Men’s Cocktail Attire: What It Means & How To Dress For It 

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Tis the season!

Cocktail? Sure! Cocktail dress? Umm…? Err…?

Dress codes are predominately pretty clean cut, and thankfully they are what they say they are – ‘codes’. With that in mind they come with a clear steer as to what is expected. White tie, black tie, morning dress – whatever the request on your invitation, you will know roughly what you need to reach for. “But not so rigidly that they restrict someone’s ability to express their individual style”, says Oliver Spencer, Cutter at Savile Row Tailor, Anderson and Sheppard. Steve Mitchell, founder of the men’s style blog, TheMitchelli.com, agrees. He says, “People understand dress codes, but they still allow for personal style and flair.”

Smart Casual is one that can mean a multitude of things and can lead to the greatest amount of confusion. Unlike any other dress code, this code can be a little ambiguous and harder to define – it’s like riding a bike without stabilisers.

So to the matter in hand. Second to the confusion that ‘Smart casual’ can deliver, let’s look at Cocktail dress. Drink? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.

History

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How and why did this all start?

Within certain corners of society, the 1920s and 1930s saw a new addition to the daily routine. Identified was a time in the day where a newly defined dress code was to establish itself for the period before the formality of evening wear was to take hold – essentially bridging the gap between day and eveningwear.

As a prelude to dinner, pre-dinner cocktails and aperitifs were and are served to stimulate the palette in preparation for the dinner to follow.

These days, and maintaining a traditional viewpoint, cocktail parties are held between the hours of 6.30-8.30pm – but can be held before lunch. Increasingly, they can last a whole evening – sometimes lasting until about 9pm before people either go out or home for dinner.

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What Cocktail Attire Means Today

The cocktail party might be to celebrate a birthday, an engagement, or simply ‘just because’. Note that the level of formality required can be largely determined by the invitation. If you receive a smart invitation way in advance of a date and the cocktail party is being hosted at a lovely venue, you can get a pretty clear idea that you’re in for a well-planned and smart cocktail party.

As with any invitation, if you are in any doubt of how formal to be, you can do two things:

  • Dress smarter so you can loosen up – if you need to. You can never go the other way and turn up to a party and put a tie on. Remember that.
  • If you’re in doubt, ask. Contact the host and enquire how formal the occasion is likely to be. Don’t be embarrassed about doing that. Greater embarrassment lies in getting your clothes wrong, than just doing your homework and asking.

Often emerges the question: Have the rules changed or relaxed? The truth is the rules of any dress code are still very much alive and kicking. The question is: should the rules be relaxed, and indeed why does modernisation of the rules have to equate to the relaxing of them? Perhaps that’s for all of us to debate?

 

So what is Cocktail dress?

For gents a safe place to go is a suit. Importantly though, what we don’t want is to turn up in a heavy pinstripe that we’ve clearly been wearing for the last 12 hours of our working day. The ‘fresh from the office look’ is not what we’re after! Remember that this dress code is to bridge the gap between day and evening. So if you are to wear a suit, wear a navy or mid grey – something with a bit of life in it, that isn’t dreary and dull, but is close to a plain colour. Why? Because that way if you keep the suit plain it will look fresh, smart and yet give you options with your shirt and tie combo.

Mitchell concludes, “The world is becoming more casual – but a cocktail party? That’s a reason to dress up!”

Sure, sometimes life doesn’t allow us to perform a change of clothes from day to evening, but if there is opportunity to change into something that is fresh and crisp – take it.

Change your shirt and tie at the very least. You can spot a crisp shirt at a thousand paces, and in any case, going to a cocktail party fresh faced and bushy tailed will always make you feel better and give you more confidence when circulating with friends and new acquaintances.

Does it always need to be a suit? Again, your steer is the format of the invitation, and for some occasions you might think it ok to plumb for separates. Perhaps during the summer months you might think chinos and a blazer jacket.

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Style Tips and Key Pieces

THE SUIT

Let’s think about this. Firstly the cloth. Having a plain colour in a suit doesn’t mean it has to be boring. If a blue is your preference, think about picking out your suit that is a little ‘inkier’. It will be brighter and have more life to it than a flat dark navy. Incidentally, stay away from black. Think about it, you’re at a function – who else will be wearing black? Unless you’re a fan of being asked where the cloakroom is or whether you can help with some more champagne, avoid the chances of being mistaken for staff and wear some colour.

Within a woollen suit – texture can add some interest, so see that as an opportunity to explore without having to wear heavy stripes or checks. You might like to think about an inky blue herringbones suit. If grey is your preference avoid your dark charcoal suit and go for a slightly lighter mid grey. In terms of texture the ‘pic n pic’ / ‘salt n pepper’ / ‘shark skin’ (pending the term you’re familiar with) will offer more depth than a flat grey.

Think about weight. As with any suit for any occasion, the one you are going to wear needs to be fit for purpose. In other words, if the party is destined for a small function room you won’t want to be in a heavy suit. You’ll swelter! Indeed, consider a nice navy linen suit during the summer months. Smart, and will keep you cool. Yes it will wrinkle, but that’s the look.

