Q And Answer: What Is Cocktail Attire?

February 17, 2011

Q and Answer: What Is Cocktail Attire?

Kyle writes: When one is instructed to wear cocktail attire, what is appropriate?

Cocktail attire doesn’t have a strict definition – it’s a way of requesting clothes that are appropriate for the evening, more formal than casual clothes and less formal than evening wear (like black tie or white tie).

What you should put on when the invitation says “Cocktail Attire” depends to a great extent on context. Cocktail attire at an after-work event for the warehouse workers at a paper company will likely be less formal than cocktail attire at a reception for the Metropolitan Opera. You’ll have to know your own wardrobe and have some idea of what sort of event you’re headed to if you want to make educated choices.

No matter how formal the event is, you’ll want to be appropriate for the time of day, which will almost certainly be after dark. That means favoring dark solid colors, wearing black shoes rather than brown and choosing suits over sport coats. Navy blue, dark gray and black are especially appropriate for evening. (Yes, I really am recommending black.)

On the casual side of the spectrum, you might wear something as simple as a sharp pair of pants, a pressed shirt and a v-neck sweater. You may even be able to get away with dark jeans. Remember when going casual after dark that your goal should be to look sharp. This means avoiding anything that looks sporty or outdoorsy and focusing on fit.

The classic cocktail attire for men is simple: a dark, solid suit. This can be worn with or without a similarly simple tie, depending on the formality of the event. A plain white or blue shirt and black shoes completes the look. If you wish, you can be a bit more fashion-forward in the styling of the suit in this context – you’re not at work. No pinstripes, please, those scream “business.”

Remember that this is one of the most flexible dress codes you’ll encounter. The key here is not so much formality as tone. Think of Sinatra or Bond in their black tie – that’s the tone you want to create, whether you’re wearing jeans and a sweater or a suit and tie.