to mingle, you can add more flair and personal touch to your outfit.
Another most essential and basic rule, wear a suit jacket and trousers. NO JEANS. Cocktail Attire is still formal wear. Not for a date or casual weekend barbecue. So no jeans, ever.
You should always try to add personal touches. This shows your personality and sense of style. Just remember to keep the level of flashiness suited to the specific event.
Lastly, if you ever have any questions regarding the specific requirements, you can always ask the host or someone else attending the event. It never hurts and most people will not find it intrusive.
As stated before, you always want to wear a suit jacket when cocktail attire is the required dress. First and foremost, always make sure your jacket is cleaned and pressed and properly cared for. You can have the most elegantly assembled outfit and your suit or shirt is wrinkled or dirty, and your ensemble won’t matter in the least. The only thing people will notice is how unkempt you are.
Make sure your jacket is properly tailored. This should be the case for every jacket you own. You want it to fit your body properly, ideally making you look the best you can. The jacket shouldn’t be too tight and definitely not too loose.
Color-wise, you really don’t want to wear a black jacket. That is too formal. Traditionalists will say you should keep your jacket a dark shade of blue or grey, but in today’s less formal world of style, almost any shade of grey or medium to darker blues work. You can also have a muted pattern such as a check or stripe if the event is a little less formal. If you’re feeling really bold and the event allows for it, you can opt for a burgundy or olive or darker khaki jacket as well.
Pants and Vest
Once again, just so we’re clear, never wear jeans! You want to wear nice trousers or pants. Most men will opt for the matching pair with the jacket, but it is not necessary to go this route. You can wear separates if you have a great outfit for it. Just remember to make sure the pant color goes with the jacket.
With regards to vests, they are not necessary. But if your ensemble fits with a vest beautifully, go for it. You can also wear a vest with no jacket if the even is much less formal, but this look is not very common amongst cocktail attire. Make sure the vest is always tailored well and the bottom button is always undone.
The shirt must always be in harmony with the jacket. This the most essential matching rule whenever you wear a suit. Since your jacket won’t be of the boldest variety, typically a shirt of white, blue, or grey is your best bet. You can go for something more colorful if that fits your personality, but sometimes it can be too distracting.
To be in harmony, if the jacket is bolder, wear a simpler shirt. If the jacket has a pattern, make sure the shirt does not. And vice versa. Use your discerning eye and pick a great match.
For collars and cuffs, make sure the collar is crisp and holds up. A limp and lame collar ruins your whole shirt. And for cuffs, almost any type will do. Some say French cuffs are too formal, but if worn correctly, you will not look overdressed, so don’t shy away from them.
Lastly, as always, make sure the shirt is wrinkle free, clean, and crisp. A man should always have a few crispy dress shirts in his wardrobe for several occasions.
Shoes and Socks
Your cocktail attire shoes are very important. Shoes are important for any ensemble, so don’t overlook them. Cocktail attire requires dress shoes. Maybe, just maybe, for the least formal of occasions, you could wear loafers. But this is not common and will not happen often. So stick to your oxfords, and always with a lace. Colors can vary depending on the outfit, but blacks and browns are what you’ll usually be donning.
Your socks should always be calf-length socks. The style is up to you, but you generally don’t want the socks to outshine the rest of the outfit. Some people are big time sock advocates, and if you intend to make them a conversation piece, then go for it. But most of the time, stick to something that matches the entire outfit.
Ties and Pocket Square
Ties are no longer a necessity for cocktail attire. If the event is more casual you definitely don’t need a tie. If that is your route, make sure to have one or two buttons undone at the top and your undershirt isn’t showing at all.
For most occasions, and to add more personality, you want to wear a tie. Bowties are much more popular these days and are acceptable if done right. And you always want the tie to accent the already present elements of your jacket and shirt. You don’t want it to be the clear centerpiece.
Remember, when constructing your cocktail attire outfit, it should all work in harmony. If one piece dominates all the rest, this isn’t possible. If the jacket and shirt are simple, a bolder tie works, and vice versa. Just like the shirt to jacket rules, but the tie is the third piece and must complement both.
Pocket squares are not a must, but they almost are. Whether or not you wear a tie, a pocket square should be part of your ensemble. It’s just a wonderfully classy and stylish way to stand out. Even if it is a very simple pocket square. Just remember to never wear the exact matching pocket square to your tie. That is a definite no-no as it looks tacky and lazy.
Belt, Cufflinks, and Watch
Some outfits don’t require a belt, but most of the time you’ll be wearing one. Keep it matching or complementing your shoes, and nothing too gaudy. It doesn’t have to be an extremely expensive belt, just make sure it is well kept and clean leather or suede.
Cufflinks are a great addition to your cocktail attire, just like a pocket square. They are not necessary as all your shirts won’t be made for them. But if you choose, they can be a great style statement and a subtle detail that many will appreciate. Keep them tuned to your personality.
A watch is also not a necessary piece of the outfit, especially if you don’t normally wear one, but it can be a great touch as well. If you love watches and have several, pick the right one to accent your shirt and shoes, just make sure it isn’t the focal piece of your attire.
This one should be obvious, but for some, it sadly isn’t. if you are attending an event that requires cocktail attire, make sure you are clean and trimmed and smell good. I mean, duh. Even if you are a scruffy guy going for the rugged look, unkempt hair and beard just looks lame. It is an unnecessary distraction. So trim up the beard, do your hair, and make sure you smell appropriate.
Now you know all the rules, or general guidelines, to cocktail attire. No longer will you be lost in the wind when you read the term. The next time an event with this dress code comes up, you will be looking dapper and handsome for all to see. Remember that it is semi-formal attire, with a personal touch. Always add some personality. Not too much to overcompensate for your actual personality, but just enough to show you care about your appearance. Because it is important. Make sure you take the time to care about it, and go out there and look good!