There are few things more embarrassing than showing up to a wedding dressed incorrectly, and the term “cocktail attire” is just vague enough to let that happen. For some guests of the Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, that embarrassment was only amplified when some showed up wearing black or showing too much skin.
When it comes to cocktail attire for men or women, it doesn’t hurt to know the details– so you can arrive looking sharp, respectful, and ready for a good time.
So what does “cocktail attire” for a wedding even mean?
The definition of wedding cocktail attire is essentially a nice balance between the most formal (tuxes and ballgowns) and the most casual (khakis/jeans for men and sundresses for women).
Cocktail Attire for Men:
Afternoon suits, typically with ties. Acceptable colors are grays, neutrals, and black for dress shoes. Most fashionistas suggest avoiding any bright color or bold suit/shirt patterns, and not to be too “overly matched”. Pocket squares are ok, but may be a bit too flashy or formal for the late 20s/early 30s crowd.
Cocktail Attire for Women:
Women have a few more options. Tea-length formal dresses or skirts are a great option, though some women may feel comfortable wearing pant suits. If you go for a suit or a skirt, a jacket is suggested. Again, avoid ultra bold patterns and if you’re going to a traditional wedding, veer away from white. Though you can get by with hints of white/cream.
How do I know if I’m supposed to be wearing cocktail attire?
Aside from asking other guests about the dress code, invitations should give you direction. While some invitations might outright say “cocktail attire”, others will adhere to a dress code title. Here are the different dress codes you are most likely to see:
This is the most formal, typically tuxedos with coattails for men and full length gowns for women. These are very rare, more usual among celebrities or the very wealthy.
This calls for modern tuxedos for men (no tails), and full length dresses for women. In a pinch, you can get away with a black suit with a black tie.
Cocktail Attire / Black Tie Optional:
This is what this whole article is all about! Keep reading to know exactly how to dress for cocktail attire.
Dressy or Business Casual:
You can get by with cocktail attire for these weddings too (being overdressed is better than under-dressed.. always). You also have the option to go a bit more casual–for men that means nixing the tie, possibly, and women may not have to wear heels.
Most often found at outdoor weddings, a casual dress code call for sundresses for women and khakis (or nice/dark jeans) for men. If you’re a guest of a beach, backyard, or otherwise unique wedding venue, you might need to go even more casual.
What about “Casual cocktail attire”?
If you’ve received an invite that says “casual cocktail attire”, the couple is giving you a bit of freedom (a good thing). For men, you can choose to wear a jacket and tie, or ditch the tie completely. A well-fitting button-up shirt with a subtle pattern can possibly be enough on it’s own, assuming it fits with the weather that day.
Tip: Unless it’s a beach wedding, always stick with dress shoes. Your shoes can dress up an otherwise casual outfit.
Some Ideas to Get You Started
Now that you have an idea what cocktail attire for a wedding is, here are some ideas for both men and women that are fashionable and won’t have you sticking out like a sore thumb.
Dress shoes come in a wide variety, but the key here is to pick something tasteful, understated, and comfortable, if possible. And what color you select will depend on your suit: choosing dress shoes that are complementary puts the entire look together. For instance, warm neutral suits (like champagne or a light gray) pair well with chestnut and medium brown dress shoes.
There’s a misconception that women have to hear high heels. Certainly classic primary colored pumps are a nice choice, but women can also opt for ballet or jeweled flats. With high heels, you’ll most likely end up taking them off (or at least want to) at some point in the night.
Men, as we said, should opt for a nice suit, preferably with a tie. While the suit itself should be solid color, men can add a little interest with a tie a few shades brighter (but in the same color family or a complementary color). Here a print or pattern is great too, so long as it isn’t too busy. Either go with a brighter color, or a pattern, but shy away from mixing both.
Women who are looking into the dress option should pick something that fits their style and personality, but also keep in mind what’s wedding appropriate. While that will depend some on the venue, you generally want to find dresses that hit just above the knee, or, if tea-length, possible below.
If you’re showing skin, consider balance: off the shoulder dresses are great with a longer silhouette. Lower cut necklines can be okay for some weddings, but don’t pair with a high slit. Low back or illusion lace, bodycon, and seasonal hues are all great ideas.
For pantsuits, simply think formal over casual. You want to shy away from summery or ultra thin fabrics, or funky patterns. Primary, mostly darker colors are your friend–you can always spruce it up by picking a pantsuit with detailing or a stunning neckline.
When it comes to cocktail attire, many wedding guests might forgo accessories altogether, but they’re a nice way to tie up your look–and you can always remove them if you need to dress down.
In addition to necessities, like a nice belt and dress socks, consider a unique tie that isn’t too wild, and a simple tie bar. A watch with a leather band also brings the look together (ideally, the band color comes close to matching your shoe color).
Drop earrings, necklaces with a fine chain, and colored bracelets or dress watched are all options. Of course, most women will also opt for a clutch. Select a clutch that matches or complements. If you opt for a patterned dress, go for a solid color clutch, and vise-versa.
Saving Money on Cocktail Attire:
So you’ve realized you don’t quite have the full ensemble to meet the requirements of a wedding requiring cocktail attire. Whether you’re looking for a new suit, dress, or accessories (or if you’re looking for a last minute lifesaver the night before the big day!), you can find great deals and quickly reach other guests of the same wedding on Guestboard.