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.

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 particular way. It's not always obvious what is meant.

Dress codes have been around for a long time and acted 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.

We would recommend to not 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 overdressed 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, 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. You will certainly 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. 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. It means you have a flamboyant and sophisticated social life.

Typically, White Tie dress codes are reserved for ultra-formal events such as royal occasions, 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 and white bow tie.

Go for 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 not to 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).

For shoes, you can go for black formal ones such as Oxfords.

Black Tie Optional

This is the 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 and dress socks that match your suit color. Use a pair of well-shined shoes such as Monk-Straps or Oxfords.

Note the new relative called Creative Black Tie. It provides an excellent 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 well. Wear them with a pair of well-shined shoes such as Brogues, Oxfords, or Monk-Straps.

Business Casual

Business casual is the least formal of all dress codes. It 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 sports fabrics such as tweed and windowpane are always recommended.

Make sure to not wear suit jackets as sports 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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  • I didn’t understand for cocktail attire dark hue for suit & tie but never black! And is the shirt only white?

    Gary T. Ono,
  • Great, thanks for sharing it is very useful.
    Star lord Jacket

    Star lord jacket,
  • Hi Rosko,

    For cocktail parties, we wouldn’t risk it with jeans and boots as you might look underdressed. Wouldn’t this be the perfect occasion to buy your first suit and a pair of great dress shoes? You might end up liking it!

    If you want to have fun with it, you can always have a fun pattern on your tie and maybe add a pocket square for a sharp look. Hope this helps and thanks for your message.

  • So I’m invited to a work related cocktail party where “cocktail attire” is requested. I am a boots & jeans guy. I do not own a suit. Would a solid shirt with a solid necktie, black wranglers or dress jeans & shiny boots be ok?

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


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