A Man’s Guide To Cocktail Party Attire

cocktail attire men

Cocktail Attire Dress Code Made Simple

Hunting for ideas on what to wear to a cocktail party? Not sure of the dress code for men? Looking for some inspiration? If the answer is yes, you’ve come to the right place.

That’s because this post is all about what men should wear to a cocktail party.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten panicky calls from friends who have received invites to an event we’re attending and ask, “Hey man, what are you wearing?” or “Should I put on a tie?” I’ve even been asked, “Is it OK to wear wingtips?”

To keep it real, I can’t say I blame them. The hard truth is knowing what to put on for a cocktail party largely depends on the event itself.

For example, what you might wear to an art gathering may be completely different than how you dress for a charity auction.

And while all cocktail parties share the universal trait of vodka, whiskey, and wine, the same cannot be said of wardrobe requirements.

Sadly, because of cultural norms involving men, a lot of guys simply won’t reach out to one another for advice. As a result, they end up arriving at the party in clothing that isn’t appropriate for the occasion

Which brings us to why I penned this piece; to answer the question – What should I wear to a cocktail party?

In this article, you will learn:

  • An expert’s thoughts on cocktail attire and men
  • Myths about cocktail parties
  • A working definition of a cocktail party
  • A brief history of the origins of cocktail parties
  • Options for dress
  • An overview of the essentials
  • A basic list of do’s and don’ts
  • Tips for pulling off your desired look

Men, Cocktail Parties and Clothing Options

Seeking guidance on this topic, Men’s Variety spoke to Morgan Kinkler. She is a men’s fashion and style consultant and former operations manager at the Men’s Wearhouse in Chicago. She offered the following insights.

“A lot depends on the type of cocktail party because some are more formal than others. We use the term – ‘cocktail party’ as kind of a catchall for everything. In truth, there are important differences,” Kinkler said. “Some are semi-formal. Others hold the expectation that you dress to the nines,” she adds.

cocktail attire men
Are suits required for cocktail parties?
cigar
What should men wear to a cocktail party?

Do men have to wear a suit?

“Years ago, that used to be true but not so much today. Again, much depends on the event. The problem with automatically reaching for a suit is that you might be overdressed,” Kinkler said.

“A great way of determining what to expect is to send an email or make a phone call to the person who extended the invitation. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

In formal situations, it may even say on the invite what type of dress is expected,” she adds.

So, can you wear jeans and a button-down shirt for a cocktail party? How about sneakers or high-tops? “I’ve been to many of these types of informal get-togethers. It’s not out of the question,” says Men’s Variety style reporter, Aris Apostolopoulos.

“People who think guys don’t wear those kinds of items are buying into a myth and need to get with the times,” he adds.

Speaking of cocktail parties, what does this term actually mean? Is there a history behind the tradition?

Cocktail Party Defined

In modern terms, a cocktail party is a gathering of friends and associates that are typically semi-formal in nature. Almost any celebration is appropriate for a cocktail party.

Examples include:

  • Weddings
  • Anniversaries
  • Engagements
  • Promotions
  • “New home” celebration
  • The birth of a child
  • Completion of a degree
  • Acceptance into a school program
  • “Goodbye” party before a transfer
  • Sporting events
  • Cigar parties

When you dress for a cocktail party, think of your clothing options as transitional. In other words, not quite formal and not quite informal, meaning something in between.

attractive man silver watch
Dressing up is the norm for cocktail parties
Idris Elba has great cocktail attire on
Idris Elba looks ready to go

Cocktail Party History

Cocktail parties were all the rage between the late 1920s and early 1940s. Part of the reason for their popularity relates to the stock market crash of 1929, which saw the collapse of massive wealth throughout the United States.

As a tool for coping with social misery, people would throw formal and informal get-togethers as an inexpensive alternative to going out on the town.

There is some literature to suggest that the inventor of the cocktail party was invented by Alec Waugh of London. However, this claim is hard to substantiate (Ayto, 2006).

As an aside, here is a fun video of actor Chris Pine doing a spot for Giorgio Armani (Code cologne) where he enters a cocktail party and becomes the focus of attention – well, at least for one person. But what he has on is great for idea generation, don't you think?

Deciding What To Wear to a Cocktail Party

Here’s the truth – there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to wardrobe requirements and cocktail parties. As previously mentioned, much will depend on the occasion for the soiree and who is throwing it.

After conducting extensive research on this subject and talking to experts, here’s a list of do’s and don’ts that may help you to make the smartest choice possible for the event.

