Cocktail attire, sometimes also referred to as semi-formal, is one of the most classic wedding dress codes, and it can be seen far and wide, from church and city hall weddings to backyard and beach wedding ceremonies. It’s a safe bet for couples who would like their attendees to dress up a bit, without the event feeling too stuffy. It also gives a wedding guest attendees a lot of freedom so that they don’t feel like they have to go buy a new outfit something to wear for the big day.
So, what exactly does cocktail attire encompass? Though many retailers will likely have their own guide or reference (such as this one by BHLDN or this one by The Black Tux), we’ve put together a few tips for achieving the ideal cocktail dress code look.
As with almost all wedding attire, fairly modest necklines and longer hemlines are generally wise choices, particularly if the ceremony is taking place in a religious setting. A form-fitting dresses, a dressy jumpsuit,s and or pantsuits are generally acceptable—just use your best judgment and discretion, which includes ensuring that no undergarments are visible (whether intentional or not). If you wouldn’t want someone to wear a particular item or style at your wedding, it’s probably not a wise choice.
Although there’s plenty of room to get creative and show some personality with a cocktail dress code, you always want to make sure that you’re not trying to outshine the couple. Instead of wearing a sparkly, red dress or bright, floral suit jacket, maybe opt for showy earrings or shoes, instead. The same thing goes for wearing white (or shades of white), which is a definite no-no in most cases.
As an addendum to the above, if the couple isn’t particularly traditional, you can expect that their wedding probably won’t be. Your friend who’s a fashion designer in New York City is likely going to have a different style wedding than that of your cousin in rural Oregon, even if both invitations request cocktail attire. Whether they’re family or friends, you know the couple best and can use resources such as their wedding websites and invitations as clues toward the vibe and formality of the event.
Clutches and dainty crossbody bags always feel more wedding-ready than an oversize purse or satchel. When it comes to footwear, heels and cap toe shoes will generally feel more formal than flats or loafers. These are all fashion tips to keep in mind as you plan your overall wedding cocktail attire look. For example, you might decide to dress up a casual wedding attire dress with a glamorous clutch, or perhaps dress down a silk pantsuit with a more casual pair of shoes. Cocktail attire can cover a lot of ground, so don’t be afraid to accessorize accordingly.
A long-sleeved, fitted shift and heels might be the perfect pick for a winter wedding ceremony at city hall, but might feel totally out of place at a summer wedding on the or beach wedding. Though dress codes are important, it’s also crucial to make sure that you’ll be comfortable for the four or five hours that you’ll be celebrating. For a winter weddings, this might mean bringing along a sleek jacket or faux-fur shawl. As for venues, make sure that you consider what kind of ground you might be walking on. Beach wedding attire has some obstacles. Stilettos don’t mix well with sand or lawns, so for backyard, beach, and barn weddings, flats or wedges are often the wiser choice.
For couples planning weddings, it’s important to understand that dress codes translate differently depending on the person. For example, some attendees might consider cocktail a step above semi-formal attire, while others may decipher semi-formal attire as something closer to black tie formal optional. While dress codes may seem like the best way to convey attire expectations, it’s always nice to have a little blurb or supplementary description on your wedding website, too. It could say something as simple as: “Wear something you’d wear to a fancy restaurant in the summer” or “Dress as you would to a company cocktail party.”
Lastly, even when expectations feel clear, there’s no harm in being overdressed. If you’re trying to decide between a tie or no tie, simply veer on the side of caution or bring one along, just in case. If you’re bouncing between a flowy summer dress and a slightly more formal shift, maybe go for the latter (or accessorize in a way that makes the look more sophisticated).