How do you define cocktail attire? Like many of the puzzling dress codes that crop up on fancy invitations now and again, the barometers are not immediately clear – at least, that is, for men. This is one of the (very) few occasions in life when women have it easier. There’s even a book on the topic by fashion writer Laird Borrelli-Persson aptly called The Cocktail Dress, which discusses in detail the dress that inspired the code.
There is no such thing for men, however. Cocktail attire for men implies formality but just how smart should you go? The murky world of tailoring comes laden with its own rules and regulations – which should you comply to and which can you ignore completely?
WHAT IS COCKTAIL ATTIRE?
THE HISTORY OF COCKTAIL ATTIRE
If you were wealthy and leisurely enough during the 1920s and 1930s, there was a chance you spent a ‘cocktail hour’ or three between lunch and evening enjoying plentiful alcohol. It was the lubricant for a new kind of social gathering – and since social events were then also defined by the appropriate clothing, ‘cocktail attire’ came into fashion. Then it was a notably formal look.
It took a more relaxed, vibrant, post-war, American version of the cocktail party to admit to what the drinking of cocktails normally did: loosen everything up. And so too with men’s dress: enter jackets in fancy silk brocades. It’s essentially to this mode of dressing that cocktail attire today takes its inspiration – at the more dandy end of semi-formal style.
In the decades since, the cocktail dress code has taken cues from the styles of the day, but the intention has remained the same. It’s an excuse to dress up and show off.
WHEN TO WEAR COCKTAIL ATTIRE
While it will typically be indicated on an invitation whether cocktail attire dress code is required or not, here are some events where this dress style is most appropriate:
- Cocktail parties (obviously)
- Evening events
- Celebration for special occasions (retirement, reunion, anniversary, etc…)
- Dinner dates
- Networking events
When all else fails, cocktail attire is a good place to turn for weddings, work events, and other social gatherings, especially in the evening, where the dress code hasn’t been specified. Most formal occasions that aren’t overly dressy call for cocktail attire.
MEN’S COCKTAIL ATTIRE STYLE TIPS
To look your best in men’s cocktail attire, keep these styling tips in mind and you’ll be the sleekest guy in the room.
THINK ABOUT FABRICS
Flat, woven clothes that work for the kind of clothing worn in a more conservative environment might be traditionally smart, but aren’t necessarily suitable for a cocktail event.
Instead consider cloths of interest, with a distinctive texture or sheen – the likes of velvet or silk – and patterns that might look out of place in many working environments – windowpane checks, for example. Glen checks, herringbone and sharkskin also work well.
CASUAL IS GOOD – TO A POINT
Cocktail dressing is about being precise but not stiff. “But, when it comes to cocktail attire, there is still definitely ‘too casual’,” argues Spencer. “You could wear a T-shirt, for example, but only under a smart jacket. Sneakers are out, no matter how jazzy they are.” Denim is typically frowned upon too.
Colour is a major consideration, “because colour can go very wrong,” says Powell, “and if you’re unsure it’s better to accessorise with colour rather than wear it in the clothing.” He opts for pinks and turquoises in accessories – in which you can go bolder – but deeper richer shades of purple and green for jackets.
KEEP IT CLEAN (LITERALLY)
Clothes need to look fresh on, be properly ironed, neatly folded and polished, as is appropriate. There’s no excuse for looking slovenly – you are, after all, attending a special occasion.
HEED THE INVITATION
Although cocktail attire may be what’s prescribed, always be mindful to read between the lines and note what the event is actually for and who will be present. “If, actually, it really is a work event and you need to impress your boss, you may still need to conform more than normal,” says Hart. “Then again, cocktail attire can be a chance to experiment.”
KEEP IN MIND THE TIME OF YEAR
The summer allows for the wearing of lighter colours and fabrics, such as linen (which also keep you cooler, of course). For the colder months, richer shades and layering may feel more fitting. Likewise, is it a daytime or evening cocktail event? The later it is, the more rakish your attire can be.
