Cocktail Attire for Men: To Know It Is To Style It

You hear “cocktail attire” and picture relaxed-yet-slightly-formal events where drinks and light hors d’oeuvres are served.

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However, men’s cocktail attire doesn’t always correlate with actual cocktails – although there’s certainly some overlap.

Rather, it’s a dress code that’s been gaining some momentum to overpass the long-accepted yet still vague semi-formal rules.

A man wearing a Sandro Brown checkered cocktail suit
Suit by Sandro Brown

So, before you assume you’ve got to wear a tux – or even a navy suit, for that matter – here’s what you should know about the cocktail attire for men as a dress code.

Cocktail Attire Definition

For women, this dress code is perhaps one of the more straightforward and, in fact, correlates with actual cocktail dresses. For men, here’s where things get flipped around.

Although you might perceive the equivalent as being your nice chinos and a structured blazer, complete with a button-down underneath and loafers, different situations dictate different garments, so there’s no one true definition. For this reason, asking what defines men’s cocktail attire will bring up a slew of different answers.

Man wearing a black cocktail suit made by Express
Suit by Express

On the other hand, we can define cocktail attire for men under a few different terms:

1. It’s the New Semi-Formal

No one truly ever knew what this was – only that it was not as formal as true formal attire – although it was used for events that call for a charcoal or navy suit or a tuxedo if it’s truly black tie – and it’s also not casual.

These days, men’s dress codes have developed some layers, with business formal and business casual being beneath “formal” dressing and “smart casual” situated below “business casual” but above true casual dressing. “Cocktail attire” occupies the spot below “business casual” and above “smart casual.”

Yet, even then, its role isn’t so clear-cut. Instead, men’s cocktail attire borrows heavily from business dress while allowing for some freedom – for instance, a chance to try out different colored and patterned suits that aren’t always appropriate for business environments. For this reason, cocktail attire for men is relatively easy to do.

2. Garments Vary by Occasion

Adding to the points stated above, cocktail attire’s flexibility lends itself to some fluidity – but it’s not 100-percent absolute freedom. Instead, you’ll be expected to shift your clothing according to the occasion’s social rules: for instance, black is nearly always for funerals and job interviews and shouldn’t be worn to an upscale happy hour, while no one at a wedding, even with the best intentions, should upstage the bride and groom

Man wearing an H&M dark blue cocktail suit
Suit by H&M

What is Cocktail Attire?

Roughly a century ago, cocktail attire distinguished itself as an after-work, pre-dinner dress code amongst upscale social communities. Called “after 5” in some circles initially, the formal-but-not-too-formal attire was expected for pre-dinner drinks and canapes. Into the 1930s, this occasion and the dress code evolved into “cocktail hour,” a strictly social event held after or toward the end of the workday where drinks were served.

Today, we’d call this “happy hour,” and similar rules apply: Strict business dress is too formal, yet it’s too socially loose – and uninformed – to arrive in a T-shirt and jeans, even if they’re the more fitted, cleaned-up variety.

Through the rest of the 20th century, the cocktail hour rules applied to any occasion in an upscale setting where drinks were served and guests were expected to socialize. Thus, the dress code, for a time, became the default for sporting events – and remains that way for events like the Kentucky Derby – and after-business networking, along with weddings and New Year’s Eve parties.

The Building Blocks of Cocktail Attire for Men

Toward the mid-20th century, men’s cocktail attire literally loosened up – more colors, more ornamentation, like brocades, relaxed fits, and more dandy-style fabrics, like silk – and became closer to what we know today.

Beyond the historical developments, cocktail attire for men is essentially a cobbled-together version of other dress codes, and thus, putting together your basics is relatively straightforward. Be sure to have the following in your closet:

Man wearing a brown Reiss cocktail suit
Suit by Reiss
  • A Single-Breasted Slimmer-Fitting Suit: Touch on the business dress area with charcoal or navy – albeit with some adjustments we’ll touch on shortly – and have a party suit, ideally in a bolder hue or with a print at hand. Consider a range of materials – like linen for summer and wool for winter – depending upon where you live, and a partially unstructured fit isn’t always frowned upon. At this point, avoid the wider-cut softboy-esque casual suits we’ve been seeing on the runways, but still aim for a modern-looking ensemble. 
  • A Few Button-Front Shirts: When in doubt, always have white or light blue available. However, within the fitted, stiffer-collar template, you have more freedom. Now’s your chance to try out some stripes, florals, and other prints that reflect your personality.
  • A Lace-Up Dress Shoe: Anything slip-on is too informal – so save your loafers for your smart-casual creative office. Instead, a lace-up dress shoe – preferably a smooth-toed oxford, although a derby will do – projects a more polished, professional impression. Here, keep it to shades of black or brown.
  • Accessories with Some Personality: Let the colors, textures, and patterns pop and add some individuality. A paisley pocket square, striped socks, a lapel pin, or any type of men’s jewelry for that matter might be frowned upon in formal business meetings – and definitely in a more formal, black-tie setting. With cocktail dress codes, however, they infuse your by-the-rules outfit with bits of adventurousness and risk-taking and indicate you know how to have fun without breaking social decorum.
Man wearing a light brown Club Monaco cocktail suit
Suit by Club Monaco

Notes About Cocktail Attire for Weddings

In some ways, wedding attire is its own special category, although today, cocktail attire is expected. However, it’s slightly more restrictive than what’s listed above. Keep in mind the following:

  • Suit color and cut: As we mentioned already, you don’t want to overshadow the married couple. So, keep it simple, classic, and muted with greys, blues, or tan hues – no patterns or heavy embellishments, unless the dress code calls for it. And, most of all, don’t ever show up in a tux to a wedding – that’s why many menswear retailers have sections specifically dedicated to wedding suits.
  • You’ll have it feel it out: Not all weddings are the same, as many adults find out. The charcoal or navy might work for a traditional church wedding and reception close to home, but destination weddings are a whole different ballgame – as are the rise in more casual, non-religious affairs. You might want to bring out the colors and patterns if, one, you’ll be headed to such a destination – for instance, that dream Hawaii wedding involving just a small group of friends and relatives – or the married couple are intentionally playing it low key – for instance, wedding in the park, followed by a reception later at a restaurant or at home.
A man wearing a blue cocktail suit with black pants from Tom Ford
Suit by Tom Ford

What to Avoid

With all of the above factors in mind, you should steer clear of certain practices when the dress code is labeled “cocktail”:

  • No tuxedos and no “white tie” attire.
  • No black suits – unless they’re distinctively and clearly textured.
  • Avoid adding too many patterns and colors to a single outfit.
  • Play it by ear with certain smart-casual items, like chinos and polo shirts. They’re fine for after-work drinks, but may be too casual for a wedding.
  • No sneakers or slip-ons, and always wear a pair of dark-colored socks with your shoes.
  • Always wear a tie – although prints and bow-ties are perfectly acceptable here.

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