We may earn a small commission from product links. Blog posts at Nimble Made are written to provide value and advice for our readers—any product(s) we recommend are items readers use and love.
It happens all the time: you've received an invitation to an event, and your host has included a dress code for all attendees. Whether it's formal, semi formal, or casual it can take some work to suss out what is actually expected of cocktail attire for men.
Of course, neglecting the dress code can make things uncomfortable, or even come off as a sign of disrespect to your host and fellow attendees. Cocktail attire for men is a classic, popular dress code. But when it comes to men's wear, it can be difficult to know what's expected. We'll take a look at everything you need to know about men's cocktail attire, and how to wear it properly.
When to wear Cocktail Attire?
Cocktail attire for men is suitable for a range of occasions, especially those that fall somewhere between casual and formal. Cocktail attire is popular for weddings, parties, or even for less formal business gatherings. Since it has a sort of celebratory, lively feel to it, cocktail wear is versatile enough to work for a wide variety of events.
While cocktail attire for men was originated from the dress code of cocktail parties, the same vibe carries with it today. If there's an occasion that requires a little bit of dressing up, and a fair amount of celebrating, it's a good chance that cocktail attire will suit the event.
You wouldn't necessarily wear cocktail attire for a business meeting, but you could for a company holiday party. Likewise, you should stick to formal wear for black tie events; when the formality is scaled back a little, it's time to get into cocktail attire, though you can leave the bow tie or black tie at home.
What is the definition?
Cocktail attire can be difficult to define, especially for men. It's typically taken to mean attire that's more upscale than business casual, though more relaxed than formal, black tie attire. There's a feeling of elegance, with a splash of fun.
In many cases, men's cocktail attire includes nice slacks and a blazer or more casual suit jacket. While a tie isn't always required (and a bow tie should never be worn), in many cases it's implied that it's more appropriate, especially if the gathering is being hosted by more traditional types - like with all things men fashion the cocktail attire dress code for men can vary depending on the context of the situation.
The purpose behind cocktail attire is to provide a bit of formality and pizzazz, while letting everyone relax and showcase their personal style, though it's definitely not as hardcore as black tie dress code. Personality is the real theme behind cocktail attire; when that's the dress code, you can expect to see semi formal wear coupled with plenty of personal touches and accents.
Cocktail suits should fit you well, and have a more tailored look. Unique accents (such as quirky, meaningful, or interestingly shaped cufflinks) are a staple of cocktail attire. Men's cocktail wear also often incorporates other accessories that accent the outfit, like a nice dress watch or leather card holder wallet, for example.
Difference Between Formal and Semi Formal
Men's dress codes can seem endlessly ambiguous, and that can be a problem when you're invited to an event specifying a formal or semi formal dress code. However, there are some commonly accepted rules that describe each.
There's always room for some variation, depending on the host and the event, but these are the basic differences between formal and semi formal dress codes.
Formal attire was more easily defined in past decades, and for men it meant dressing in a tuxedo. Tuxedos are still a timeless 'go to' for men at formal events, however. The best way to look at formal dress code is in the same way you would black tie dress code. While you may not have to don a black tie (although in most cases you will, if not a bowtie in either black or white), the idea is that your attire should be decidedly upscale.
If you'd wear it to a company party, chances are that it doesn't qualify as 'formal wear.' Because of this, and the expense of formal wear, many men choose to rent tuxedos for special formal events. However, it's important to note that for formal wear, black is always a safe color to choose.
Dress shoes are another must, and are almost always black for formal events. Of course, dress socks are another 'must do' for formal wear.
Semi formal attire is even more difficult to define than formal attire, because there's more room for different styles and accoutrements. It can also vary depending on whether the event is during the day or during the evening. Suits are a staple of semi formal wear, but try to avoid wearing black, since it's typically reserved for formal events.
For semi formal events during the day, lighter color palettes are best, while darker hues (avoiding black, of course) are best for evening events. You also have more room for variety, and can combine different colors and textures to personalize your look. With semi formal wear, ties are almost always optional, and you won't find many men wearing a tie to a semi formal event. Where formal wear also requires dress socks, semi formal wear can go just as well with or without them.
