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Cocktail Attire for Men: Know It and Own It

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

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However, cocktail attire for men 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 I've found about the cocktail attire for men as a dress code.

Cocktail Attire Definition

For women, this dress code is probably 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 in 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 cocktail attire for men will bring up a slew of different answers.

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

On the other hand, I 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.

So, 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. Personally, I like to have the following in my closet and you might want to do the same:

Man wearing a brown Reiss cocktail suit
Suit by Reiss
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 for men is expected but it’s slightly more restrictive than what’s listed above. I like to keep the following in mind:

  • Suit color and cut: As I've mentioned, 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 to feel it out: Not all weddings are the same, as I've found. The charcoal or navy might work for a traditional church wedding and reception close to home, but destination weddings are a whole different ballgame. The rise in more casual, non-religious affairs are also. You might want to bring out the colors and patterns if you’ll be headed to that dream Hawaii wedding involving just a small group of friends and relatives. Same goes if the married couple are intentionally playing it low key like a 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 in Cocktail Attire for Men

With all of the above factors in mind, I like to 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.


What Is Cocktail Chic Attire for Men?

Cocktail attire exists in a liminal space between casual and formal and that means there’s a lot of room to play around. You can never go wrong choosing classic pieces with a bit of a twist. Think of a dress shirt in a bright pattern or a bold double-breasted jacket. 

What Is the Proper Attire for a Cocktail Party?

When in doubt, you can always reach for a white shirt and dark (but not black) suit, but cocktail attire gives you a lot of space for your own quirky touches. Why not try a scarf or ascot instead of a tie or a bright Chelsea boot instead of loafers?

What Is the Difference Between Cocktail and Formal Attire for Men?

Formal attire generally means a full suit or tuxedo, generally in dark colors. If an event is black tie, it generally means tuxedo with bow tie. Cocktail attire isn’t less dressy per se, but there’s a lot more room for color, pattern, and your own personal touches.

What Is Beach Cocktail Attire for Men?

Beach cocktail attire is much the same as more traditional cocktail attire, just typically in lighter shades and fabrics. Start with a white shirt and beige dress pants. Feel free to add a pastel jacket, patterned tie, suspenders, or even a cool straw hat.

Where Can You Buy Men’s Cocktail Attire?

You can find suitable men’s cocktail attire in many different places. If you’re on a budget, check out a discount menswear store. For mid-range and investment pieces, a high-end department store is a good place to start. And of course, there are plenty of cocktail attire options available online.

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Ivan Yaskey is a Philly-born menswear fashion blogger and copywriter. When not writing about men's style he's also an EDM and synthpop enthusiast.

Cocktail Attire for Men