Broad, weak “Must-See” sitcoms would have us believe that men never worry about what to wear. That’s nowhere close to accurate. We may not ask for advice, learn our color wheel, or know much about mixing patterns, but every man would prefer to look good. Often, our casual, cavalier approach to our garbing comes from ignorance as much as laziness. Sometimes we prize comfort over style, but not once have we opened our dresser or closet and thought “I’m going to look like complete garbage today! Can’t wait to not have sex!” From the formal to the business casual, to evening cocktail clothing, guys like looking dapper. Because, again: Sex (and fragile male ego, but we definitely don’t talk about that.)
There’s few arenas in which we’re more lost – couture-ly speaking – than when going to a soiree that asks for “cocktail attire.” We understand prom means tuxes, work means a suit, jacket and tie, or whatever suits the dress code, and mowing the lawn requires whatever is most stained. It’s dinner parties, charity brunches, and other semi-formal, in-between events that often leave us the most flummoxed. Hence: Everything every man needs to know about dressing for cocktail galas.
Background of Cocktail Attire
Previously, a gentleman who was being called out to a Black Tie event would know cocktail attire was necessary. White Tie meant they were expected to go truly formal, right down to gloves, epaulets, tails, and severely starched shirts. Those were the rules of polite society, by hook or by crook, and it was easy to adhere to. Every formal party, event, or gathering would fall into one of those categories.
Modern Cocktail Attire
The zeitgeist has shifted, and shifted hard against us. Now, Black Tie events are rare, and will often allow for business dress to be worn in place of tuxedos. One need only look at red carpet events of the past versus those of today to see how much style requirements have changed. Even if you’re dressed perfectly, you can still look out of place.
Here’s the basic requirements for men’s cocktail attire these days.
Deep gray, charcoal, or black is preferred. Navy will get you through the door, but that’s almost always a business color, and a boring one to boot. Going into a cocktail attire event in a navy suit will make you look like you stumbled out of a Bar Mitzvah. If the event is celebratory rather than somber, you can brighten up a little, though it’s wise to stick to hues of violent and indigo. Going big and bright is not what cocktail attire is for.
A plain white or smoky shirt is standard for cocktail attire. These do not require specialized buttons or French cuffs as would be used for a tuxedo. Anything flashy – such as peaches, pastels, or powder – might not be frowned upon, but is going to quirk a few eyebrows in a harsh way.
Plain or simply patterned is the way to go, with colors that are banal. Again, the more revelrous an occasion, the more bright colors you can add, but it’s not going to win you style points, however carefully executed.
Dress Shoes & Socks
Oxford shoes are the standard, but anything with a leather sole meant to be worn indoors exclusively will work. Black is best, but brown can pass muster, so long as you’re doing your matching like a maven. Your socks should be basic black and disappear into your pants no matter what position you’re in. You’re not there to show leg, however alluring you think your gams are.
Normally a pocket square is a luxury accessory. Here, it’s part of the ensemble. Even a basic white handkerchief folded up properly is better than going in with an empty pocket. You’ll look half-dressed.
Related reading: Best Summer Pants for Men
Though we stress dark colors, there’s always a few who feel the need to “express” themselves. That notion runs contrary to what cocktail attire is. You’re supposed to be blending in, because the focus of the event is what’s happening there, not you. If it’s a wedding, the bride and groom are the focus. At a funeral, it’s the family and the deceased. At fundraising events or performances, it’s the charity and/or performer(s). You’re supposed to blend in to help everyone enjoy. That’s the whole purpose.
If you want to strut your stuff, take it to the pub, the restaurant, or casual or semi-casual environment where everyone is busy looking at themselves.
How To Choose Cocktail Attire
Aside from the requirements listed above, there’s a few other things to know about picking your cocktail clothes. The key here is flexibility. You want to be ready to look natty with accessories and coloration, but you likewise want to be able to drop the facade. After all, most of the time you’ll be wearing this monkey suit to parties. Being able to remove your jacket, undo your tie, and cut a rug is part and parcel with your clothes.
No matter what the event is, consider the average wedding to be your standard. You need to look unremarkable for the ceremony, but still be comfortable enough for some popping and locking during the reception. It’s useful in this way because should you find yourself overdressed, all it takes is a couple of steps to get down to shirtsleeves and suit slacks.
When Is Cocktail Attire Appropriate
This is the first stumbling block that any man is going to encounter. Obviously, if you receive an invitation that specifically states ‘Cocktail Attire Req’d’ then that’s what you wear. But not every host or hostess is wise enough to know that their guests need some direction.
Weddings, funerals, operas, major fundraising events, and anything that has official invitations are generally considered to be worthy of cocktail attire. That is, only if the invitation doesn’t expressly state something else. When something is scheduled in advance and involving a large group of people, cocktail attire is to be assumed. Unless you know for a fact it’s a casual gathering.
The other time cocktail attire is to be considered is any event that you pay to get into. This doesn’t include movies, but does include live theater, classical music concerts or orchestral events. Singers or musical acts can vary widely, but tickets to the show will usually alert you if there is a dress code. Seeing pop stars or headbanging metal bands obviously doesn’t need a suit and tie.
Sport Coat Substitution
Many have asked if they can use a trouser/sport coat combination instead of a full suit. The answer is a definitive ‘maybe.’ If you have a nice dinner jacket and slacks, you’ll get by so long as you’re sticking with a tie and pocket square. Part of the point is to show respect to whomever or whatever you’re there to see. Dressing with that in mind will usually keep you on course.
No matter what’s on your body, you should be clean cut to whatever the maximum degree is. If you’ve got a beard, it needs to be combed down with stray hairs and neck growth shaven to control. Your hair should be well done. Though a lot of guys try to pull off the scruffy/sexy look, it’s a distraction. Moreover, it makes you seem slovenly and disrespectful, which is extremely likely to alienate those who primped properly.