In essence, with formal wear, you're dressing for the absolute best; think black tie only and tuxedos. Semi formal wear can show more of your personality, and incorporates a much wider color palette.
Wearing Cocktail Attire for Weddings
Weddings are happy events, and there's a more festive, relaxed atmosphere than you'll find at most other formal occasions. Cocktail attire for weddings can be different than other occasions requesting the same dress code, however.
Naturally, the hosts preferences have to be taken into consideration as well. Unless your host makes it clear they're looking for flashy cocktail wear, it's better to err on the side of being conservative. While you want to show your personal style and feel relaxed, you also don't want to draw attention away from the newly weds.
You can add color and texture through your accessories and other pieces of clothing, however it's best to wear darker colored suits for cocktail dress code weddings. Neutral or dark hues like navy, charcoal, or even gunmetal gray are classics that you can't go wrong with. If you stick to these suit colors, you'll also have an easier time putting the rest of your outfit together.
Use a pocket square to give your suit a stylish, upscale feel. While you can stick to a similar color palette from your suit, or use some neutral accents (think camel, white, or a lighter gray tone), you can also have fun with it.
Pocket squares are a great way to add a pop of vibrant color. Keep in mind you'll want to keep a consistent color scheme with the rest of your outfit; then, add a pop of color or pattern with your pocket square to accent your more neutral suit.
It can be tempting to simply pair white button ups with your suit; there's nothing wrong with a white button down collar shirt (but be warned, the wedding party often has white dress shirts as their dress code). However, you can keep it more cocktail themed by choosing a light color, which easily pairs with a dark colored suit.
Just as the tailoring of your suit is an important feature of cocktail wear, so is the fit of your best dress shirt. A good fit that flatters your proportions is paramount to great semi formal style; it's worth finding a well tailored shirt, or having one professionally tailored to make the most out of your ensemble.
When it comes to shoes for cocktail attire, it's an easy choice. Lace up leather dress shoes are an absolute classic, and work for nearly any occasion. Most men choose between black or brown, although similar dark or neutral hues are perfectly acceptable.
However, make sure you avoid an age old faux pas: mixing black with brown. For example, if your pocket square is black, wear black shoes too. If you're wearing a dark charcoal colored suit, it's better to wear black shoes (since charcoal can look closer to black in certain light, and would clash with brown shoes).
You don't always have to go the route of lace up leather dress shoes, however. The important thing is to keep your look sharp. Loafers are a classic choice for laid back style, as are a pair of brogues. Oxfords can add personality to your ensemble, and keep you looking smart, much like a pair of classic derby shoes.
Whatever choice suits your style, just make sure it works with the rest of your outfit, and keeps with your chosen color palette.
Of course, we can't forget the cornerstone of all levels of men's formal wear: the tie. While cocktail attire doesn't always merit a tie, when you're attending a wedding, you should still wear a tie. When you pick out your tie, feel free to have some fun with it.
With men's cocktail attire for weddings, the rest of your outfit should be streamlined and coordinated. This makes room for your tie to really stand out and showcase your personal style. To avoid overdoing it, balance out color and patterning or texture. If you're going with fairly bright colors, choose a calmer, less busy pattern. Or, if you prefer a bold pattern and texture, look for colors that are more subdued.
However, you may be able to skip a necktie or bowtie in some instances. We'll get into some of these instances more in depth later. For now, keep in mind that you should assess how formal your outfit looks when put together before choosing your tie.
Some cocktail outfits will look quite formal when you're wearing them, and a tie may push the outfit into 'formal wear' territory. It's a personal choice, and depends heavily on the wedding you're attending, but it's okay to skip a tie if it doesn't go with the cocktail look.
