How does cocktail party attire differ from formal attire?

Written by maggie hira
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How does cocktail party attire differ from formal attire?
(tux black tie shirt groom greens vest formal wear image by Paul Retherford from

A cocktail party is a semi-formal event where drinks and light hors d'oeurves are served. Although guests can dress in several different styles, a general rule of thumb is that all men wear a casual suit and tie, and all women wear a beautiful dress that is just short of being a formal gown. Most cocktail dresses are mid-thigh to knee-length and come in a range of colours accessorised with heels, fine jewellery and a small handbag. Many women opt for the classic little black dress--a simple and elegant look for any party and especially appropriate for a cocktail party. Men can wear a light- or dark-coloured suit and tie, but a jacket is not mandatory.

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Formal Attire

Formal attire is worn to fancier events such as weddings, private dinners or debutante balls. Formal attire can be either black tie or white tie. Black tie attire consists of a tuxedo and bow tie for men and an elegant gown for women. White tie attire consists of a black coattail jacket, black trousers, a white shirt and tie, and white vest. Women must wear floor-length gowns, as shorter dresses are unacceptable. Formal attire is extremely strict with distinct guidelines, and any guest who deviates from them is considered to have poor etiquette.

How They Differ

Cocktail party attire is much more casual than formal attire. Women can wear dresses and skirts of various lengths and even have the option of wearing dressy trousers with a sequinned top. Men are not required to wear a tuxedo or dinner jacket, and light-coloured suits are popular and accepted. During more formal events, light-coloured suits for men are unacceptable, and a dinner jacket must be worn at all times. In fact, removal of the dinner jacket is bad etiquette. Women have much less leeway when it comes to the length of their dresses or skirts. Knee-length gowns are acceptable during black tie events; however, white tie events call for floor-length gowns. Thus, cocktail parties are considered lighter, less fanciful events due to the much more casual dress code, whereas formal parties are limited to strict dress codes and etiquette codes.

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