DO wear something fitted, such as a pair of dark trousers and a blazer.

DO wear a dab of men’s cologne or aftershave but don’t go overboard.

DO wear a clean, pressed dress shirt and be ready to have a tie handy, should the need arise.

DO have on your favorite wristwear. If you really want to make a subtle impression, consider a classic silver watch.

DON’T show up in clothing that is considered loud, such as pastels or bright colors (unless the occasion calls for it).

DON’T walk in the door wearing something that is more formal than the occasion. That’s why it’s so important to find out about the event first.

DON’T try and one-up the guest of honor. Chances are, he or she is aiming to look their best. There is no need to outdo them.

DON’T be the guy who comes in with a lot of bling. A watch and ring are fine. Wristbands and giant rocks attached to your fingers are (probably) not.

If there is even a part of you who is unsure about some aspect of your wardrobe, listen to your inner voice. When in doubt, reaching for traditional clothing options is always a smart choice.

Essentials for a cocktail party men
Check out the essentials

Cocktail Attire Essentials

You probably have a picture in your mind about what you want to look like. Still, it might be helpful to review key essentials so that your wardrobe goals are accomplished.

Suits, Coats, and Pants

Obviously, nobody can tell you that wearing a suit is a must. Putting on a well-fitted sports coat and slacks may be just fine.

That said, regardless of what you decide, here are a few things to consider.

  • Have your suite or blazer tailored to your frame
  • The more formal the occasion, the darker the clothing options. Black is the most formal, followed by navy blue and grey.
  • For traditional (formal)parties, black or brown wingtips are the norm (see Amazon).
  • Think about the season you are in. Tweeds are great for winter while cottons and polyesters are good for summer.
  • Should the event be informal, such as an outdoor party at dusk, it’s completely okay to wear khakis and a button-down shirt, topped off with a blazer.
  • If the cocktail party is informal and celebratory in nature, such as a birthday party, it is OK to wear jeans and sneakers. Just make sure you’ve got on some type of pressed dress shirt, like a light blue oxford (see Amazon).
  • It’s OK to mix and match, provided your colors coordinate.
  • If the occasion is formal, consider placing a pocket square in your blazer. If it is informal, think about putting a handkerchief in your pocket. Either way, should a beverage accident happen, you’ll be completely prepared to wipe things up.
attractive bearded man suit
What will you wear to the party?
A jacket and blazer may do just the trick

Cocktail Attire Essentials

You probably have a picture in your mind about what you want to look like. Still, it might be helpful to review key essentials so that your wardrobe goals are accomplished.

Suits, Coats, and Pants

Obviously, nobody can tell you that wearing a suit is a must. Putting on a well-fitted sports coat and slacks may be just fine.

That said, regardless of what you decide, here are a few things to consider.

  • Have your suite or blazer tailored to your frame
  • The more formal the occasion, the darker the clothing options. Black is the most formal, followed by navy blue and grey.
  • For traditional (formal)parties, black or brown wingtips are the norm (see Amazon).
  • Think about the season you are in. Tweeds are great for winter while cottons and polyesters are good for summer.
  • Should the event be informal, such as an outdoor party at dusk, it’s completely okay to wear khakis and a button-down shirt, topped off with a blazer.
  • If the cocktail party is informal and celebratory in nature, such as a birthday party, it is ok to wear jeans and sneakers. Just make sure you’ve got on some type of pressed dress shirt, like a light blue oxford (see Amazon).
  • It’s OK to mix and match, provided your colors coordinate.
  • If the occasion is formal, consider placing a pocket square in your blazer. If it is informal, think about putting a handkerchief in your pocket. Either way, should a beverage accident happen, you’ll be completely prepared to wipe things up.
attractive man white shirt cocktail party
Button down white shirts are always in style
Blue dress shirts work well too
Blue button down shirts work well too

What About the Shirt?

We’ve talked about different shirt options earlier but we’re spending time here to discuss more because the shirt you wear matters – a lot.

Essentially, there are three types of button-down shirts you should consider for a cocktail party:

1. White

2. Blue

3. Black

The first two follow the traditions of formal and informal gatherings and are the preferred choices for men.

On rare occasions, a black shirt may be worn but these are almost always reserved for late evening parties that are unique to an occasion, such as New Year’s Eve.

What you’ll want to avoid are pastels, stripes, prints, and florals. The only exceptions might a themed party where it is expected that guests dress in specific attire.

