Cocktail Attire for Men: How to Style and Own the Look
In the world of formal dress codes, cocktail can be one of the easiest and most fun to dress for, for men and women alike. However, it’s also easy to miss the mark on this one if you don’t know what you’re doing. While it is less ambiguous than “semi-formal,” it can still be a challenge to find the right look. Whether you’re the groom at your wedding or a guest at a party, you want to get this right. Luckily, you have expert tailors at Oliver Wicks on your side to help!
The first thing you probably think of when you hear the word “cocktail,” is a swanky evening function packed with socializing, dancing, hors d'oeuvres, and—of course—some cocktails to sip on. While that’s precisely the type of event that inspired this fancy dress code, it has evolved with time.
A century ago, cocktail evolved as a concept to cover functions that were after work, before dinner, and pretty classy. By the 30s, we saw “cocktail hour” become more defined—and then, as the wedding industry and how we socialized shifted, it all started getting muddy again.
Notably, cocktail has also been used as a dress code for high-end sporting events, like the Kentucky Derby. Other comparable events can include business dinners, graduations, opening nights at theaters, and fancier New Year’s Eve parties
On the rungs of wedding dress codes, cocktail comes below formal and black tie, and above the dreaded semi-formal, sometimes blending with it. Think of it as ‘formal-lite’. For women, it is an incredibly easy dress code to choose attire for—it calls for a cocktail-length dress and a nice pair of heels. For men, it is a little more difficult, ironically. Because the transition through the ranks of formality can be very subtle for men when it comes to formal events, you may struggle to choose the right combination to create the look without veering too formal or casual.
To better conceptualize cocktail attire for men, think of it as business casual, but with swanky event touches that almost elevate it to business professional, just with personality. You can borrow heavily from your snappy business dress but have a little more freedom to personalize. Thinking the other way too, accessories that may feel a bit too “flashy” for the office, may be awesome focal points in a sharp cocktail dress code.
This does give you a lot of choices, but we know choices can be confusing, especially for newcomers! Tuxedos are off the table (although bow ties remain), and suit separates have come on board—but they have to be super crisp and on-point. Your classic suit and tie remain a default, and the whole attire is still going to veer closer to smart than relaxed.
While the cocktail wedding dress code was mostly associated with early evening events, today, you will find some afternoon events using it too. But the bones of the style remain the same, just with different finishing touches.
So, let’s start creating the perfect cocktail attire for men. If you’re looking for the shortest, sweetest explanation that our master tailors can give you, it is this:
A well-tailored, dark suit, crisp white dress shirt and cufflinks, and a solid color tie in a complimentary shade will almost always be right.
However, that’s also very limiting. So let’s dive deeper into the idea of men’s cocktail dress.
Classically, cocktail attire for men and women alike is designed for evening events. And for most events with this dress code, that will be appropriate. However, some graduations, and many weddings, will still use “cocktail” as their dress code, even if it is an afternoon event.
So, what does that mean for you? If the event is earlier in the day, it's wise to adjust your choice of colors accordingly. While it is still smart to stick with classic neutrals, you can lift them a little—so make your charcoal a mid-gray or your navy a deep blue instead. Or opt for a solid brown or forest green. This brings you into better alignment with the environment around you.
If you often attend events with this dress code, investing in a “night” blazer and a “day” blazer (or suit) might be a smart choice.
For cocktail attire for men, a suit needn’t be your only choice—you could consider suit separates—but it will never be a bad choice. Because cocktail is a less formal option than black tie or full formal, the styling of your suit will matter, too.
A modern tailored fit is your best bet, and your safest option is a single-breasted suit. Some men who are confident with sartorial dressing could rock a double-breasted look, but this will be overwhelming for anyone new to the idea of dressing formally. Your suit should not be too tight and not loose and floppy, which can look unkempt. And remember the Oliver Wicks adage—the fit that suits you. Emphasis on you!
Every man can look like a Greek hero with the power of great tailoring on his side. Not only will you look good but you will feel great, and you’ll carry that aura of sophistication and class with you wherever you go. There is no one body type that looks good in a suit—the secret lies in making the suit match you and your unique physique. That’s where our master tailors come into the equation. While off-the-peg suits can be convenient, a custom made-to-measure or bespoke suit that takes your body into account will elevate your suit game to a whole new level and ensure you look great at any event.
If you’re struggling with the idea of fit and how to make a suit work for you, we have a series of video tutorials (and a ton of other helpful resources for elegant male dressing) on our website. All you need is an account on the website to access these added extras—you can be watching them in seconds—no purchase is needed! You’ll also have access to our helpful weekly newsletter if you’d like to stay in the loop of elegant male fashion.
Cocktail suit choices should typically lean towards being darker. Black is a somber choice that can be difficult to style, is inappropriate for anything other than evening, and inevitably seems service-focused—bringing undertakers, waiters, and butlers to mind. While it can work at an absolute push in the right hands, especially if lightly patterned or textured, most men are better suited to a clean navy or crisp charcoal as their cocktail attire. So skip the black for this dress code.
You can choose your material based on the time of day and the season, leaning into cooler linens and cotton in summer.
As an alternative to the classic suit, you can consider elegant suit separates, but there will be some cocktail events that these are a little too informal for, so choose carefully. If you choose this look, recognize that the idea is to not look like you’re wearing a mismatched suit. What we mean by that is to avoid colors that are too close - For example, a navy jacket with slightly different navy pants will not look like separates, but rather that you’ve tried to match up a suit, and done a poor job.
