Quite possibly one of the most vaguely defined and widely misunderstood dress codes of the 21st century, ‘cocktail attire’ is a modern-day catch-all for events pitched at varying degrees of formality – all the way up until black tie.
Stipulated on invitations for garden parties, corporate mixers, thoroughbred races, and seasonal weddings; more often than not, the person who elected to go full ‘cocktail attire’ mode can barely even explain what this entails.
Ditto when you get a host who fancies themselves exceedingly clever, and starts bandying about concepts like ‘casual cocktail attire’ and ‘modern cocktail attire’.
What Even Is The Cocktail Attire Dress Code?
As it turns out, the cause for all of this confusion is simple. Unlike black tie, morning dress or the uniforms associated with many military institutions, the cocktail dress code isn’t one which emerged out of formal consensus during the early 20th century.
Instead, the vague notion we all have about what makes up ‘cocktail dress’ is an evolution of the ‘lounge suit’ dress code: in essence, suits and ties for men; and a smart, oftentimes monochrome dresses for ladies.
In contrast to our better halves – who have a lot more to contend with when it comes to cocktail attire than the theoretically straightforward equation of ‘heels + midi dress’ – men are capable of nailing their sartorial brief much more effortlessly, simply by remembering a few key rules.
Thankfully, as with almost every other dress code that has survived into 2024, modern-day cocktail attire leaves a little room for personal expression; while still providing a helpful road map any time you have burning questions about whether X goes with Y.
What kind of dress shoes should I wear? Should I pack any differently if I’ve been invited to a ‘beach wedding’? Is there ever a cocktail event where I can get away with wearing polo shirts? How does this even differ from business attire?
For answers to all of these queries (and more) read on through our 2024 guide to the cocktail dress code…
A Brief History Of The Cocktail Dress Code
In its most elementary form, the way we wear cocktail attire today has been influenced by the 40-decade interlude between ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and the 1960s. During that period (broadly speaking) the global supply chain that now provides us with affordable, mass-manufactured clothing was still in its infancy: so casual sportswear staples like t shirts, sweats and denim were not worn with the same frequency as they are today.
In their place, ‘dressing up’ was considered the norm, and though statistically speaking, the average man probably owned less clothes than he does in 2024, it would be natural for his daily wardrobe to consist in essentials like two suits (one in charcoal, the other in navy), a few pairs of dark dress shoes, and a couple of accessories – all worn with greater frequency.
In the post-war period, men of increasing means and affluence, would also refer to cocktail attire as ‘after five’ clothing – indicating a clear delta between what you’d wear to the office and what would be appropriate for nighttime events.
Thus, even today, cocktail attire occasions call for an outfit that may effectively make the transition between day and night, hopefully with the flick of a pocket square or change in footwear (as the case may be).
Key Pieces To Consider For The Cocktail Dress Code
As we’ve already mentioned, one of the mixed blessings of ‘cocktail attire’ is in how much stylistic leeway it gives men when you’re putting together your chosen outfit (as opposed to extremely narrow dress codes like black tie). Thankfully, there are still some basic guidelines that you can follow – in order to ensure your cocktail outfit gets off to a good start.
“It’s easier to begin by describing what the cocktail dress code doesn’t consist of,” says menswear designer Christian Kimber. “It’s neither your work look, nor your Sunday kit: but a bridging of the gap between the two.”
At the crux of Cocktail attire is the suit jacket or sports coat that you should adopt for the occasion. More often than not considered mandatory (we deem it so), your jacket, above all, should be tailored and fit to your proportions correctly.
In saying that, you’re not wearing a dinner suit so there is wiggle room for your creative finesse to shine through; play with colour, pattern and style for the days or warmer months, and tone it back for the winter or more formal occasions.
The cut and style of your jacket is also an important consideration: do you like the relaxed nature of a Neapolitan cut, or are you more partial to the handsome structure of the Savile Row style?
Finally, a double-breasted jacket will add an extra dimension of ‘dressiness’ to your look. It’s a subtle way to stand out from your fellow cocktail party goers – without reaching for a loud bow tie or pocket square.
Trousers worn can be those of a matching suit combination or you could explore the idea of playing with tailored separates – a tailored cuffed cotton trouser in navy, olive, brown or beige/cream can look fantastic with a tailored sports coat and a shirt.
As per the jacket, your shirt allows you to take part in an expression of creativity; it’s the time to (subtly) play with colour, pattern and collar style. Keep the shirt neutral to your suit or blazer but don’t revel in the mundane. If staying in one’s comfort zone is the name of the game, however, opting for a crisp white shirt (think your poplin cutaways or pinpoint oxfords) is never a bad option.
A striped dress shirt with a cutaway collar is a fantastic way to add a point of difference over a white shirt. Avoid French cuffs for daytime events, as these are reserved for more formal occasions of the night.
Again, we deem a tie mandatory for executing Cocktail attire successfully, however, going without a tie is a popular less formal option, especially in the day and when paired with a button-down linen or denim shirt. Unfortunately, the vast majority opting to go tieless do so out of sheer laziness, not to let other elements of their outfit take pride of place.
Stand out from the hordes with a tie that not only exemplifies your style-minded decision making but can add the final touches of your outfit with a level of sophistication and class.
Dark green in a grenadine or paisley is always an excellent choice for evening wear, while a cream or repp stripe makes a statement during the day. A bow tie may also suit a more formal occasion like a wedding.
Pocket squares can also add a stylish yet subtle touch to all dress codes, be it with or without a tie. Just remember to keep the design and fold conservative.
The final element of your Cocktail attire, your footwear go-to should, ideally, represent a classic pair of dress shoes, be it in the design of an Oxford, Derby lace, brogue or loafer. We’d reserve the patent Oxfords for a formal occasion, and white sneakers just don’t have a place for Cocktail affairs.
Loafers are a great alternative to dress shoes, which can be worn any season of the year. A polished pair of black R.M. Williams boots can also suit the occasion (like an afternoon wedding) and are the ideal solution if you must travel for the event, transitioning easily from the airport to evening wear and into the following day.
Cocktail dress code trends
Personally, I believe we’ve seen a drastic shift in the way the Cocktail attire has been perceived – and executed – over the last few years. Which can be a good thing. It’s encouraging to see men venture out of their comfort zones and consider different iterations of the standard dress suit, tie, shirt combination.
Tonal dressing has also really been highlighted of late, as has the exploration of colour, pattern and fit. Cocktail attire will always be a favoured choice thanks to its playfulness; you really never know how people will interpret it which is jovial in itself.
“We’ll see more prints this year. I have seen a lot of tailoring with texture and bolder colours in the menswear shows this season,” adds Kimber.
“This will trickle down slowly, but Cocktail attire is a chance to show more of your personal style, so just go for it!”
As we’ve seen on the streets of Pitti to the Hollywood red carpet, more and more are inclined to experiment with how they perceive this dress code. This is fine, as long as it sits within the traditional concepts of its being: we’d always don a sports coat or blazer of some sort, soft tailoring is key, and accessorising is a great way to make a point of difference.