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Dress Code Guide: What Is Men's Cocktail Attire?

Published on March 26, 2020 Updated April 22, 2024

By Lily Ertischek
Man looking at his cocktail attire suit and tie outfit in the mirror
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Dress Code Guide: What Is Men's Cocktail Attire?

One of the most confusing dress codes men often grapple with is cocktail attire. For many, the vague name of cocktail attire provides little to no instruction about the key elements of dressing appropriately for events that instill a cocktail attire dress code. 

What is cocktail attire for men, and when is wearing cocktail attire appropriate? Put simply, men’s cocktail attire falls in the middle of the spectrum of formal and casual, with formal suits serving as the base and playful colors and accessories creating a more relaxed and casual look. 

In this dress code guide, we’ll explore the key features of men’s cocktail attire, along with when this dress code is implemented and answers to common FAQs so you can feel comfortable and confident showcasing your cocktail attire at your next event.

Key Takeaways

  • Men’s cocktail attire is a type of semi-formal dress code that sits between formal and casual attire, requiring a suit, dress shirt, and dress shoes.
  • Cocktail attire for men is typically worn to events that aim to create a sophisticated and polished look, such as weddings, parties, and fundraisers.
  • Darker-colored suits, such as navy or dark gray, are appropriate cocktail attire. However, depending on the season, lighter-colored suits like tan and light gray can be worn.
  • Dress shoes that complete a cocktail attire outfit for men include loafers, Oxfords, Derbies, and Chelsea boots.
  • Accessories like pocket squares, cufflinks, tie bars, belts, and watches are great ways to add personality and flare to men’s cocktail attire.

What Is Cocktail Attire for Men?

Men’s cocktail attire is a semi-formal dress code that borrows elements from formal attire and casual attire for various types of social events or occasions that call for a refined yet stylish appearance. For men, cocktail attire typically includes a well-tailored suit serving as the foundation, with a collared dress shirt and dress shoes. While these elements err on the formal side, a touch of casual is brought in with colors and patterns, along with accessories like pocket squares and neckties.

“We'll start with this simple rule: no tuxedo,” says Grant McNamara, founder of Wedding GPS, the Groom’s Personal Stylist. “While not formal wedding attire, one of the biggest mistakes we see is that many people interpret cocktail attire as a casual affair. It is not. It does not mean denim, not even your "dress denim" or your Lululemon ABCs you get away with at work, are acceptable. Rough, we know.”

With that, McNamara highlights the importance of ensuring a sophisticated look without veering too far into the formal direction. To achieve the perfect cocktail attire ensemble, McNamara suggests, “a suit and tie is the perfect cocktail attire for men. If you are the groom, wear a 2 or 3-piece suit. If you are a guest, wear a suit or a sleek sports jacket with a pair of trousers and a tie. Medium to darker blue and grey fabrics are great year-round options. Light-colored fabrics are more suited (pun intended) for the spring and summer months. The time of day should also be taken into account. We recommend stepping outside your comfort zone, especially in the summer! Experiment with lighter or brighter colors and patterns for daytime events and more muted tones for evening events.”

Whether you’re planning your wedding suiting for your groomsmen or preparing for an evening work event, the cocktail attire dress code is the perfect opportunity to showcase your personality while maintaining a clean and polished look.

Men's dark forest green suit with black dress shirt for an outdoor cocktail event
Polished men's event style with a navy blue suit, lavender tie, and brown belt.

Key Elements of Men’s Cocktail Attire

Now that you understand the basics of male cocktail attire, how does it look in practice? There are several key elements of cocktail attire for men, including suits, dress shirts, and dress shoes. Take a look at each element to understand how to curate the perfect ensemble for cocktail attire events.

Suit

A suit is the foundation of men’s cocktail attire, and single-breasted and double-breasted suits are both viable options. When searching for a suit, it’s important to keep color in mind. For many cocktail events, darker-colored suits, such as a navy blue suit or dark gray suit, are safe options, as they’re sleek and modern, creating an elevated and timeless look. 

However, one of the benefits of the cocktail attire dress code is that its parameters aren’t completely strict. This means you should keep seasonality in mind and use it to your advantage to showcase your style. For example, during the warmer summer months, reach for a light blue suit or light gray suit that draws on the brightness of the season. As the temperatures cool during fall and winter, a dark green suit or burgundy suit are excellent options that complement the earthier tones seen from mid-September to mid-March.

Dress shirt

The next defining element of the cocktail attire dress code for men is the dress shirt. Often, a crisp, white dress shirt is the preferred choice, as it creates a neutral backdrop that can make your suit and accessories shine. However, as stated, cocktail attire offers room for some creativity, offering you the opportunity to experiment with subtle colors and patterns that highlight your personal style. For example, floral patterned dress shirts or a light pink dress shirt can be excellent options for cocktail attire at more casual events, like a post-work happy hour.