Head towards a two button single-breasted suit jacket. A three-button jacket often hides the potential of a shirt and tie as it will button higher and further cover what lies beneath. Many daytime suits often come with a ‘notch’ lapel (this is a lapel which has a triangle cut near to your collarbone). For something a little dressier, perhaps go for the suit with a ‘peak’ lapel. This is more often found on evening attire, but can add a new dimension to a standard suit – perfect for this occasion.

 

THE SHIRT

In the words of Michael Jackson, “Make that change!” Make sure you’re going to that Cocktail party in a fresh, clean and crisp shirt. The tired dog-eared collar look is not great and you won’t do yourself any favours.

Pick a shirt that has either a semi cutaway or cutaway collar. What must be avoided is the button down. It’s too casual, especially being defined as appropriate for more of a sporting occasion – notably with its roots being from the sport of Polo.

Keeping your suit plan you have options with the shirt. Having said that, keeping to block colours does generate a more ‘eveningy’ look. For example you might choice a solid navy or grey suit with a crisp white shirt and navy tie. Classic.

Spencer stipulates, “My ‘must-haves’ for a cocktail party are a crisp white shirt, pocket square and highly polished shoes.”

Alternative to a classic white, try a solid pale blue shirt or blue and white stripe. Think about giving pink a miss though. A great colour during the day, but at a busy Cocktail party, if you get warm and flush it will only accentuate your colour.

While button cuff might be easy, double cuff is dressier and is perfect for showing off those cufflinks that deserve an outing at a Cocktail party!

 

THE SHOES

‘No brown in town’? A phrase that is a bit dated now I think. Traditionally brown shoes are reserved for the country – being the place where green and browns thrive. But when we are adopting a more ‘preppy’ look on occasion, then chinos belong with a pair of brown. Perhaps a nice pair of brown brogues for example.

With a suit, a pair of black oxfords has to be the preference. Ensure they’re clean, and that goes for at any time of day or party. Shoes, for some, are forgotten about. Looking immaculate above your feet is all very well, but if your shoes are off the mark – nothing above the ankles matters! Even if you arrive at the cocktail party to enter a sea of people, never underestimate the human desire to check another person’s shoes out. We are always quick to judge and categorise another person on what they have on their feet.

 

THE TIE

Firstly, wear one. We live in an increasingly casual-hungry society so it is nice to find an excuse to wear one. During the day, you might choose something that is more muted, but cometh the Cocktail party, cometh the opportunity to show a bit more flair and daringness. This could mean something with a heavier design – perhaps heavy spot, stripe or modern design. Floral is also nice, especially in the summer months.

In terms of the rules: If you have a striped tie, ensure it is a different size stripe to a striped shirt you might choose to wear. To really fanfare your tie, a plain shirt will enhance its impact.

 

THE ACCESSORIES

Cufflinks

Men don’t get a huge amount of opportunity to accessorise at the best of times, but in what we have, see them as important additions. For the shirt, choose some smart cufflinks. As has been established, more often than not, Cocktail parties are held in the early evening, and that said it allows us to show our party wear – more so than works in the day. So cufflinks can certainly be gold, silver even crystal if you dare.

Handkerchief

The expression, ‘One to show, one to blow’ is one to remember. One being in your jacket breast pocket, and the other in your trouser pocket. Another way of looking at it is, ‘One for him’ (the one in your trouser pocket), and ‘one for her’ (in your breast pocket, should you stumble across a damsel in distress!). Either way, the one in your pocket should be clean, so if you’re heading out with a sniffle to a function, do a swap for a fresh one.

For the one in your breast pocket, white is safe, or if you prefer some colour, make it complement the colour of your tie, not 100% match it. In terms of how to display it – popular is ‘the flat’ which effectively sits parallel to the lip of the pocket. Or you might prefer ‘the puff’ which will give it more punch!

Belts

Rule number one: Ensure your belt is the same colour and material as your shoes. Leather for leather, suede for suede. A belt doesn’t need to shout; so big buckles are more appropriate with jeans and at a more casual party.

Watch

Permission granted to wear your best watch. That may already be on your wrist during the day, but if it isn’t, the watch is the perfect accessory to showcase your flair.

Pens

Always carry a nice pen. You never know when you might need to pull it out to write something down in the company of others. A gent with a good pen is meticulous on detail.

 

So in conclusion…

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Do take you lead from the invitation

Do dress smarter rather than more casual if you are in doubt

Do change from what you have been wearing during the day

Do view your accessories as an opportunity to show some flair and personal style

Do make sure your shoes are as smart as your outfit

 

Don’t wear a dinner suit to a cocktail party you will be over dressed if you do.

Don’t forget about your personal hygiene – brush your teeth and freshen up with a dab of aftershave behind your ears!

Don’t wear a heavy pinstripe suit

Don’t forget to polish your shoes before attending

Don’t forget your outerwear. People will judge you not only on your dress but the coat you arrive in, so make sure it matches up on the style stakes