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What is a cocktail dress code?

Updated March 23, 2017

Going out for social occasions often means dressing up. Events that call for cocktail dress usually occur during the evening rather than during the day. However, it's important to distinguish evening cocktail dress from other categories of evening attire. Although the categories of attire for evening social occasions overlap to some extent, there are distinctions.

Cocktail Dress Defined

Cocktail dress refers to dress-up attire for social occasions. Events for which cocktail attire is suitable range from holiday parties to singles get-togethers to upscale nightclubs. Cocktail dress is sometimes called "festival attire" or sometimes "creative black tie." Accessories, women's hairstyles and jewellery for cocktail dress are typically more flashy and distinctive than for other types of dress-up attire.

Cocktail Attire for Men

Cocktail dress code is often comparable to semi-formal attire; however, there are differences. For men, semi-formal attire is a suit or jacket, often with a vest, and a tie. Cocktail attire for men consists of a jacket with or without a tie, and slacks. The cut of cocktail attire for men is often more fashion-forward, and with bolder colours and patterns than semi-formal attire.

Cocktail Dress for Women

Cocktail attire for women has more emphasis on appeal to the opposite sex than semi-formal attire. Semi-formal attire for women calls for dresses below the knee but above floor length. Cocktail attire for women calls for knee length or shorter dresses, with more body-conscious fitting than with semi-formal dresses.

Cocktail Dress vs Formal Attire

Formal attire is either black tie or white tie. Either category calls for tuxedos or morning coats for men, and floor length for women. Formal attire is much too dressy for an occasion calling for cocktail attire. Men would almost never wear a tuxedo, nor would women wear a floor-length dress.

Cocktail Dress for Business Social Occasions

Cocktail dress is typically not suitable for business social occasions, unless it's toned down. Women should be especially careful about showing too much skin. Men should also concentrate on somewhat subdued colours and styles when dressing for an occasion that's a mix of business and socialising.

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About the Author

Chris Blank is an independent writer and research consultant with more than 20 years' experience. Blank specializes in social policy analysis, current events, popular culture and travel. His work has appeared both online and in print publications. He holds a Master of Arts in sociology and a Juris Doctor.