What to wear when the dress code is cocktail

Does a cocktail dress code mean heels or no heels? Maybe a long dress? Or is short the way to go? Do men need to wear a tie? Fear not, this is the guide you need when attending a cocktail event.

Last updated:

Receiving an event invitation in the mail is exciting, but many of us can be completely confused when the dress code is "cocktail". It can be even worse when you're confronted by a cocktail derivative like "cocktail-casual" or "cocktail-formal". Deciphering exactly what is expected of you can be downright puzzling.

So, what does a "cocktail" dress code actually mean? Well, it depends. It depends on the event. It can depend on the country you're in and on the cultural background of the host. The venue can play a part. So can the weather. Here are some pointers to help you nail your outfit for your next cocktail occasion.



Understanding what cocktail means for your event

Consider the country

First, it's essential to consider that cocktail dress codes can vary depending on the country and city. In some locations, dressing up for occasions is part of the culture. Consider fashion destinations like Paris, London, Milan and New York where the definition of cocktail attire can be more formal. But other places with a more relaxed vibe may have a less-formal approach to cocktail dressing.

Understand the climate

The climate will also play a role too. Some warmer climates embrace a relaxed, holiday vibe and as a result, dress codes may not require a heavy suit or long gown. More casual, light and breathable clothing could be totally appropriate.

Check the venue

The venue can be another influencing element. If your event is at an exclusive and rather posh location, you might want to dress up a little more. But if your event is in a location function hall, it might not be necessary to pull out your diamonds.

Know your host

But probably the biggest factor affecting how you should approach a "cocktail" dress code is the host. Cocktail means different things to different people, and this applies to people that come from a different culture to yours. So, keep your host in mind when choosing an outfit.

Source: Instagram user Anna Heinrich


The basics of cocktail dressing for women

For women, cocktail generally means a semi-formal dress with a hemline at the knee or mid-calf. However, both longer and shorter dresses can be welcome depending on the style.

When choosing a cut, consider that cocktail events can be formal. So it might be a good idea to stay away from very low necklines and mini-dress hemlines. Feel free to experiment with colours, styles and fabric choices to make you stand out from the crowd. Who says you have to wear a dress? There are plenty of options available that allow you to make a statement. Wearing a pantsuit or jumpsuit is on-trend and has recently been accepted into the standards of cocktail attire for women.

    • Lean towards bold colours, patterns and fabrics. Instead of the classic little black dress, why not change it up with some sequins or silk? Cocktail calls for a celebration, making it the perfect time to change your usual style. Don't be afraid to be bold during a cocktail event.
    • Find balance in a midi dress. When the dress code says cocktail, do you need to wear a short or long dress? Why not meet them in the middle and make the midi dress your best friend? This outfit choice is the perfect balance to ensure you aren't overdressed or underdressed for the cocktail event.
    • Be different with a pantsuit. If a dress is not your thing and you are looking to try something different, a pantsuit may be the best option for you. Not only are they on- trend, but you will be comfortable all night long. Pantsuits come in a variety of styles and colours, so you can be sure there is one out there for your body type. Like any suit though, ensure it is tailored to hug your figure in all the right places.
    • Be daring with a crop top and high-waisted skirt or trousers. Generally, cocktail dressing means you shouldn't show too much skin. But that doesn't mean you can't wear a crop top. Simply pair it with a high waisted skirt or pair of trousers and your outfit will look trendy while maintaining a sense of sophistication for the event.
    • Your shoe choice is important. Wearing heels can elevate your outfit and make it look super dressy. But if you really don't want to wear heels or simply can't, choose a flat shoe that still gives a wow factor. Don't go for a basic black ballet shoe, but instead look for something with details, colour or sequins. Make sure you choose a dress shoe.
    • Always opt for a clutch. A clutch is the classiest option when deciding on what style of bag to use. Choosing the right one can turn it into the statement piece of your outfit. Of course, you can always go for a black or nude clutch to pull the look together effortlessly.
    • Stand out with an accessory. Instead of throwing on multiple accessories to spice up your outfit, choose one area of the body to accessorise and make it a statement piece. This allows you to look both trendy and classy. The most popular options are usually a necklace or a pair of earrings to elevate your cocktail look.
  • Tailor your choice of undergarment to your outfit. Don't just throw on any bra with your cocktail dress. Choose something that can't be seen under your clothing. An errant bra strap poking out of your dress can cheapen your whole look. So can a visible panty-line. There are plenty of seamless and invisible undergarment options available for everyone so you can avoid this issue. Invest in an adhesive bra, nipple covers, a backless bra or one with a deep neckline. Always opt for nude, or if you prefer black, to really make sure everything is covered.

