Cocktail Attire Explained: 70 + Ideas For Looking Your Best at Weddings and Parties

by John Griffith

Attending weddings and other special events is always loads of fun, but figuring what to wear can be a real hassle. Although most invitations come with dress code preferences, it’s often difficult to decipher their meaning. For example, you may be left wondering how “black tie optional” is different from “cocktail attire,” whether business casual is the same as smart casual, or if showing up to a wedding wearing jeans and sneakers is ever acceptable. So, in order to clear away the stress surrounding special occasion apparel, we have devoted today’s article on answering these questions. In doing so, we will focus on one of the most popular styles, the cocktail attire.

Cocktail attire is smarter than casual clothes, but more relaxed than formal apparel. This creates comfort, while ensuring you still look your best

cocktail attire, two laughing women, one dressed in a dark grey, metallic one-shoulder dress, and the other wearing a black lace dress

First of all, let’s look at the main types of formal and semi-formal apparel. We will begin with the fanciest options and move down to the less solemn ones:

White Tie (formal)

The most formal of all clothes options, the white tie apparel is reserved for very special events, such as balls or state dinners. It is very rarely seen at weddings or other celebrations. For men, the white tie dress code consists of a black tailcoat, a white shirt, black high-waisted trousers with one or two black satin stripes, a white waistcoat, black patent leather shoes,  and, of course, a white bow tie. Accessories may include smart white or grey gloves and understated but classy cuff links. For women, the code includes a full-length ball gown, often worn with long evening gloves, a purse, and smart jewelry.

Black Tie (formal)

Black tie is a common dress code for smart occasions, such as large corporate events or award ceremonies. It is characterized by a tuxedo jacket, combined with black trousers, a white shirt and a black bow tie for men, and a ball gown (or a particularly fancy cocktail dress) for women. If the event in question takes place during the summer or at a tropical location, it is acceptable to replace the black tuxedo jacket with a white dinner jacket.

When it comes to smart apparel, blue is always an excellent choice!

two women sitting on an off-white couch, wearing similar lace dresses, one in pale blue, and the other one in navy, cocktail attire

Black Tie Optional (semi-formal)

Probably the most widely used dress code today, the black tie optional is quite smart in appearance, but nevertheless allows some room for creativity. The stars you see on the red carpet of the Academy Awards are usually dressed in this very style. While a tuxedo is technically acceptable, most men prefer wearing suits in classic colors such as black, navy blue or dark grey. These are accompanied by a white shirt, a smart conservative tie, dark socks and dark leather shoes. Women can choose between a full-length ball gown and a smart cocktail dress. Classy little black dresses are also acceptable, provided they are not too short.

Cocktail Attire (semi-formal)

Cocktail attire is the preferred choice for weddings, jubilees or formal birthday parties. Here things start getting fun – men can choose a suit in a smart shade, accompanied by a dress shirt in a pale color of their choice (checkered and pin-stripe patterns are also accepted). Bow/neck ties are optional, as are accessories such as pocket handkerchiefs or boutonnieres. For women, the options include a short but classy cocktail dress, a little black dress, a fancy skirt and top combination, or even a dressy jumpsuit.

The cocktail attire for men, explained:

Wedding guest outfits come in many colors and styles!

group photo of nine smiling blonde women, dressed in cocktail attire, maxi and midi dresses in black, white and ash pink, and featuring floral patterns

Reiss’ advice for styling a cocktail outfit for women

Smart/business casual (semi-formal/casual)

Like its name suggests, this dress code is usually reserved for work-related events such as business meetings. However, in recent years it has become a fashion staple for men and women alike. The smart or business casual style for men consists of a suit worn with a dressy shirt, or a smart blazer, paired up with classy trousers and a shirt. As for acceptable footwear – patent oxford shoes, brogues or suede loafers (in summer) – are all excellent options. Some gents choose to add a playful note to their outfit, by pairing smart apparel with clean white converse sneakers, or sporty lace up shoes.

For women, the business casual offers a lot of options – a pencil skirt worn with a dressy top, a blazer combined with a shirt and a pair of smart trousers, a fancy day dress accessorized with a chic cardigan, and many more.

Be classy and stylish!

smiling man in a light grey suit, with a white shirt, and a dark tie, sitting on a black leather armchair, near a small wooden table, with drinks and a snack, cocktail attire examples for men

We have gone through the most important smart and semi-smart dress codes, but this doesn’t mean that our job is done! Before we let you enjoy our inspirational outfit gallery, we would like to share a few key do-s and don’t-s, which will save you a lot of stress (and possibly even embarrassment) in the future.

