The Dos and Don'ts of Cocktail Attire, According to Fashion Editors


(Image credit: @deborabrosa)

Dress codes are something people don't talk about enough. From white-tie to cocktail attire, the gray area regarding what's acceptable to wear to these formal events is sizable. Today, we are here to talk about all things cocktail party attire. Believe it or not, there are "rules" for dressing for this occasion.

Ahead, we're bringing you the dos and don'ts of cocktail attire. Some of these tips might be obvious, but others might surprise you. In addition to our cocktail attire commandments, we're showing you where to shop the pieces that will ensure you're always dressed appropriately. Keep scrolling to discover how to look your chicest at your next cocktail soirée.

What is cocktail attire etiquette?

Cocktail attire is like the sweet spot between casual and formal. It's a dress code that allows you to break the black-tie rules while still looking put-together. When you see "cocktail attire" on the dress code, remember that this is your signal to keep it classy and avoid anything too casual or revealing. 

We usually look for ways to combine elegance and flair, whether that's a compliment-worthy dress or a power pantsuit. A cocktail dress code offers the opportunity to play around with different fabrics, colors, and prints to showcase your personal style. 

What's the difference between semiformal and cocktail attire?

Think of semiformal and cocktail attire as cousins who share similar DNA but have their own distinct vibes. Cocktail attire is a bit dressed up but allows you to let loose and have fun. You're likely to find yourself in a chic midi-length dress or cool suit.

Semiformal attire, on the other hand, takes it up a notch in terms of formality. It's a smidge more dressed up and typically involves wearing a more sophisticated dress.

What do I wear to a cocktail attire wedding?

Cocktail attire has been a very popular dress code request for weddings in recent years. Since many people have different interpretations of cocktail attire, it can be confusing. We see cocktail attire as the perfect opportunity to show off your personal style since black tie is so much more restricting. You get to strike that perfect balance between looking your best and feeling comfortable. 

As you begin to brainstorm what you'll wear for your friend or family member's special day, the best place to start is with a midi dress. Floor-length gowns are known for black tie, and a lot of minidresses are too casual. If dresses aren't your thing, now is the time to wear your favorite pantsuit or jumpsuit. Play around with different colors and prints to find something that screams "you." And don't forget to pair your look with some fun accessories!

Don't: Wear Anything Too Revealing

Do: Keep Hemlines and Necklines Appropriate


(Image credit: @styleheroine)

A great rule of thumb here is to not wear something you wouldn't want your boss to see you in. In case you needed a reminder, a cocktail party is different than a night out.


Don't: Wear Jeans 

Do: Wear Sleek Trousers


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Even if you aim to dress up a pair of jeans (yes, it's possible), risking being underdressed is never worth it. However, you don't have to wear a dress to be dressy. Polished trousers are just as effective.


Don't: Carry an Oversize Bag

Do: Use a Clutch


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So what bags are best for cocktail attire? Alongside a nice dress, a clutch or a mini bag always reads as elegant and refined.


Don't: Show Up in Wrinkled Garments

Do: Use a Steamer


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Regardless of the color or material of your clothing, wrinkles are always noticeable and unprofessional. Using a steamer is one of the best (and quickest) ways to get rid of wrinkles.


Don't: Wear Too Many Statement Accessories

Do: Choose One Standout Accessory


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Even Coco Chanel recommended taking off one accessory before you leave the house. Your best bet is to wear one standout accessory that you really love.


Don't: Wear a Floor-Length Gown

Do: Wear a Mini or Midi Dress


(Image credit: @deborabrosa)

There is such a thing as going too formal. The time to wear a floor-sweeping gown is not at a cocktail party. Opt for anything between a mini- and midi-length dress or skirt.


Don't: Wear Sneakers

Do: Wear Heels


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Whether it be stilettos, kitten heels, or block heels, a little extra lift is helpful when it comes to a formal event. If notable enough, a pair of flats might work, but sneakers are a no-go.


Don't: Let Underpinnings Show

Do: Wear the Correct Undergarments


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Going the extra mile to make sure that your bra straps or shapewear aren't visible is almost as important as not wearing sneakers.

Once you've picked out your outfit, be sure you have the right undergarments on hand. An off-the-shoulder dress, for instance, will mean wearing the right strapless bra that will get you through the night. If you're wearing a formfitting dress or skirt, consider investing in no-show underwear or seamless shapewear.


Don't: Keep Hair Ties on Your Wrist

Do: Wear a Bracelet


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This one should be obvious, but you'd be surprised at how many people keep rubber bands on their wrists—even at nice events. Before stepping out of the house, swap your hair tie for a sleek bracelet.


This post was originally posted at an earlier date and has since been updated.

Editorial Director

Lauren Eggertsen is currently the editorial director of Who What Wear and has worked at the company for over eight years, where she started as an associate editor and has since worked her way up. Lauren has over 10 years of experience in the fashion editorial space, starting her career with internships at Marc Jacobs, Marie Claire, and The Zoe Report, where she was later hired as their editorial assistant. Lauren has worked in the Los Angeles and New York Who What Wear offices but currently calls L.A. home. It is here where she leads and manages Who What Wear's fashion team and oversees all day-to-day editorial content and large tentpole moments. This includes all of the runway, trend, and shopping-driven content that ultimately helps to build a strong brand reputation within the industry. Lauren's role also includes helping to set the fashion direction for all original photo shoots and often styles many of the celebrity cover shoots, including big names like Kaia Gerber, Normani, and Kristen Stewart.

She has also attended multiple fashion weeks, including New York, London, Milan, and Paris, where her personal style has been featured on sites such as Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, and Elle. She prides herself on discovering and supporting small brands and on her knack for a good vintage shopping find. When she isn't working, she enjoys researching and dining at reputable restaurants around both her neighborhood and the globe.