Style Primer: Cocktail Attire

History of Cocktail Attire

Cocktail parties are rumored to have gotten their name in the 1920s during Prohibition in the United States. Drinking alcohol was illegal, and social drinking moved to houses. Where you could find alcohol and set up a bar, people were sure to congregate.

Cocktail parties soon grew into high profile events. As they became chic gatherings, people dressed up more and more, and soon surpassed traditional daywear in search of something a more formal. Beginning in the 1930s, men’s cocktail dress was a little less formal than evening wear. There was still no prescribed look, though: men could wear jackets of any pattern or color, and one could wear either a straight or bow tie.

When cocktail parties became more fashionable in the 1950s, men started to wear slim trousers in silk or rayon, and jackets were custom-made. Slender ties and ascots accessorized cotton or silk shirts. In the 1960s, men discarded with ties altogether.

Today, we see variations on all these looks in themed cocktail parties. Depending on the time of day, the guestlook, and the time of year, cocktail attire can change dramatically. To give you some ideas on how to know what to wear, keep reading! We’ve compiled Men’s Flair tips to cocktail parties just for you.

Dressing for a Cocktail Party

Check out the invitation. Receiving your invitation by phone or email hints that the party will be much more casual. Formal invitations, especially for association parties and charities, will require slightly more dressy attire.

Read closely. Review a formal invitation for descriptions like “semiformal” or “dressy-casual.” Semiformal dress should be a dark suit for men; “dressy-casual” gives you the option of wearing a sport coat or blazer with trousers and spread collar shirt without a tie for an elegant casual look.

Consider the season. Dark or muted fabrics are better for fall and winter, and you can lighten up a little come spring and choose light fabrics like linen or cotton. You can also take advantage of a splash of tropical colors during spring.

Compromise. Coming from work straight to a cocktail party? If you are wearing khaki trousers, don a button-down shirt and a blazer. You can also wear a sport coat with a dark pair of jeans and leather driving mocs. No sneakers allowed!

Check the time. An afternoon cocktail event should be treated less formally. Try a dressy business casual outfit in the late afternoon or a suit in the evening. You can also wear a casual outfit for a slightly less formal event in the afternoon, and your business casual clothes in the evening.

Get your accessories squared away. Don’t wear shorts and aloha shirts for a cocktail event. If you hate the heat and you want something cooler, wear lightweight pants in cool gingham or chambray.

Bringing a date? Coordinate your outfits!


  1. Bill said:

    1. Under the bullet point above titled “check the time”, you wrote “were” when you meant “wear”.
    2. I’ve been invited to a Belgian wedding in September. I’ve read differing accounts of what constitutes cocktail attire. Given the specifics of the occaision, would you care to weigh in with an opinion?

    April 23, 2007
  2. FineGuy said:

    1. I corrected it. Thanks!

    2. People usually stress about attire for weddings without reason. Good fitting dark suit and tie will take you almost anywhere. Unless stated as “black-tie” event ( or ultra casual event, the suit and tie will work perfectly.

    April 24, 2007
  3. Leyla said:

    I have a problem my boss has been invited to a fashion show and cocktail party on the same day, so I need to find him a outfit that he can wear to both events without having to change.Do you have any sugguestions please.

    June 27, 2007
  4. Anthony said:

    I am invited to a cocktail party that requires Cocktail Chic attire. For a male, what would you suggest as an outfit?

    October 9, 2007
  5. editor said:

    ‘Cocktail Chic’ means ‘looking chic while holding a cocktail’ or ‘dressing up on creative/modern way.’ In other words wear dress shoes, dress pants, dress shirt, fitted blazer, forget the tie and unbutton few buttons in your shirt. (

    October 10, 2007
  6. David said:

    Hi Bill, I think you will find that “occaision” then would actually be spelled “occasion”… at a recent British Embassy event, my “cocktail attire” constituted an all black suit with solid black t-shirt “European-style” and found that it was neither too informal nor made me stand out which was precisely the look required…

    October 24, 2007
  7. James said:

    This seems to be a US interpretation of dress code. If you are in the UK things are somewhat less flexible.

    If the invitation is for the evening and states “cocktail dress” women should infer short dressy dresses, and gentlemen darker lounge suits. These days ties are optional provided you compensate to make the outfit smart/dressy. Think 50s Vegas and the Rat Pack or David Niven.

    A blazer and chinos would be inappropriate in the UK as would a T-shirt under a jacket.

    As would a dinner jacket unless the invitation states “black tie”. In which case wear a black evening jacket and trousers unless you are in a tropical climate in which case the jacket can be white. Waistcoats beat cummerbunds for sophistication. Eccentrics and military types can wear tartan trews if they are entitled to wear the tartan. Smoking jackets are for gentlemen only events at home.

    January 18, 2008

Comments are closed.