  1. Jeans are never ever acceptable for a formal event. It might sound obvious but you’d be surprised how many people ignore this simple rule of thumb! Showing up in denim is a big no-no, unless specifically stated otherwise by the invitation or host.
  2. Ideally, men should avoid apparel in garish colors and/or featuring unusual patterns.
  3. Feeling sexy is important, but women shouldn’t confuse formal attire with clubbing outfits! If you are going to a smart event – ditch the micro skirts and sheer fabrics. There is a time and place for everything.
  4. Don’t upstage the host – this goes for men as well as women. Make sure you know what the host will be wearing so you don’t show up dressed fancier then them! There is no shame in asking in advance – rest assured they’d be happy to let you know.
  5. If you are ever in doubt, remember – it is always better to arrive overdressed, rather than underdressed, at a formal do!

Black tie optional – an irresistible look

smart navy suit, worn over a white shirt, and a black tie, by a young man with sunglasses, a moustache and stubble on his chin, cocktail attire ideas for guys

We hope you found our article useful! Now we invite you to enjoy our gallery – we have selected 70 + inspirational outfit cocktail attire ideas for women and men. Don’t forget to check out our website for more tips on wedding apparel.

A smart outfit for men, suitable for almost any occasion:

old fashioned wooden bar, with glasses and bottles, near a man in a black suit, and a white shirt, cocktail attire examples

Wedding guest etiquette 101:

Cocktail attire suitable for a wedding, or any smart party

couple posing for a photo, and holding hands, in cocktail attire, the man is wearing a black suit and a white shirt, and the woman is sporting a black dress, with sheer details and frills

Ready for a business meeting or a formal event

cocktail attire for men, brunette man with short beard and mustache, sitting on a black surface, dressed in black trousers, a smart black vest, white shirt and a dark patterned tie

We love this sharply dressed couple’s style!

glasses held by a smiling couple, the woman is wearing a red velvet dress, with long sleeves, and the man is dressed in a pale blue shirt, a brown vest and a yellow tie, and an off-white blazer, cocktail attire for men

“Clothes and manners do not make the man; but when he is made, they greatly improve his appearance.”

undercut hairstyle on a bearded man, with a moustache and sunglasses, dressed in cocktail attire for men, black suit with a white shirt, and a red bowtie

cocktail attire for women, smiling brunette woman, with long wavy hair, and a fancy hat with flowers, wearing a pale nude pink, sleeveless midi dress, with a pencil skirt, and white lace, a man in dark jeans, white t-shirt, and light gray blazer, is standing next to her

nine women dressed in different fancy dresses long silky gowns, little black dresses, midi dresses in silver, and pastel colors, cocktail attire for women, three men in dark colored suits

midi dresses in pale pink, and dark purple, with frills and a tie waist belt, worn by two slim brunette women, with hair styled in buns, cocktail attire for women, three men in black suits, white shirts and black bowties, standing next to them

Who said wearing a suit was boring?!

six men dressed in smart suits, in light grey, dark grey and navy blue, cocktail attire for men, smiling and posing for a photo

navy blue suit, with pinstripe pattern, worn by a brunette man, with stubble on the lower part of his face, cocktail attire for men, window with rain drops in the background

wine red mini dress, worn by a smiling woman, holding a drink and talking to a man, dressed in a smart black suit, cocktail attire for men, with a white shirt, and a black bowtie

The perfect shoes to complete a gentleman’s outfit

shoes for a black tie optional event, brown leather brogues, worn with grey socks, and grey woolen trousers, black oxford shoes, worn with black socks, and navy trousers

short-haired brunette man, dressed in a navy suit, with a checkered blue shirt, and a dark blue tie, cocktail attire for men, kissing a smiling blonde woman, wearing a red lace cocktail dress

what is cocktail attire, man in a checkered, white and brown blazer, with a black flower on his lapel, wearing a white shirt, and a black tie, woman in a cokctail dress standing nearby

A super stylish couple

shiny purple midi dress, with lace details and sequins, worn by a smiling brunette woman, with sunglasses and nude beige shoes, walking hand in hand with a man, dressed in a navy suit, and a white shirt, cocktail attire for women

friends smiling at the camera, wearing smart outfits, beaded embroidered gowns, in pale beige and white, a red dress with lace, and sheer white sleeves, cocktail attire for women, red trousers with a white shirt, and a black, white and red jacket, worn with a matching bowtie

black tie optional, bearded man with dark yellow sunglasses, wearing a black three piece suit, with a white shirt, and a black and yellow tie

The devil’s in the details – we love the silver necktie and matching pocket handkerchief!

silver tie worn with a white shirt, and a black dinner jacket, with a silver handkerchief, black tie optional, worn by a smiling groom, standing hand in hand with a bride, dressed in a light silver strapless dress

guests at a wedding, or another formal event, sitting on chairs, some with champagne flutes in their hands, dressed in black tie optional attire, black and dark navy suits, with white and light colored shirts, smart occassion dresses

light peach occasion mini dresses, with white lace details, cocktail attire for women, worn by two slim models, sitting on an antique pale beige couch

