Cocktail Dress Code Etiquette

Our Cocktail Dress Code Etiquette comes into it's full glory when we receive an invitation stating Cocktail Attire. It is one of those exciting moments when we are given the opportunity of looking our most glamorous! 

What constitutes a Cocktail Party nowadays? And have we lost the meaning of these types of social gatherings? They have, quite possibly, been replaced by drinks receptions; formal Cocktail Party invites seem to be fairly infrequent.

So for the purpose of this page, my guidance concerning Cocktail Dress Code Etiquette can be extended to smart social events where you are expected to dress well but not too formally.

Traditional vs Modern Cocktail Parties

Traditionally, a Cocktail Party was a party where, well, cocktails were served and cocktail dress code etiquette rules were strict. Historically they came about in circa 1920 when hosts would invite guests to their homes for a one/two hour period to enjoy drinks and canapés, giving the host a perfect opportunity to introduce friends to new people. 

The party would usually be planned prior to lunch or dinner, when afterwards the guests would move to another venue to dine. After all, you would be in need of a substantial meal after several martini cocktails!

Nowadays, many hotels and bars will host cocktail hours between 4pm and 6pm as a way of luring customers in, where they may stay for many hours.

However, this is not the same as a traditional Cocktail Party held at someone’s house, where you would be left in no doubt that the appropriate cocktail dress code etiquette should be adhered to and that lingering any longer than two hours would be outstaying your welcome.

Note that the concept of a Cocktail Party is to serve drinks and canapés for just a short while allowing time for mingling and chatting. If your guests are invited for a longer period than this, then you should be offering a full lunch or dinner.

I have been invited to several parties over the years where an endless supply of drinks were served, accompanied with just a few nibbles over the course of four/five hours resulting in a cocktail of too much booze and too little food! A Cocktail Party should encourage conversation not inebriation!

Christmas is an ideal time to host a Cocktail Party; a lovely cold crisp Sunday in December with a log fire, decorated Christmas tree and Nat King Cole playing in the background. Cocktails or champagne could be served with delicious canapés from twelve-two pm, giving everyone an opportunity to show off their cocktail dress code etiquette!

What should you wear to a Cocktail Party?

Cocktail dress code etiquette is a way of stating the dress code that is suitable for the evening; more formal than casual clothes and less formal than evening wear i.e. black tie. 

Cocktail Attire can also be stipulated for dinner parties and drinks parties so when purchasing an outfit for this type of occasion, try and work some versatility into your choice so you can be prepared for most events that may fall into this category.

Traditional cocktail dress code etiquette states that a dress’s length is to the knee, but nowadays you can go for something a little shorter if you wish. Short, strapless styles can look great on young ladies.

Just remember to keep it dressy and elegant, but not too formal. The appropriateness tends to be judged more on its sumptuousness rather than length so you should lean towards sensual fabrics like silk and crepe in good strong colours.

Your choice of fabric and style should also be appropriate to the season, for example, choose wool and wool blends in the winter, and satin, silk and fine-gauge knits for spring or summer.

If you are attending a Cocktail Party with your husband/partner then you should ensure you co-ordinate the level of formality of your outfits with his.

Over the years, I have spent many hours trawling the shops and internet looking for the perfect Cocktail Dress which is versatile enough to take me through different types of events.

Living in Central London I don’t have a huge amount of wardrobe space so any clothes I purchase must irstly be of good quality and secondly have adaptability to be dressed up or down.

Formal Cocktail Parties

The level of formality for Cocktail Attire can also alter dependant on the location, reason and season. For example, a pre-opera Cocktail Party would be more formal than an after work event.

A good indication as to the formality of the occasion is the type of invitation you receive – if it came by phone or email it is more likely to be a casual affair. If it’s a formal invite, especially from a Charity or Association, then you should consider it dressy.

The events most fun to dress for are weekend Cocktail Parties! Anything ranging from a shift dress with dressy shoes, to skinny cigarette trousers worn with a sik camisole.

You can’t of course beat the Little Black Dress for a Cocktail Party, teamed with bold jewellery or diamonds and don’t forget the big cocktail ring and cigarette holder, aka Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s! 

If you are pregnant and invited to a Cocktail Party you will want to ensure you look blooming. Tiffany Rose have a stunning range of dresses for every occasion.

And of course you will need to RSVP in the most appropriate manner, depending on the formality of the invite that you receive.

After work Cocktail Parties

If you are attending a Cocktail Party straight from work, try taking a smaller handbag for the evening, some sparkly jewellery and some evening shoes to change into.

Teamed with a black wool dress, this can transform your day to evening look with minimal effort. In summer you may wish to change into a spaghetti-strap dress with strappy sandals. 

If it’s a summer afternoon party then a simple A-Line Sun Dress is appropriate; for a summer evening event you may wish to choose more of an elegant ensemble.

Once you are happy with your Cocktail Dressode Etiquette, you can be confident that you look good and can now concentrate on mingling with the other guests, ensuring you are a charming guest and great conversationalist. 

And finally, don't forget to send your host a thank you note within 48 hours of the event.

Other Dress Code Etiquette to learn on this site:

Glove Etiquette

Funeral Dress Etiquette

Black Tie Dress Code

Royal Ascot Dress Code

Dress Code for an Interview

Diamonds for Different Occasions

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About The Author

The Author, Emma Dupont, runs various courses in London during the year.

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