What To Wear To A Cocktail Party

Cocktail parties comes in all shapes and sizes, but many of them require you to dress it up a bit.

So, you've been invited to a cocktail party (or you hope you will be) and you really don't know what to wear. The bad news is that there is no pat answer to the question. Cocktail parties vary widely in formality and thus there is no single type of attire that will cover all such engagements. The good news is that there should be some big clues on what you should wear based on your invitation.

But before we get into some of the specific types of cocktail parties, here is a common rule of thumb for most of them: Men should wear a suit and tie and women should wear any elegant-looking dress that isn't a formal gown. At most cocktail parties, skirt length can be anything that the woman finds personally comfortable (although super-short micro-mini-skirts could send entirely the wrong message).

In terms of accessories, realize that for most functions, a woman's handbag doesn't need to match her dress fabric. Also, it doesn't have to be plain. Many women prefer simple styles of handbag, but if you want to bring a fancier one with adornments, that is fine at most cocktail parties.

Now that we've talked about what is the "common rule," let's talk about two specific types of cocktail parties with different rules. These are the two most formal of parties: the "black tie" and "white tie" events.

Black tie means that men must wear tuxedo attire, no exceptions. Women have a bit more flexibility, though, at such events. Any nice outfit with just about any length of skirt (that at least leaves something to the imagination) will work. A short black dress or a longer, elegant gown take your pick of those or anything in-between. Dressier suits and silk pants and beaded or sequined tops works well also. While silks and satins are good for women in a "black tie" context, almost any nice medium to lightweight woven or stretchy fabric works well. Accessories can dress up any outfit the woman thinks might be too simple (whether nice jewelry or nice shoes).

But there's a kind of party that is even more formal than black tie, and that is white tie events. In this context, men won't wear a tuxedo. Instead, he'll wear a black tailcoat and black pants along with a white shirt, white tie and white vest. Women still have somewhat more variety than men, but their choices are much more constrained in a white tie context. They must wear long, formal dresses. This time, there is no flexibility in skirt length; long is the requirement.

Now that the most formal events are out of the way, a few other tips:

If you were invited to the event via telephone or e-mail, it's probably a more casual affair, possibly even casual enough that you can wear clothes similar to "business casual" attire. Receiving a formal invitation in the mail means it's more likely the event is fancier. In such cases, if the invitation doesn't specify the type of attire, you should inquire.

For winter or fall, wool and wool blends are good materials. For spring and summer, fine knits, silk, satin and rayon work well.

For women attending a cocktail party outdoors in the afternoon, particularly in warm weather months, a printed sundress often is the best choice.

In terms of terminology, formal often means the same as black tie. Ultra-formal usually means white tie. Black tie optional means is very similar to black tie but the man can wear a dark suit and a tie instead of a tux if he likes. Semi-formal can be tricky. It might be more toward black tie or might be more toward black tie optional. But generally, your safe with a nice dark suit in such cases.

© High Speed Ventures 2011