Examples of cocktail dress for women

Source: Instagram user Anna Heinrich

Source: Instagram user David Jones Store

Source: Instagram user Sammy Robinson

Source: Instagram user Myer

Source: Instagram user Manning Cartell

Source: Instagram user The Iconic AU


The basics of cocktail dressing for men

The general rule for men is to avoid denim at all times. Cocktail for men generally means a casual suit, or a shirt and dress pants.

While a tie is optional, a cocktail event is the time to experiment with accessories. Coloured pocket squares, textured ties or a flashy belt can add flair, personality and style to your outfit.

    • Impress with a tailored suit. A suit is the safest choice for a cocktail event, but to make sure you hit the mark, it needs to be tailored to fit your body. Pants that are too short or a jacket that is too long does not look sophisticated. If you are looking for something different and the weather is warmer, you can opt for a shirt with tailored dress pants. Or if the climate is cold, swap the suit jacket for a tailored coat.
    • Ditch the black suit. Why not switch up your classic black suit and go for a dark grey or navy instead? These colours are very on-trend at the moment which means there are so many options available on the market.
    • A tie or bowtie is welcome, but not essential. Men can choose to wear a tie or a bowtie, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to wear one. As long as your look is balanced with a formal jacket or shoes, you don't have to wear a tie.
    • Opt for lace-up dress shoes. Thongs and sneakers are a no-go zone for the cocktail dress code. The safest bet for shoes would be a lace-up dress shoe. Something like an Oxford or brogue could boost sophistication while maintaining the trendy cocktail code.
  • Experiment with a coloured accessory. The cocktail dress code is a great opportunity for men to experiment with their look. Don't be afraid of a little print, bold colour or a texture you aren't used to, but for a cocktail event, it is best to add flair in small doses through your choice of accessories. We recommend utilising socks, belt, tie, bowtie or pocket square.

Examples of cocktail dress for men

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Instagram user Tim Robards

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Instagram user Dalt Graham

Source: Instagram user John Legend

Source: Instagram user Simon Hancock


Still feeling confused?

If you are still feeling unsure of your cocktail outfit, it might be a good idea to ask the host or hostess for some clarification. Your event's host will probably have some specific ideas of what "cocktail" means – especially if they've taken the time to specify that the event is in fact a cocktail event.

Just ask for their opinion – whether it be through text message, phone call or in person. You can show them an image of what you plan to wear, or if you prefer, just ask their general opinion on what they expect their guests to wear. This could prevent any awkwardness from happening during the event and it ensures that everyone enjoys their evening.


Editor's picks for women

VALENTINO  Floral piping-embellished crepe midi dress
VALENTINO Floral piping-embellished crepe midi dress

MATCHESFASHION

AJE  Blythe asymmetric pleated mini dress
AJE Blythe asymmetric pleated mini dress

MATCHESFASHION

ASOS DESIGN Hydroid barely there heeled sandals
ASOS DESIGN Hydroid barely there heeled sandals

ASOS

Public Desire Alia Perspex Block Heeled Sandals
Public Desire Alia Perspex Block Heeled Sandals

ASOS

SOPHIE HULME  Cocktail micro stirrer shiny saddle bag
SOPHIE HULME Cocktail micro stirrer shiny saddle bag

MATCHESFASHION

Editor's pick for men

PAUL SMITH  Soho tailored-fit wool and linen-blend suit
PAUL SMITH Soho tailored-fit wool and linen-blend suit

MATCHESFASHION


The stores to shop at to nail the cocktail dress code:


More fashion tips

Related Posts

Ask an Expert

You are about to post a question on finder.com.au:

  • Do not enter personal information (eg. surname, phone number, bank details) as your question will be made public
  • finder.com.au is a financial comparison and information service, not a bank or product provider
  • We cannot provide you with personal advice or recommendations
  • Your answer might already be waiting – check previous questions below to see if yours has already been asked

Finder only provides general advice and factual information, so consider your own circumstances, or seek advice before you decide to act on our content. By submitting a question, you're accepting our Terms of Use, Disclaimer & Privacy Policy and Privacy & Cookies Policy.
Ask a question
Go to site