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WHAT EXACTLY is cocktail attire for men? While dress codes and formalities seem particularly foreign following a global pandemic, cocktail attire is generally about being respectful and thoughtful to both your host and the occasion. While cocktail attire is not as formal as black tie dress codes, it certainly requires a high level of polish and style.
“Cocktail attire straddles business and formal,” says Tom Broecker, the costume designer behind the leading looks in Bros. “As ‘business casual’ becomes more prevalent, it makes cocktail attire confusing.” But let’s be clear: nothing about your cocktail attire should read casually.
What to Wear in Cocktail Attire for Men
If you truly have no idea what to wear (or how to wear it), the old standby navy, gray, or black suit with a white dress shirt and dress shoes is a no-brainer. Should your personal style be more inventive, separates of similar colors, patterns, or textures are appropriate if they look well thought out and put together. “Monochromatic and tonal looks are subtle yet bold statements,” says McGenuine. “Wearing the hues of one base color says, ‘I’m informed, fun, and distinguished.’”
“Always err on the side of classic leading style,” says Broecker. “It will never let you down.”
Below, we’ve consulted with our style experts and done our own hands-on testing on different cocktail attire outfits for men that make dressing up comfortable, and that make transitioning from formal events to a night out effortless.
Cocktail Attire Jackets
A well-tailored suit jacket, blazer, or sports coat is the foundation for all occasions dressing. (No pressure.) As Broecker suggests, “You will never feel out of place in a jacket.” While you can always opt for your old standby, this is also a space to lean into seasonal colors and fabrics. As the cornerstone of cocktail attire for men, your suit jackets or blazers should be well-tailored, single-breasted (unless you’re going for really dressy and elegant) in dark, versatile colors like navy, charcoal, or black.
In most cases, you don’t want to get too creative when it comes to jackets in men’s cocktail attire—classic and timeless jackets are the best and safest options. If you do want to show some individuality, show it in patterns like herringbone, check, or plaid. In addition, your cocktail attire jackets should come in a tailored slim cut. Peak or shawl lapels are also great, sophisticated details to consider. Overall, your jackets will set the tone for your cocktail attire, so choose wisely.
Cocktail Attire Pants
Gone are the days when all dress pants look the same. When in doubt, choose a shape that flatters your body type and get it tailored. While Ryan Gosling sticks to a tapered leg, we’re seeing more straight and relaxed cuts for a flattering profile. “The silhouette must have balance and be functional,” suggests celebrity stylist Donté McGuine who has dressed stars like Evan Mock and Vic Mensa on the red carpet. “Lately the wider leg silhouette on a men’s trouser is the way to go. Brands such as Gucci, Egonlab, and Celine are advocates for this trend.”
A pair of well-fitted, tailored pants in classic hues like black, charcoal, or navy blue has been the standard choice for men’s cocktail attire. If you’re not afraid to veer into the modern-looking category, slim-cut and tailored chinos or corduroy pants can also luxe-up your fit. Pleated trousers will often automatically get a pass. Overall, for dress pants in men’s cocktail attire, you should prioritize fit, color, and design details instead of discriminating certain types of pants over others.
Cocktail Attire Shirts
When selecting a cocktail-appropriate shirt, you really can’t go wrong with a timeless, crisp button-down shirt. Avoid the rookie mistake of not ironing or steaming any wrinkles before you head out! In cooler months, a handsome knit may replace a traditional dress shirt. “When completing a suit I always say go for the turtleneck,” states McGenuine. “It gives a more sophisticated look.”
Overall, there are quite a few types of shirts suitable for men’s cocktail attire. A classic white dress shirt is a perennial favorite since it’s versatile and timeless and goes well with any suit. Similarly, an Oxford shirt will work like that while keeping things more casual. If the dress code allows, formal-looking sweaters and long-sleeve polo shirts can also be the perfect foundation for your cocktail attire ensemble, striking the balance between casual and elegant. Overall, if your shirt choice works in a professional or office setting, it’ll probably work in cocktail attire—meaning a tailored slim fit and muted tone are preferred.