An example might be a Hawaiian Luau event or a party with a western theme. Barring a theme or specific instructions from the host, stick to white or blue for shirt options.

Here’s a hint – you can’t go wrong with a cotton blend oxford. They are timeless and check off all of the style boxes.

mens dress shoes for a cocktail party
Your shoes matter

What’s Up with Shoes?

Earlier, we recommended wingtips as a traditional approach. But that doesn’t mean you can’t wear a pair of Oxfords (see Amazon) or something leather-lined that laces up.

You can wear loafers but make sure the event is super casual and isn’t outdoors.

Dress-boots are probably fine but it’s best to make sure the look of the boot has a (somewhat) formal feel. Bruno Marc has a really good line of men’s dress boots for example (see Amazon).

Whatever you decide, double check your footwear to make sure it looks clean and shiny. The snazzier the event, the better your shoes should look.

If you open your closet and notice that your dress shoes are in disrepair, consider bringing them to a specialist or better yet, go out and buy something new – preferably of high quality.

man adjusting tie wristwatch
Should you wear a tie?

Should I Wear a Tie?

A question a lot of guys want to know the answer to relates to ties. “Should I wear one?” Perhaps you can relate? All I can tell you is that in most situations, they are not required.

Still, even for informal events, having one on isn’t frowned upon. Hopefully, your host will give you enough information so that you can decide far in advance.

That said, if you choose to wear one, there are four choices that are considered traditional and timeless.

1. Navy

2. Burgundy

3. Grey

4. Black

If you are wearing a white or blue oxford shirt, a burgundy tie will match well. A black tie should be reserved for super formal occasions and only worn with a white button down.

Grey is a neutral color for both formal and semi-formal events. Navy also can be thought of in this way.

Speaking of ties, a wise choice is to pick something simple, basic and elegant. Go for solid colors or choose basic stripes and patterns. See this example on Amazon.

Oh, you may be wondering about bow ties? That’s up to you but most men wear these to formal events that call for a traditional look.

beard
Is sporting a beard OK for cocktail gatherings?

What About Facial Hair?

Another question some men ask if it is OK to go unshaven for a cocktail party? There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. All we can do offer a few pointers.

Things to consider:

  • Do you normally sport a beard? If so, it’s probably OK to keep it for the party.
  • Is your beard scraggly looking or is it trimmed and neat? If the answer is unkempt, consider grooming it.
  • Does your beard have spots of grey or look discolored? Have patchy areas? You might want to pick up some coloring to make it look sharp (see Amazon).
myths about cocktail parties
Cocktail party myths

Cocktail Attire Accessories

If you are like most men, you probably have several wardrobe items that firmly fall into the accessories department. The question is – should you wear them?

The answer to that question is – it depends. All of this goes back to the type of event and so forth.

Here are some things to think about:

  • Money clip to vibe out austere
  • Tie clip (formal situations)
  • Black or brown belt, depending on trousers
  • Dark socks, preferably black or navy (no patterns)
  • A simple gold or silver band or maybe something with diamonds that isn’t too blingy.

Lastly, on this point, you can wear a silver or gold neck chain but it’s probably best to only do so for a patio or pool party.

Myths About Cocktail Parties

Just for fun, we thought it might be fun to share a few of the myths connected to cocktail parties. Obviously, we can’t list them all, otherwise, this page would never end.

Here are the “biggies”. Remember, none of these are true.

  • Cocktail parties are always formal
  • It is universally OK to smoke cigars
  • You must drink whiskey or bourbon while attending
  • Women typically don’t attend cocktail parties
  • Hors d'oeuvres are always part of the party
  • There is no such thing as an informal cocktail party
  • Only top label alcoholic beverages are sold at parties
  • Men are always expected to wear black

Summing Things Up

If you have been invited to a cocktail party, be it for a work function or at the behest of a friend, plan on dialing up your usual style.

In truth, we don’t see as many of these types of get-togethers as we did in the past. Still, when they happen, it is best to consider them special.

And here’s a final tip. If you do receive an invite to a party, be ready to send a hand-written thank you card soon after attending.

Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will also make you look like a super classy dude.

References:

Ayto, J. Movers and Shakers (2006). Oxford University Press

About John Lannoye 151 Articles
John Lannoye is editor and founder of Men's Variety. Based in Chicago, he blogs on topics related to health, wellness, relationships and men's grooming. Click on the hyplink to follow him on --> Facebook or --> MeWe Email him at --> [email protected]