Bowties are an alternative to ties, and they fit in just as well with cocktail dress. Keep in mind the shape of a bowtie already adds some interest to the piece, and choose your colors and textures accordingly (and ensure the shape doesn't obscure any patterning you'd like to show off). Otherwise, you can follow the guidelines you would as if you were wearing a tie instead.
It's important to note that just like any other cocktail dress code, when and where the event is plays a big part in your choices. While more formal venues and evening weddings will merit darker colors, you have more options for daytime weddings.
Likewise if the wedding is outdoors or at less formal venue (a rented hall rather than a church, for instance) you can veer away from the dark tones. A dark suit can get warm and uncomfortable during an outdoor wedding. Not only that, it can edge too close to formal wear and look somewhat stuffy.
For outdoor weddings, you can keep with the cocktail wear you would for an evening or indoor wedding for the most part and can wear a suit if you want, though it's not always necessary. However, it's a good idea to choose a lighter color such as tan or light gray - you only want a dark suit when it is cooler. The other exception you might consider making? Socks. If you want to err on the side of caution, go ahead and wear them. However, they aren't required, and you may be more comfortable going without, especially if the weather is warm.
Depending on your hosts, a suit jacket may not even be necessary (although it's always a good idea to have one and take it off later if you choose). On the more casual end of cocktail wear for weddings, a nice button down collar or button up dress shirt with slacks and dress shoes is all it takes.
If you're looking for a solution that lies somewhere between wearing a full suit and wearing a dress shirt only, you can opt for a sleek, well tailored blazer. Pair it with the button up shirt of your choice, and you can inject even more style and personality into your look; of course, it'll stand out without overdoing it or overwhelming the rest of your outfit, which is a cornerstone of men's cocktail attire.
How long does it take to get a suit tailored?
If you need to get a suit tailored, it is important to remember that it will not happen overnight. You need to plan ahead and allow for plenty of time for the work to be done correctly and completely. This means providing as much time as possible for the tailor to fit you into their schedule, get you set up with appointments, and allow for fittings and further alterations. Rarely is there just one visit when it comes to producing a tailored suit.
You also need to consider the schedule of the tailor and if there are people they are already working for. If they have a large work order, you can be pushed to the end of the list and can wait months for an opening.
Some tailors may allow you to pay extra for a rush delivery, but this can still be delayed and the suit may not fit as well as it should. Not allowing for enough time for a tailor to work can also mean having to go with a subpar tailor or no tailor at all for your event.
For tailoring an already made suit, you will need to go in for initial measurements, get it pinned as you want it and allow for the work to be done. A quick and easy hemming can take a few hours or a few days, where more complex jobs can take a week or so.
If your weight changes, it will change the proportions, so it is important to make sure you have a fitting closer to the date of the event as well to make sure everything still fits as it should. Ideally, you should do this a minimum of two weeks in advance and should be booked far ahead of time so you guarantee you get that fitting in.
If you are looking for a custom suit that is made from scratch, you are looking at much more time to complete it. You will need appointments to decide the style you want, take your measurements, pick colors and fabrics, and narrow down all the little details. This can be done quickly in one appointment if you come in with the plan already in place, but it will take longer if you have no idea of what you want. There are also the fittings and adjustments that will need to be done. Overall, you are looking between two weeks and eight weeks based on complexity and whether or not it will be shipped to you.
You should ideally go in around three months before the event for the initial visit to allow for enough time to complete everything, but you should look for your tailor as soon as possible and make sure you have something on the books before they get too busy for you.
What to wear? (From top to bottom)
If you aren’t sure what you should wear for a semi-casual event like a cocktail party, it is important to look at the individual pieces and how they will work together.
You should never wear a t-shirt or tank top with a suit jacket. Instead, you should choose a button-up shirt that is not too large and look baggy, or too tight to look uncomfortable. Let it flatter your body and make sure it is tucked into your pants or is long enough to cover your belt and part of your zipper.
In more casual settings you can wear polo collar shirts as they are still much better than a t-shirt, but button downs are a safer bet than wearing polo shirts for cocktail attire.