Cocktail Attire Shoes
Stylish dress shoes set the tone for your look. Investing in a pair of trusty leather penny or Venetian loafers or lace-up classic black or dark brown leather oxfords and derbies that you’ll have for years is always a good idea since these classic styles are timeless and just work. A good suit can also look modern when paired with sleek, minimalist-looking Chelsea boots.
Todya’s cocktail attire for men allows for some variety in shoes. Suede loafers in rich, deep hues, for instance, can bring a touch of luxury into your look. A good suit can also look modern and less serious when paired with sleek, minimalist-looking Chelsea boots or monk straps as these shoes offer a casual but still cocktail-appropriate twist. Overall, you want the shoes to complement the rest of your outfit, from the color palette to the formality of the event—you’ll want your cocktail attire shoes to look cohesive while still standing out.
Cocktail Attire Ties
Eight times out of ten, a tie is required in cocktail attire for men, which means it’s always best to prepare an appropriate tie for the occasion: ties—including bow ties—will help complete and polish up a suit. In fact, simply having a tie on will elevate your cocktail attire to a whole new level.
A classic silk tie in a solid color or subtle pattern is still a no-brainer option. But the modern cocktail attire for men allows for a bit more creativity: from bold colors to quirky patterns, a less traditional-looking tie will add a nice twist to the rest of your cocktail fits and show your personality. Paisley, dots, and stripes remain some of the safest options when it comes to creative ties.
Ultimately, the key to mastering cocktail attire with ties lies in harmonizing your choice with the rest of your outfit: you’ll want to make a well-balanced yet dashing appearance that leaves a great impression.
Cocktail Attire Accessories
Think of accessories as your cocktail fit’s finishing touches. Where is the event? What vibe do you want to give? Face-flattering eyewear, a cool watch, personalized socks, and a belt that ties the look together are all details that won’t go unnoticed. According to McGuine, “Personal style is a reflection of who you are or who you want to become.”
For your wrist style, there are plenty of dress watches—preferably in a sleek, minimalist design—under $500 that you can wear as your statement timepiece. Belts, preferably in leather with a plain look, should harmonize with your shoes and pants while adding a subtle pop of color or texture. Don’t forget finishing touches like a silk pocket square will color-coordinate with your jacket.
If you can, grab some cufflinks or even lapel pins. The former lets you showcase your personal style to onlookers who really pay attention. The latter will make a plain blazer look more interesting, whether it’s a classic flower or quirky novelty pin. With the right cocktail attire accessories, your whole look will flourish and let folks know you’re a stickler to the cocktail attire dress code.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Cocktail Attire for Men a Suit?
A suit is your best bet—and often required—since cocktail attire is still dressy and therefore demands looking formal. What type of suit, the shirt you choose, shoes, accessories, and how you style are all key components of the equation of what the full look amounts to. It can be a full suit or just separates of blazers and dress pants. “When you enter a room your clothing speaks before you do,” says McGuine. “It’s up to you to figure out what you would like to say!”
What Is Acceptable for Cocktail Attire?
Context is key. You can always check in with the host (but please, in advance) to ensure you’re aware of any requirements or faux pas. “Know your audience. Know your location. And know the time of day,” says Broecker. “All of those things will help inform your look.” You would not, for example, wear the same look to a family member’s daytime beach wedding as your company’s holiday party, despite both having “cocktail attire” dress codes. But in general, a suit, a pair of dressy shoes, and ties are expected. But since cocktail attire is now more flexible than ever, you can show off some personal styles in shirts or patterns without looking too casual or formal.
What Is Summer Cocktail Attire for Men?
For warmer weather cocktail events like summer weddings, a rise in temperature means lighter colors and fabrics, and often less formalities. Espadrilles may replace oxfords, and a knit polo or patterned shirt may be encouraged over a starchy button-up. As the temperature drops, you can try layering fabrics and textures like velvets, knits, and brocades. As for suits, seersucker suits and linen suits make the best summer suits for cocktail attire in warm weather.
Sara Klausing is a contributing style editor with over ten years of experience. Following roles at Vogue and Google, Klausing specializes in future-facing coverage at the intersection of fashion, culture, and technology.
Style and Commerce Editor
Maverick Li is the Style & Commerce Editor of Men’s Health, where he covers clothing, footwear, watches, and grooming. He was previously the Assistant Commerce Editor at Esquire.