DETAILS ARE ALL-IMPORTANT
Even if you’re forced to wear the same suit you wore to work, a few key details – the right scarf, a certain choice of sock, a boutonniere – can be enough that you don’t feel entirely out of place.
HOW TO DRESS FOR COCKTAIL ATTIRE
For a flawless cocktail attire getup, these should be the first items you reach for in your closet.
Separates – smart jacket and smart trousers – typically work better than a standard suit. This allows the wearing of more sober, pressed trousers and, off-setting this, an unusually flamboyant jacket or blazer. This might be in an atypical finish or shade – olive green or burgundy rather than grey.
The dress shirt isn’t easy to pull off, however, and – Powell warns – should only be worn with an appropriately restrained jacket. Don’t wear both at the same time unless Austin Powers is your style hero.
The definitive cocktail attire for men shoe of choice is the loafer – tasselled, suede or penny. A loafer that verges on the house shoe/slipper is a stylish choice: “It’s the kind of shoe you might only change into when you get to the event, but I doubt many men would do that,” says Spencer. “Certainly what you don’t want to do is turn up in a pair of brogues. No ‘country’ style should be seen at a cocktail event.”
Leather-soled Oxfords and monk strap shoes are also acceptable choices, especially when polished to a bright shine.
4. ROLL NECK
Distinctive cufflinks or a statement watch are the acceptable face of male jewellery at a cocktail event.
COMMON COCKTAIL ATTIRE DOS & DON’TS
Cocktail attire can be a bit mystifying… Here are some tips to look and feel your best the next time you find yourself in cocktail attire.
- Respect the dress code. ‘Black tie’ is simple. ‘Business attire’ is easy. We all know what they mean. ‘Cocktail attire’ is fuzzier but still needs to be respected if that is what has been asked of you. Don’t just wear what you like because the lines aren’t crystal clear.
- “Go into a cocktail event with the right attitude,” says Spencer. “Your outlook needs to be as expressive as your outfit. Go in thinking you’re going to speak to everyone there.”
- Dress within your comfort zone. “If you’re not happy wearing something you wouldn’t normally wear, don’t – because you won’t wear it well,” says Powell. It’s by no means a disaster to wear a well-tailored mid- through to dark-grey (though not black) suit, crisp shirt and understated tie to a cocktail event.
- Order the perfect cocktail to accessorise a fashionable outfit has to be suitably fashionable too: the simplicity and drinkability of a Negroni always works, or, to look more sophisticated, request a boulevardier – it’s a Negroni made with bourbon rather than gin.
- Think red carpet. The style of dressing for men on the red carpet now – seeking more of the attention traditionally reserved for the women – is increasingly close to that of cocktail attire, argues Powell. “There’s more of a crossover because both are aiming to make a statement, without crossing the line into fancy dress,” he says.
- Overdo it. Yes, a cocktail event is a rare occasion when a man might dress in an uncharacteristically ornate, even baroque way. But you can still end up looking like a Christmas tree. Be flashy – but in small doses, not all over. “Just be subtle with it. Don’t be garish,” says Powell.
- Ask a stranger what they do for a living. In the art of making small talk – which is what cocktail events are for, not for dancing on the tables – nobody wants to talk about, or be defined by, their work. Ask instead, perhaps, what they do for fun.
- Confuse cocktail attire with black tie or dinner dress,even though you may well be dressing for dinner. Black tie is too formal: it’s about following very strict rules. Cocktail attire is less formal: it’s about breaking the rules of formality by looking like an individual.
- Attempt to out-dress others, especially if there’s a guest of honour. Likewise be mindful of the tenor of the event; and, if you really not sure, there is no harm in asking – the host’s idea of ‘cocktail attire’ may be more formal than yours. Better to ask than turn up and be forever remembered as ‘the guy in the red jacket’.
- Overstay.Always leave before the cocktail party is over, with your dress in the same state of elegance as when you arrived. Cocktail events are in part about peacockery – and about maintaining a certain poise and self-control throughout.