What Is Cocktail Attire? – Buy Side from WSJ

A party invitation brings promised merriment along with a tricky question: What to wear? If the note specifies “cocktail attire,” sartorial stress could be right around the corner. This term rarely has a clear definition, and you’ll find it used in situations from weddings to business events.

We asked a group of well-dressed men and women—designers, stylists and fashionable founders—to provide guidance on what cocktail attire means now. They also shared the labels, embellishments and silhouettes they reach for when the invites start piling up. Here, insider-tested ideas to consider when getting ready for your next evening out. 

1. Opt for bright, bold prints when you’re not sure how dressy to go

La DoubleJ

Silk Long-Sleeve Maxi Dress

Marina Larroudé, a New York City-based former fashion editor and co-founder of Larroudé, says her “go-to brand for cocktail wear” is the “festive, unpredictable” La DoubleJ because the pieces “always make a statement.” This dress above turns a simple silhouette into something party appropriate via heavier silk-twill and graphic oversize flowers.

La DoubleJ

Printed Silk Swing Maxi Dress

The multicolored spots of this La DoubleJ “flattering” maxi are “whimsical and sophisticated,” says Larroudé. The maxi could “go both ways” and be dressed up or down for an event. “I’m planning on wearing it with gold platform sandals” for “extra inches,” she adds. 

Adam Lippes

Flower Oval Cabochon and Crystal Earrings

Dramatic earrings can quickly elevate a simple dress—or easily be removed if you arrive at the party and feel your look is too formal.

Loeffler Randall

Mini Feather Pouch

One key to cocktail attire, according to Palm Beach, Fla.-based Sarah Bray-West, a style writer and founder of an eponymous line of sun hats, is to add “something unique with a dash of character and flair.” Accessories like this chain-strap bag that show just “a touch of feathers” are a way to inject a bit of stylish whimsy. 

2. Choose fabrics and cuts that aren’t traditionally formal

Casual cotton is most definitely acceptable as cocktail attire, per Bray-West, especially in warmer climates. She skips heavy or formal fabrics when at her home in Bermuda because “everything is significantly more laid-back—heels are not a thing!” The simple shape and lightweight fabric of this dress is “intentionally effortless.” She would wear it with her hair tied back and minimal makeup to complement the relaxed vibe.

Tory Burch

Embellished Caftan

Bray-West, whose signature style is retro-glam, often wears caftans for cocktail hour, which she picks up at vintage stores in Palm Beach and Houston. Her favored silhouette—a column shape and wide sleeves that stop at the wrist—can be found in current-season styles like this embroidered Tory Burch piece.

3. Swap in tailored separates for a dress

Toteme

Double-Breasted Sateen Blazer

Toteme

Sateen Straight-Leg Pants

Cocktail attire doesn’t have to mean a cocktail dress. “I really lean into suits—they work in almost any cocktail moment without feeling overdone,” says Meg Strachan, the Los Angeles-based founder and CEO of jewelry brand Dorsey. She prefers a matched set in black or off-white like this blazer and pants one from insider-loved label Toteme, but “literally any color works.” The vibrant velvet combo below is a brightly festive option. 

J.Crew

Willa Blazer in Tipped Stretch Velvet

J.Crew

Full-Length Kate Straight-Leg Pant in Stretch Velvet

4. Layer a jacket for personality

To add panache to a little black dress, Bray-West “pairs it with a statement jacket” like this brocade option. The dark-ground floral has an after-dark, rock ‘n’ roll vibe—the print was inspired by Jimi Hendrix, the brand notes.

Smythe

Oversized Double-Breasted Tux Blazer

If bold patterns aren’t your thing, use volume for drama. Strachan “lives for evenings in an oversize blazer” like this double-breasted style. She wears it over “a great tuxedo shirt” from her go-to label Chava Studio, which features classic design elements like a bib front and wide cuffs.

5. Experiment with feathers for a fun touch

Staud

Etta Feather-Trimmed Knitted Mini Dress

What is cocktail attire if not “an opportunity to dress up, play with clothes and have fun,” says Larroudé. This season she’s shopping for pieces with feathers like this fluff-trimmed mini dress. The subtle feather trim at the hem and bustline are the exact right amount of fluff, says Bray-West.

LaMarque

Ostrich Feather Bustier

A festive top and trousers provide an alternative to the ubiquitous cocktail dress. Larroudé would wear this feathery bustier with printed pants or jeans to a dressed-up dinner: “It’s so celebratory—the perfect look.”

6. For men, stick with a suit

Suit Supply

Black Havana Jacket

One fail-safe, cocktail-attire combination for men is “a black suit, white shirt and no tie,” says Cash Lawless, a sought-after hairstylist who also advises on investment strategies as The Millionaire Hairstylist. He almost exclusively wears “double-breasted suits with early American features like large peak lapels,” including the above version from Suit Supply.

Zara

Double Breasted Suit Jacket

Classic silhouettes in bold colors are a favorite of Robert Denning, the New York City-city based co-founder of sunglass brand Westward Leaning. “My go-to look is a cool Zara suit in a striking color—it makes a statement.” He’s recently worn “a bright cobalt, ultra-wide-legged suit” and “a double-breasted, blush pink” version similar to the option above. He also eschews traditional footwear, pairing the suit with white Nike high-tops, though they “need to be super clean to qualify as cocktail attire.” 

Nike

Undercover Air Force 1 Rubber-Trimmed Leather Sneakers

7. Build on a base of classics

Calvin Klein

Men’s Slim-Fit Non-Iron Performance Herringbone French Cuff Dress Shirt

For shirting, Lawless prefers a “French cuff and links,” since both “push the look past business attire.” His go-to is the slim-fit dress shirt from Calvin Klein. This version from the label’s Steel range uses a wicking performance fabric that helps avoid sweat marks. As for cuff links, he likes to hunt for art deco treasures on eBay. 

ATM Anthony Thomas Melillo

Short-Sleeve Regular Fit Stretch T-Shirt

The fashion-forward look Denning prefers is reflected in his choice of under layer too. He “always wears a high-end T-shirt underneath” like this luxurious stretch-cotton option. His overall cocktail attire guidance? Don’t worry too much about following fashion rules: “Cocktail attire is about asking someone to make an effort.”

The advice, recommendations or rankings expressed in this article are those of the Buy Side from WSJ editorial team, and have not been reviewed or endorsed by our commercial partners.


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