Black tie optional – the preferred look of gentleman spies

black suit with a white shirt, and a plack patterned tie, worn by actor daniel craig, black tie optional, next image shows a brunette man, with a voluminous hairstyle, moustache and a beard, wearing a navy three piece suit, with a white shirt, and a purple patterned tie

jessical alba wearing a silky, electric blue strapless midi dress, cocktail attire for women, miranda kerr in a knee-length, green lace dress

red short-sleeved midi dress, worn by a smiling woman, holding the hand of a man, dressed in a smart black suit, with an off-white t-shirt, black tie optional, black shoes and sunglasses

How to wear business casual in summer:

what is semi formal attire, three men with sunglasses, sitting next to each other, wearing white trousers, light colored shirts, and off-white and pale blue blazers

lit sparkles held by a group of smiling people, men wearing dark suits, some with pale shirts and black ties, women in sparkling silver sequin dresses, black tie optional outfit ideas

burgundy dresses with different lengths and designs, mni and midi, knee-length and just above the knee, with lace and sequins, bell sleeves and frilled hem, what is cocktail attire

Chic cocktail outfit suggestion for ladies…

choosing the right outfit, what is cocktail attire, smart black dress with lace detail, black and gold high heel sandals, light beige cardigan, gold barcelets and rings

…and gents:

black tie optional wedding, three ideas for a smart outfit for men, blue suit with a white shirt, checkered grey blazer, white shirt and dark trousers, navy blue suit with a white shirt, patterned neckties and a pocket handkerchief, brogue shoes and a belt

walking man with hands in his pockets, wearing a navy suit, pale blue shirt, and a navy necktie, next image shows the torso of a man, with a medium grey suit, and a white shirt, black tie optional wedding

Three cocktail attire looks, straight from the red carpet

ideas for women's outfits, for a black tie optional wedding, insired by the red carpet, black one-shoulder midi dress, smart black jumpsuit, silky silver embroidered, midi strapless dress

blue suit with a white shirt, and a patterned blue tie, pale cream suit, with a light blue shirt, black three piece suit, black tie optional wedding, brown suit with a white shirt, and a brown tie

blonde slim woman, dressed in a black midi dress, brunette man wearing a dark brown suit, with a white shirt, a brown tie, and brown formal shoes, black tie optional wedding, both have sunglasses on

How to choose the right cocktail dress for your body type:

five examples of black mini dresses, for different body shapes, flared and a line, halter neck and one shoulder, black tie optional wedding outfts for women, lace and faux leather, frills and sequins

people dressed in smart clothes, smiling and posing for the camera, black tie optional wedding, the women are wearing dresses in green and cream, with black lace details, the men are dressed in black suits, with white shirts, and black bowties

kate middleton and four other women, wearing smart knee-length and midi dresses, in grey and silver, dark teal and green, and red and white, what is cocktail attire, sequins and embroidery

The Duchess of Cambridge is a true professional when it comes to choosing the right formal and semi-formal attire

wine red velvet dress, pale blue above-the-knee dress, pink lace dress, and a black midi dress with frills, what is cocktail attire, on four women

shirt in black, worn with a grey suit, and white and red sneakers, what is cocktail attire, by a man with a patterned pocket handkerchief

options for black formal dresses, what is cocktail attire, midi with white lace mesh, above-the-knee with flared design, midi with lace, mini with sequins, long-sleeved with frills, classic strappy midi

Some colorful options, suitable for semi-formal events

dresses with differenr designs, in four different colors, green lace knee-length dress, pink long gown, peach above-the-knee dress, with gold embroidery, silky purple knee-length dress, what is semi formal attire

image of a smartly dressed man, in a black suit, with a white shirt, and a black tie, next to a photo of a man, wearing dark trousers, and a black, partially unbuttoned shirt, what is semi formal attire vs formal

female celebrities in special occasion dresses, what is semi formal attire, white wiggle dress, pale blue dress with crossing straps, little black dress with sheer lace, black mini dress with gold embroidery

Cocktail attire explained in brief

guide for guys, on choosing the right formal outfit, cocktail attire wedding, black suit with a white shirt, and a purple tie, grey suit with a pale blue shirt, and a striped purple tie

dinner jacket in cream, with a white shirt, black trousers and a black bowtie, blue blzer with a light blue shirt, and off-white trousers, and other combinations, cocktail attire wedding

stars on the red carpet, dress with formal black suits, with white shirts and bowties, cocktail attire wedding, long gowns in pale pink and red

It’s hard not to love this charming couple’s complementing outfits!

