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Cocktail Attire For Men? – The Most Popular Dress Codes Explained

So you've been invited to an event such as a wedding, retirement party, inauguration, etc. and down at the bottom you see those words that can make even the most well-dressed man a bit anxious: black-tie, white-tie, semiformal, business, cocktail attire, business casual. Having a specified dress code means having to dress in a very specific way, and it's not always obvious what is meant.

Dress codes have been around for a long time and act as a guide that instructs guests what to wear for the occasion. It's generally looked down upon (and can be quite embarrassing) to break them, so don’t try to improvise with a new creative twist. It’s ok to add a personal touch though, but keep it to a minimum; you don’t want to be remembered as “the neon shirt guy” at your cousin's wedding. Think of the dress code as a guide that will keep you from being under or over dressed compared to the other guests. Sometimes you may not feel totally comfortable with what you're being asked to wear but if it's not followed, the feeling of being out of place could be even worse. The key here is simple: if you get noticed, either you missed the code completely or you nailed it in a memorable way.

What’s important to know is that wearing the proper attire will allow you to blend in with the other guests, which will make for a more enjoyable experience. If you're not completely clear on what is expected, follow these two tips:

1. When in doubt, it’s always fine to directly ask your hosts - they're the ones most interested in avoiding confusion.

2. If you're still not sure, it’s always a safer bet to be over-dressed. Just don't over-do it (don't wear a tux to a birthday party!)

Here are some of the different dress codes you might find printed at the bottom of your invite:

"White Tie"

Just think of Fred Astaire, how elegant was he? The White Tie" is the most formal dress-code and, if invited, you should feel honored that you enjoy such a flamboyant and sophisticated social life. Typically, White Tie dress codes are reserved for ultra-formal shindigs such as royal events, state dinners, and formal balls. To get it right, bust out your black tailcoat (with silk facings), white wingtip collar shirt (minimal in decoration), white waistcoat, white bow tie and black formal shoes (velvet slippers, and classic or wholecut oxfords in black are acceptable). It's a pretty conservative dress code so there's not much room for innovation and you'd be wise to not try.

"Black Tie"

The famous tuxedo is the main character here. While the classic tux is as dark as can be, nowadays it’s also accepted in midnight blue. Another variation is a white dinner jacket and black pants, but this is only advisable in warm weather. The traditional attire includes the single breasted tuxedo (with or without silk facings), black cummerbund, black bow tie, white turn-down spread collar shirt (with a pleated front), and black formal shoes such as oxfords.

"Black Tie Optional"

This little cousin of the traditional Black Tie dress code. You can wear your tux but a dark suit with a tie or bow tie is also acceptable; it’s up to you to decide. If you opt for the suit instead of the tux, wear it with a plain white dress shirt, conservative tie, dress socks that match your suit color, and a pair of well-shined shoes such as monk-straps or oxfords. 

Note the new relative called Creative Black Tie, which is provides a great opportunity to get wild if you're feeling the part.

"Cocktail Attire"

The most popular of all the dress codes. It’s still formal but leaves a little more room for creativity. You can sport a cool pattern on your tie and in some cases, colored socks. However, suits and ties should always be in dark hues but never black (unless you're a priest). Bold patterns are not always accepted but a well-fitted windowpane suit can also work really well. Wear them with a pair of well-shined shoes such as brogues, oxfords, or monk-straps.

"Business Casual"

The least formal of all dress codes allows you to chose whether or not you want to wear a tie. Patterns and textures are welcome, as are button-down shirts and dark jeans (no holes, fading, or effects). If you're afraid of looking too informal, you probably are so tuck in that shirt mister! Classic wool sport fabrics such as tweed and windowpane are always recommended. Make sure to not wear suit jackets as sport jackets, or you will go straight to style hell. As for shoes, feel free to rock your chukka boots, loafers, or brogues (just make sure your belt matches!)


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  • Jon

    November 17, 2016

    I was invited to a wedding calling for cocktail attire. Thank you for the clarification!

  • Virgil

    January 22, 2016

    Is a white long sleeve guayabera with dark khakis considered cocktail attire for a beachside wedding ?

  • Matt

    April 11, 2015

    Good solid advice. I’d say these days a suit coat with jeans for business casual is the hip thing.

  • Jeremy

    January 06, 2015

    Great article. Very informative and the pictures help as well. I wasn’t exactly sure the difference between black tie and cocktail. And when you are a guest at the inaugural gala its better safe than sorry. Thanks again.

  • cara

    December 05, 2014

    tutorials are simple but very useful. Thank you very much

  • Jay

    April 23, 2014

    Oh my God! Who still lives this way?

  • Susie

    November 19, 2013

    We need one of these for women! Great job!!!!

  • Dick

    September 08, 2013

    Solid advice in today’s three guide lines. Howmuch easier it was back in the (read ‘my’) day. Casual Friday was a blazer or decent sportcoat with a nexktie. And maybe a blue shirt. A tux was a tux, a white shirt was an expectation (ok for blue stripes, solid blue, and maybe a pink if you were on the east coast. Shorts were bermuda length. Summer suits were seersucker. And shoes ..
    cap toes, wingtips (if sedate) black or brown as appropriate. Loafers were considered rather informal for office wear. Of course there was a difference in dress allowance between IBM and their advertising agancy.