So, choose a blazer in a color spectrum similar to what we suggest for suits, and use classic neutral, but contrasting colors—like gray or khaki—for the pants. For evening cocktail events, ensure both separates are dark and coordinating, though distinctive from each other. Think pewter pants with a navy blazer. You can widen this gap and opt for contrasting pants if it is an earlier occasion.
Your pants should still be a formal cut—think chinos, although some well-fitted and slim-cut slacks can also work. No jeans or casual pants! It’s generally best practice to have dedicated blazers for separates, but if push comes to shove, you can make use of a suit jacket - Just don’t make a habit of it.
A dress shirt is a must for cocktail attire for men. French cuffs and cufflinks have classic elegance, but a barrel cuff is acceptable too. Typically, you will use a button-down shirt. While you are not confined to only white, it remains a classic choice and is very easy to style. Light blue is another great choice, especially for earlier cocktail events. Patterns are not right for this look, but a very subtle texture or weave, or a soft stripe, can add visual interest.
At one point, bright and vibrant jewel-toned shirts were used to add personality to cocktail wear, but these have come to look dated and give a “lounge lizard” vibe that you don’t want to emulate. If you are very confident in styling yourself, a dark jewel tone can still be leveraged well in the right ensemble, but you will need high-end fabrics, impeccable tailoring, and a good eye to pull it off.
But seriously, don’t look past a crisp white shirt. It’s old, it’s classic, but it’s also timeless… and providing that it fits very well, it just works, and is nearly always the best option. “60 percent of the time, it works every time”
Leather dress shoes are your go-to cocktail attire for men. If you’re not sure what works, go for black leather lace-up Oxfords, and you will never be wrong. A Derby can work too. Anything slip-on is too informal. A very smart pair of lace-up Chelsea boots can work but skip anything else. Fancier dress shoes, like Double Monks, can work at the right event, but you will need confidence and the ability to match the rest of your outfit accordingly. Browns, especially dark browns and the occasional oxblood, can be used for cocktail dress codes, but black is the default, and always remember the old-time saying “No browns after 6pm”
While your belt (if you need one) should always match your shoes, your other accessories are where you can add some sparkle and personality. A dashing pocket square, an elegant lapel pin, or even fun socks can help you escape the “business outside the boardroom” vibe and showcase your inner spirit. You can sometimes make a bow tie work in this dress code, but the default is a well-matched tie. You can experiment with some interesting patterns for a personal touch, but skip the cartoony ones in favor of sophistication, and avoid striped ties, as they loop right back to the business world.
Since cocktail attire for men can be a rather nebulous dress code, sometimes it helps to know what isn’t appropriate to wear. So, let’s take a look.
- Overdressing: Tuxedos, tropical dinner jackets, and other black-tie attire will leave you overdressed and out of place. While this is better than underdressing (just!), you will still look gauche.
- The Wrong Shoes: Even if they’re leather, slip-ons are too informal. And sneakers, boots, and other casual shoes need to stay in your closet.
- Black: You don’t want to be confused with the wait staff, so don’t dress like them.
- Hyperdrive: You can add some sparkle and intrigue with a well-chosen pattern or two, but you don’t want to look like a walking migraine! Use a light hand, keep it subtle, and limit it to one large piece or two small pieces.
- Open Necks: Acceptable for true semi-formal, but not for cocktail attire! Stick to a tie, or choose a bowtie, but make sure you are wearing something.
- Creases: It’s not always what you wear, but how you wear it. Steam or press your items, and starch collars and cuffs that need it.
- Bad Personal Care: The best suit in the world isn’t going to save you if you have full slob-mode engaged. Style your hair, keep your nails neat, and look (and smell) good.
You now have a much better idea of cocktail attire for men and how to wear it well. However, here are a few more questions that the Oliver Wicks team often sees. If yours isn’t here, feel free to reach out to us (firstname.lastname@example.org), and our team of experts will help you.
No, they aren’t. Cocktail attire is a step—a small but notable one—above semi-formal. While they were both created to fill a similar gap in dress codes before you hit true casual, cocktail has a more elegant ambiance. This guide will help you get it right.
What indeed? It isn’t a classic dress code, but it means you want the very best semi-formal, or slightly relaxed cocktail attire for men. So the smart suit separates we mentioned above will work nicely—but a good suit will still cut the mustard.
Yes, you can! Most “proper” cocktail parties meet the parameters for the cocktail dress code—taking place in a higher-end venue in the evening—so these dress tips will help you look great there. However, you may be able to be a little flashier than the strict cocktail dress standard, depending on the event itself.
Yes, you do! A tie or bow tie is a staple of cocktail attire for men, and cannot be skipped for this dress code.
Yes, and we encourage it, even for weddings. They’ll appreciate your respect, and you’ll feel confident on the day knowing that you’re dressed appropriately - Double win!
Easy there tiger! You want to strike that fine line between under and over dressed. You need to look like you’re worthy of being there, but you don’t want to steal all of the attention. Blend in, don’t stand out.
And there you have it! This helpful guide to men’s cocktail attire will set you on the right track to dress for success for any function with this dress code. And remember—the Oliver Wicks team is always happy to help if you have any questions, so don’t hesitate to reach out today.