formal and semi formal wedding attire, couple dressed in complementary outfits, she is in a pale nude beige dress, with silky electric blue embroidery and frills, and he is wearing an electric blue suit, with a light beige shirt

winter and summer ideas, for men's smart outfits, cocktail attire wedding, pale blue blazer, white shirt and white trousers, grey tweed three piece suit, and other combinations

slim women dressed in different outfits, what is semi formal attire, white wiggle dress with lace, black embroidered dress with a sheer back, silver and white midi strapless dress, red lace mini dress, and a black and white striped jumpsuit

More stylish suggestions for men:

brunette slim man, wearing navy trousers, a pale blue shirt, and a dark green blazer, with a striped tie, and an orange patterned pocket handkerchief, cocktail attire wedding, man in grey suit, with a white shirt, and a grey tie

knee-length dresses, one in black, and one with a dark floral pattern, and a grey and white mini dress, what is semi formal attire, on three slim young women, two shoes and various accessories

suggestions for semi-formal attire, navy and black, brown and checkered blazers, pale shirts and jumpers, cream and khaki, grey and black trousers, and blue jeans, what is semi formal attire for guys

Black tie outfits on the red carpet

gowns in red, black and silver, and sparkling off-white, cocktail attire wedding, black suits worn with white shirts, and black bowties, black trousers and a white shirt, with a black bowtie, and a white dinner jacket

semi formal wedding attire assentials, checkered shirt in brown and white, dark striped tie, black formal blazer, brown leather shoes, and a white handkerchief

blake lively wearing a yellow, strappy midi dress, emma stone wearing a little black dress, with lace and a puff ball skirt, cocktail attire wedding, chris evans in a dark grey suit, with a navy blue shirt

Stylish cocktail dresses for all figure types

long light pink gown, red off the shoulder midi dress, orange off the shoulder dress with a side slit, white wiggle dress with blye embroidery and detailing, semi formal wedding attire

comparing formal with semi formal wedding attire, black suits with white shirts, and black bowties, worn by the men, long gowns in pale blue, cream and silver, and red and black, worn by the women

retro style semi formal wedding attire, grey suit with a white shirt, and a patterned tie, pale pink two piece suit, next image shows a couple, dressed in smart white outfits

Four exciting suggestions, suitable for guests attending a summer wedding

electric blue blazer, worn over a pale blue shirt, and white trousers, with a patterned blue tie, marron three piece suit, semi formal wedding attire, checkered blue suit, pale stone grey blazer, with dark navy trousers

denzel washington and his wife, wearing a black suit, with a white shirt, and a black necktie, and a red gown, with grey embroidery, what is cocktail attire for men, mel gibson wearing a black suit, with a white shirt and a black bowtie, young woman in a pale blue strapless gown

answering the question, what is cocktail attire for men, black suit with a white shirt, and a black bowtie, dark grey suit, with a white shirt, and a violet necktie, red sparkly gown, midi dress in black, with floral motifs

When style meets high fashion

khaki green embroidered gown, light pink 80s style dress with frills, little black dress with sequins, semi formal wedding attire, pale peach mini dress, with floral embroidery

medium and light grey suits, and a navy blue , worn by three young men, with different accessories, what is cocktail attire for men, pale grey tie, medium grey vest, brown loafers and smart black shoes

celebrity couples dressed in special occasion clothes, black suit with a white shirt, and a black bowtie, purple midi strapless dress, what is cocktail attire for men. white lace gown, blue three piece suit in blue, with black trims, a black shirt and a black bowtie

There are so many reasons to love the business casual style for men

examples of smart clothes for men, dark navy suit, white trousers and blazers in beige and grey, vests in black, navy and beige, what is cocktail attire for men, answered with four outfits

famous couples dressed in smart attire, dark grey and navy suits, with white and pale blue shirts, necktie and bowtie, special ocassion outfits, what is cocktail attire for men

what is cocktail attire for men, brad pitt and angelina jolie, wearing a smart black suit, with a white shirt, and a black tie, and a sparkling green gown, and justin timberlake and jessica biel, wearing a smart black suit, and a pale pink midi dress, with a green pattern

Black tie, smart casual, and cocktail attire, demonstrated by Hollywood stars

actors and their partners, posing for photos, while dressed in different attire, formal black tie suit and a ball gown, semi-formal retro dresses, and cocktail apparel

six images showing men in medium close up, dressed in smart pinstripe shirts, and blazers in light grey and navy blue, dark grey and black, worn with smart ties

collage featuring five images, of men dressed in smart clothes, black and navy blue suits, pale grey checkered suit, blue trousers and a mink grey blazer, all worn with dark ties

We hope you’ve enjoyed our selection!

men dressed in smart outfits, featuring white and navy blue checkered shirts, grey trousers and a navy blue blazer, a black and a white suit, smart neck ties


John Griffith

John Griffith is a young, passionate journalist. Writing has been John’s hobby ever since he was a boy. He has worked in some of the UK’s most successful news portals over the course of his professional career but found his forever home at Archzine.