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We’ve all been there. A beautifully embossed invitation arrives and we’re excited at the prospect of an elegant evening out…until we spot the dress code.
By Luc Wiesman, D'Marge
Black tie, white tie, semi-formal, business, business casual, smart casual – all those vague sartorial rules and regulations are enough to make even the most fashion-conscious man’s head spin.
The offender on our minds most recently is ‘cocktail attire’ (you felt a wave of questions and confusion wash over you just reading that, didn’t you?). Is it a suit? Is it a blazer and trousers? Is anything cocktail attire, as long as you have a cocktail in your hand while you’re wearing it? How can a gentleman with a knack for natty dressing effectively execute this look?
Definition of Dressing Cocktail
First things first: let’s define the dress code. Cocktail attire gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, when it became common in fashionable households to enjoy pre-dinner drinks and canapés in the hours between day and evening. And of course, with any new social occasion comes a new dress code. Cocktail attire emerged out of necessity, providing essential guidelines for a semi-formal look to sport during the transition from day to night. The look bridges the gap between casual day wear, which is too relaxed, and formal evening attire, which is too prim and proper.
These days, cocktail dress may be required for an actual cocktail party, but it’s frequently spotted at other occasions as well. You’re also likely to see this dress code pop up at weddings, anniversaries, formal birthday celebrations, certain sporting events, etc., where a little more refinement is required.
A Quick List Of Do’s & Don’ts
As with most of men’s fashion, the rules aren’t set in stone. You can (and are encouraged to) bend the rules a little in order to suit your individual style and personality. That being said, there are still a few do’s and don’ts that are worth following.
DO go for something tailored. A tuxedo is too much, but a suit or blazer/trousers combo is required.
DON’T upstage the guest of honour. If you’re attending a birthday or any other occasion in which the spotlight is meant to be on someone specific, leave the bright colours and flashy accessories at home. This is not your time to be the centre of attention, which means…
DO add personal touches, but consider them carefully. You do not want to be remembered as the “neon pink jacket guy” from your friend’s wedding.
DON’T be afraid to ask the hosts. If you’re ever unsure about what constitutes appropriate attire for an event, ask the person throwing it. They are, after all, the most invested in avoiding confusion and uncomfortable situations.
And if you’re still in doubt, it’s always safer to over-dress (as long as you leave that tuxedo at home).
What to wear on top
The beauty of cocktail attire is that, while it’s a relatively formal dress code, there is still room for creativity and personal interpretation. Here’s what you should be sporting on top:
Stick with something dark (though ideally not black) with a slim fit. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can choose an unconventional shade like burgundy or a subtle pattern. A textured grey wool-cashmere blend suit is always acceptable, though not unexpected. Go for something bolder if you want to give your outfit a more contemporary edge.
Keep the shirt simple. A solid colour is the easiest option, but low-key checks or stripes are also appropriate as long as the suit isn’t patterned. I even like a black shirt with no tie. What’s most important is that the shirt is clean, crisp and well-pressed. Where the cuffs are concerned, French cuffs might be a bit much for daytime, but can be worn if your event continues into the evening. Just keep the cuff links minimal.
You can now get away with ditching the tie at less formal cocktail events, but at other times it is still a requirement. This is your opportunity to get a little more creative. If you opted for a simple shirt and suit, you can go for a bolder tie. If your shirt or suit have a pattern, it’s best to choose a simple tie in a complementary colour. No to bowties but yes to pocket squares, which should follow the same rules as your tie (subtle if the rest of your look is patterned, more showy if the rest of your look is subdued).
What to wear down below
You have a little more leeway on the bottom than you might think, but cocktail attire still requires a certain amount of smartness. Do not wear denim, no matter how nice you think it is.
The easiest option is, of course, to wear a suit, but it’s not your only option. You may mix and match your jacket and trousers as long as you don’t look like you’ve veered into smart casual territory. Again, be sure that the tailoring is on point. Your trousers should be neither too long nor too loose.
Oxfords are the go-to choice for cocktail ensembles. Stick with black or dark browns. Alternatively, if you want something that makes a slightly bigger statement, you can go for buckled monk strap shoes. Loafers may also be an acceptable footwear choice, as long as they fall far enough towards the formal end of the style spectrum. Whatever shoes you choose, make sure they are well-polished and looking their best.
Now is the time to crack out one of your nicer belts. Invest in a reversible leather or suede belt that will last for years and match most any outfit you throw at it. Finish the look off with calf-length socks that complement your trousers or something else in your outfit. If you’re feeling brave, coloured or patterned socks could be an opportunity to let your personality shine through.