More often than not, you should wear a tie or bowtie to a cocktail event. You can keep it simple and wear a clip on, but you must have it on. Don’t go for novelty ties and make sure it goes with the rest of your outfit. If there are special colors for the event, a tie is a great place to incorporate them. To add some extra flair add some tie clips.
Jackets need to be tailored so they are not too big or too tight and should be a standard suit jacket. No embellishments, bold colors or other features that can come off as cheesy or obnoxious. Instead, it is important to stay simple and go with a plain jacket in either a grey, midnight blue, or beige depending on the occasion.
A pocket square adds some simple, but important detail to the jacket to make it look more formal. Keep the pocket square simple and use it to tie together your neck tie or socks.
Keep your belt either dark brown or black and avoid any embellishments like beads, studs or custom belt buckles. Just stick with the basic leather belt. No novelty belt buckles or anything showy. Your belt should not be in any way a focal piece.
You should never wear shorts, capris or pants with holes in them to a cocktail party. Stick with pants that are tailored to fit your legs and will be the right length. Depending on the event you may be able to wear jeans, but otherwise it is trousers.
Socks should either be a plain color or a print that will compliment your tie, pocket square or skirt. They should be over the calf style socks and you should never wear a mismatched pair. Don’t wear anything with holes either.
Shoe choice can vary based on the type of party you are going to. A plain black pair of leather sole shoes like oxfords are always a great option. But you may also be able to wear sneakers or brown leather shoes. They must be clean, in good shape, laces need to be done correctly. If the weather is bad you should wear another pair of shoes to get to the event and then change once you arrive.
Cocktail Attire for Men Tips
To make sure you are on point with your outfit, it is important to consider certain factors and make sure that you are reflecting the event requirements in your outfit. Just because cocktail attire or semi-casual is the dress code, doesn’t mean you don’t need to tailor it to the individual event and environment.
To make sure you look good and fit in with the party, you should take in certain things when picking your attire.
The occasion you are dressing for is key in picking out your outfit. You should always pay close attention to the invitation and contact the hosts if you are unsure what the dress code is.
You need to make sure you are not going against their wishes and you should try to make them happy with your attire. This is especially true for weddings or business casual functions where you don’t want to steal the show or draw unwanted attention.
You need to consider the climate you will be in when choosing your outfit to make sure you are dressed appropriately for the weather. If you are going to be in a colder climate, you need to wear heavier socks, a thicker jacket and go for warmer accessories like woolen ties. In hotter temperatures, you want to make sure you aren’t going to overheat and sweat in your suit. No matter how good the outfit is, sweat stains are not appealing. Choose lighter fabrics and more breathable clothing to prevent getting too warm. You can also choose lighter colors to avoid heat absorption.
While black goes with most things, it is important to avoid using it as your suit jacket color. This is because black jackets are associated with tuxedos or funerals, making it inappropriate for a semi-casual event. Instead, opt for a dark navy (which match with these ties), midnight blue, grey or even a deep purple.
You want to avoid overdoing it with colors, keeping it simple and flattering to your complexion, without looking to bold. This can be unflattering and come off as obnoxious. You can however, utilize accessories like ties and pocket squares to bring some more color to your outfit.
You should avoid jackets with prints on them unless it is a very simple and indistinguishable pattern from a distance. Instead, you should use patterns in your button-down shirt to make the outfit more interesting. Stick with simple and clean prints like herringbone, sharkskin, windowpane checks or glen checks so you don’t overwhelm your outfit.
When you are told to dress semi casually, it is important to aim for just that. You do not want to be too formal, or too casual, but just the right mixture of both. To do this, it is important to avoid things like tuxedos or shorts. A suit jacket needs to be worn, no holes in your clothing, no stains and everything must be properly cleaned. Otherwise, you can end up sticking out in the crowd, and not in the good way. You could unintentionally offend your host.
Just because you aren’t a style guru doesn’t mean your appearance needs to suffer. By following basic rules, and getting profession tailors involved, you can fit in at any event and pull of cocktail attire.