Dress shoes 

As many say, your shoes make the first impression, which means you shouldn’t overlook the footwear you pair with your suit and dress shirt. With a slim-tapered pant look, your dress shoes can blend seamlessly with the rest of your ensemble. Dress shoes come in various styles that men can reach for, including:

  • Loafers: These slip-on shoes are characterized by their laceless design and low-cut construction with a flat heel and separate sole. 
  • Oxfords: Oxfords are closed lace-up dress shoes known for their sleek and elegant design characterized by a low heel and rounded toe.
  • Derbies: Similar to Oxfords, Derbies feature an open-laced system with quarters sewn at the top of the vamp to create a slightly more casual style and relaxed appearance.
  • Chelsea boots: This dress boot features its distinctive elastic side panel and pull tab that makes it easy to slip on and off, with a rounded toe and minimal detailing that make them versatile for both formal and casual affairs.

Accessories

Never overlook accessories when putting together a cocktail attire look. Accessories are the perfect opportunity to showcase your personal style in a fun and unique way that’s still event-appropriate. There are various routes you can take when playing with accessories, from creating a sleek and modern ensemble with plain silver or gold statement pieces or going bold and bright with patterned neckwear. Below are some finishing touches for men’s cocktail attire:

  • Neckwear: While ties are typically the go-to piece for men’s cocktail attire outfits, patterned or colorful bowties are another option that adds a touch of relaxation to a more formal appearance.
  • Pocket squares: These small pieces of fabric placed in the breast pocket of your suit jacket can make a statement to your final look. Pocket squares come in a wide range of colors and styles, allowing for endless possibilities to create contrast with your outfit.
  • Cufflinks: Cufflinks are decorative fasteners that secure the cuffs of your dress shirt and come in various designs that add refinement and personality to reflect your style.
  • Tie bars: While small, a simple tie bar can make a lasting impression. When coordinated carefully with the rest of your accessories, they add a touch of sophistication. Tie bars can come in various designs and finishes and help ensure your tie is held neatly in place.
  • Belts: Your belt is an important accessory to choose when putting together cocktail attire. To create a cohesive look, it’s recommended that you match your belt to the color and material of your shoes.
  • Watches: A stylish watch is both functional and a statement piece for cocktail attire. For a timeless look, opt for a classic dress watch with a leather strap or a modern or bold watch for a contemporary look.
Rust orange suit outfit for cocktail dress code wedding with tie, watch, and glasses.

Men’s Cocktail Attire FAQs

What is the difference between men’s cocktail attire and formal attire?

Men’s cocktail attire and formal attire are two distinct dress codes that are appropriate for different events and occasions. The primary difference lies in formality. Cocktail attire for men is more relaxed, creating a semi-formal look that’s appropriate for social events, weddings, and upscale gatherings that call for a more sophisticated appearance. On the other hand, men’s formal attire is more traditional and reserved for special occasions with a higher level of formality, such as galas, formal weddings, and prestigious ceremonies. If you’re a groom choosing wedding suit styles, for example, a full suit is not always required if you’re asking guests to adhere to a cocktail attire dress code, whereas a full suit or tuxedo is required for a formal dress code.

What neckwear goes with cocktail attire?

Either a necktie or bowtie are appropriate pieces of neckwear that can be worn to events with a cocktail attire dress code. Due to the more relaxed nature of cocktail events, neckwear can feature patterns or colors, whereas formal events traditionally require a black bowie, and business casual events require no neckwear at all.

What are tips for men’s cocktail attire?

While it can be easy to misunderstand cocktail attire for men, there are several important tips to keep in mind to ensure your outfit is appropriate for the event you’re attending, such as:

  • Ensure a proper fit: Fitting is crucial when wearing cocktail attire. Depending on your preferred break, your pant length should rest toward the top of your shoes, your suit jacket should fall around the top of your seat, and the arms should end toward the tops of your wrists. At SuitShop, our intuitive Fit Finder, paired with information from our Fit Guide, can help you find your best fit.
  • Don’t overdress: It’s important to ensure your cocktail attire strikes the perfect balance between formal and casual. Cocktail attire doesn’t mean black-tie, which means you should leave your tuxedo at home and grab your suit instead.
  • Avoid underdressing: Similar to avoiding overdressing, it’s just as important to avoid underdressing. Certain garments, such as jeans and T-shirts, do not meet the cocktail attire dress code.
Long haired man wearing deep maroon burgundy suit with bold rust tie at a wedding.
Stylish men's cocktail outfit in green suit and minimalist accessories.

Decoding the Men’s Cocktail Attire Dress Code

Cocktail attire for men can be difficult to understand, as it falls in the gray area between formal and casual. However, with our guide on men’s cocktail attire, you can curate the perfect look for your next wedding, party, or event. Men’s cocktail attire requires key elements like a suit, dress shirt, and dress shoes, as well as small details to highlight your personality, like pocket squares and cufflinks. At SuitShop, we have the pieces you need to be event-ready. Find affordable suits, dress shirts, accessories, and more so you can look and feel your best.

Lily Ertischek
Lily Ertischek

Lily is constantly reading, keeping up with the latest TV, and seeking out the best bites. She lives in New York City.

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