What to Wear to a Cocktail Party

What to Wear to a Cocktail Party

Cocktail attire is a phrase we’ve all heard, especially around the festive times of the year. Cocktail attire is also a popular dress code for special occasions, holiday parties, company parties, or even themed birthday parties where everyone is looking to dress up. For women, being asked to wear cocktail attire offers an excuse to get dressed up and look beautiful. Putting together the perfect cocktail outfit and choosing your dress should be an exciting and creative activity. While getting dressed for cocktail hour isn’t complicated, here are a few good tips and pointers to keep in mind to be sure you look and feel fabulous.

What Is Cocktail Attire

Cocktail attire is a nice balance of elegant but comfortable and formal yet casual. It typically falls somewhere between business casual and black tie. Cocktail attire is often used for special occasions, special events, or celebrations and can be frequently found printed at the bottom of invitations.

While cocktail attire is a time for getting dressed up, there is an element of formality and sophisticated flair involved that keeps the wearer looking elegant and stylish. This often means a suit and tie for men and dresses for women. While cocktail attire is not conservative per se, it is considered to be more reserved and formal than your standard business casual or party outfit.

The dress code for cocktail attire is essentially a semi-formal outfit or look that takes you from daywear to nightwear; casual daywear is too relaxed, and formal evening attire would be too proper. Cocktail attire will have you looking nice for an event but not too overdressed. Typically, men wear a suit and tie, whereas women wear what is known as a cocktail dress. It’s time to pull out the special occasion dresses, jewelry, heels, and makeup and get dressed!

Several variations to cocktail attire exist. For example, formal cocktail attire can imply a fancier degree of cocktail dress. For this, consider wearing a sleek and sophisticated black dress made of an opulent material, such as satin. Another variation is the festive cocktail attire, which means adding a holiday-themed twist, like sequins or a seasonal color, to your cocktail attire outfit. Garden party cocktail attire implies a more summery look, so try more flowy fabric and floral prints. Business cocktail attire pertains more to professional events, where wearing a fancier work dress would be a variation on the cocktail attire dress code. However, by sticking to the basic guidelines, you’re certain to show up looking and feeling comfortable and fabulous.

8 Must-Know Dos and Don’ts of Cocktail Attire For Women

When selecting your cocktail outfit and pulling your favorite dresses out of the closet, you'll need to keep in mind some important dos and don’ts. While we have indeed evolved beyond the more conservative fashion of the early 20th century, there are still some things that are expected and taboo when arriving at your cocktail attire affair.

1. Don’t Wear Skimpy Dresses, but Do Watch Your Hemline

While we are getting dressed to go out for cocktails, it’s not to the nightclub. Save your skimpier dresses for another time. Like many other details of what is and is not appropriate cocktail attire, there are unwritten rules about the kind of dress a woman is expected to wear and avoid. Watch your hemline and neckline to be sure your dress of choice is neither too short nor too revealing. A plunging neckline can indeed be done tastefully but is generally not considered appropriate for cocktail hour. While your dress of choice doesn’t have to be floor length, it should not be much shorter than above the knee. For cocktail hour, more modest dresses are the best choice.

2. Don’t Wear Huge Gowns That Trail Out, but Do Wear Midi-Length Dresses

The proper hemline for cocktail attire is basically not to go extreme in either direction. While your dress shouldn’t be too short, it also shouldn’t be too long. Definitely don’t wear a huge gown that trails out, which would be more appropriate at a black-tie affair. You are not off to a royal ball, after all. If you want to wear a longer dress, choose an elegant midi dress. Formal midi dresses offer the perfect length and look for a formal cocktail event.

3. Don’t Show Up in Jeans, but Do Wear Trousers

Women can indeed wear the right trousers to a cocktail attire event. Remember, we are channeling the early 20th century, but we aren’t copying it. Pantsuits have become increasingly stylish and glamorous over the years. Wear an elegant pantsuit with fancy heels and a formal women’s blouse to make your pants cocktail-attire appropriate. You can also choose wide-legged or cropped ankle dress pants to wear with a fancy top.

Women can certainly experiment with two-piece ensembles or even a jumpsuit; however, jeans are still a no-go for cocktail attire. Instead, choose a formal pair of trousers that make you feel comfortable and elegant all at once. Get a pair of black- or neutral-colored wide-legged or ankle cropped dress pants for the best cocktail outfit.

4. Don’t Do Flip-Flops, but Do Heels or Platforms

Shoes can make or break an outfit. Style your party outfit with a pair of heels or platforms that would match and make your look more formal. Don’t do flip-flops or any casual shoe. This is truly the time to be a little extra with your shoe game. Choose a pair of heels that are not over the top but serve as the perfect shoe for your party outfit. If you're not able to wear heels, try a dressy pair of flats instead.

5. Don’t Overdo Accessories, but Do Wear One Statement Piece

Remember, we are being formal here with a tasteful touch of conservatism. While this is not the opportunity to pull out all your fun costume jewelry, it is the time to wear your favorite statement necklace or pair of earrings. Cocktail attire jewelry is just like the hemline: don’t go extreme in either direction. Don’t avoid wearing any jewelry, but also don’t overdo your accessories. Instead, it’s best to choose a statement piece you really love and let that add to your outfit instead of distracting from it.

6. Don’t Go in Shoddy or Crumpled Dresses, but Do Consider Dry Cleaning or Steaming Your Attire

You could have the most gorgeous dress on earth, but if it’s dirty or crumpled, that’s going to wreck your cocktail party look. Instead, choose a dress that looks clean, fresh, and shapely. Dry cleaning and steaming your dress is a good rule of thumb for before and after the party. Also, be sure to check your outfit for holes, stains, or other blemishes that need to be cleaned or repaired.

7. Don’t Carry Huge Bags, but Do Carry a Clutch

Bulky bags don’t really pair well with elegance and grace. Leave the huge bags at home and instead go to the cocktail attire party with a clutch. A clutch is a perfect little bag; it's easy to carry and will hold the bare necessities you need to bring with you. While a clutch can be a fabulous accessory all on its own, you can also keep it neutral and stick with black.

8. Don’t Let Your Undergarments Show, Wear a Strapless or Stick on Bra

There are times when letting your undergarments peek out from beneath your outfit is cool and coy, but a cocktail party is not one of those moments. It is best to not let your undergarments show. Instead, choose an outfit or dress that keeps them humbly tucked away. Choosing darker colors, such as black dresses over whites, will help cover up any undergarments that otherwise might shine through your dress. Alternatively, you can wear nude undergarments to help them not stand out. Choose a strapless bra or stick-on bra for those dresses that would otherwise reveal them.

Dressing for a cocktail attire event is a fun opportunity to get dressed up. When choosing your outfit, remember that, traditionally, cocktail attire is the happy middle ground between casual daywear and opulent evening wear. Cocktail attire for women reflects this in its simplicity, grace, elegance, and style.


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