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The Ultimate Guide to Cocktail Attire

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Retailers

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We all think we know what “cocktail attire” means — it’s what you wear to a wedding or an evening event that’s less formal than black tie, right? Sure. That’s one way to look at it. But the lines of what constitutes cocktail are a bit blurry because there really are no strict rules about what makes something cocktail-appropriate (apart from maybe not showing up in an over-the-top ball gown). To simplify the cocktail-attire concept, there are certainly a few things to keep in mind when planning your look. As a pro wedding guest and seasoned cocktail-event attendee myself, I’m sharing a few tips and tricks to nailing this specific dress code.

From elegant dresses to stylish separates to standout accessories that are bound to set you apart from the rest, let the following selections be your contemporary guide to mastering the art of cocktail attire (which is especially important during holiday-party season).

Tip One: Find a Dress in an Elegant Fabric

Most people automatically default to a dress when they see the words “cocktail attire” on an invitation. It’s called a “cocktail dress” for a reason. Length doesn’t matter: a mini can be just as appropriate as something that skims the floor. The trick is to choose fabrics and or patterns that look refined — and more elegant than a basic cotton dress you run errands in. You want garments made of silk, chiffon, crepe, or something with a bold, rich pattern that feels luxe. Embellishments like swishy fringe, lace, and sequins are also a fabulous added touch.

If the Sugar Plum fairy is your inspiration for holiday attire this season, look further than this soft pink velvet mini dress. With chest and strap rhinestone lining, this is a dainty option for those who love velvet and prefer a subtle sparkle.

Available in sizes 0 - 12.

There’s nothing like a full-on sequin dress for holiday and cocktail events. This mesh midi is a classy conservative option that features a sweeping asymmetrical neckline. Who doesn’t love a cold shoulder?

Available in sizes 4 - 16.

A beautiful fabric can also mean an exquisite pattern, like this slightly off-the-shoulder floral dress by Agua Bendita. From the rich colors to the retro mid-century silhouette, you’re sure to turn heads. The dress can also double as a luxe formalwear look.

Available in sizes XS - XL.

If you’re feeling a little extra, get your shine on in this whimsical gold dress, designed in a similar fashion as Loeffler Randall’s popular pleated bowl sandal. With its voluminous puff sleeves, metallic pleated fabric, and beautiful open bow design back, you’re sure to make partygoers swoon.

Available in sizes 0 - 12.

This Ted Baker dress offers a cool twist on the classic slip dress; it’s still just as versatile but has a bit more elegance for cocktail night. The gently draped neckline and gilded floral print pattern evoke vintage glamour.

Available in sizes U.S. 2 - U.S. 10.

Mara Hoffman’s signature popcorn texture dress feels extra special when done in a bright red and paired with ruffle appliqué sleeves.

Available in sizes XXS - XXL.

Embrace the fringe trend with this ornate golden-brown one-shoulder dress by Farm Rio. Ideal for any fall cocktail event or just whenever you want to feel fall fabulous.

Available in sizes XXS - XL.

Sequins? Check. Glittering fringe? Check. The perfect party dress? Check. Be the star of the soirée in this sparkling Simkhai sheath that shimmies, shines, and is easy to wear (thanks to the tank-style pullover design).

Available in sizes 00 - 12.

It isn’t the holidays without some sequins and a pop of red. If you’re looking to make a statement in the color of the season, you can’t go wrong this Staud mini dress, which features a high-neck bow collar that ties in the back.

Available in sizes XS - XL.

This Rhode dress is made of a rich dark-green velvet that features a beautiful cream taffeta ruffled neckline. The voluminous sleeves are balanced with a figure-hugging midi-length silhouette, allowing for an alluring feminine vibe.

Available in sizes 0 - 14.

For those who love silk (and red), take your basic silk slip up a notch with this long-sleeved jacquard dress by Rixo. The elegant empire waist dress also has an open back detail; a fun surprise when you turn your back.

Available in sizes 2 - 16.

Tip Two: Find Transitional Cocktail Pieces That You Can Wear Outside the Party

You don’t have to wear a dress. In fact, you can wear anything from a flowy maxi skirt or sleek trousers to a chic blazer and a crisp silk top — versatile items that you can wear individually (and more casually) outside the champagne soirée! However, just like the tricks for a cocktail dress, you want to apply that same concept of finding elegant, refined statement pieces when styling separates for a cocktail look.

As one of the most easy and elegant fabrics out there, you can never go wrong with chiffon — this floor-length, flowing skirt is no different. It’s a beautiful option for both formal or cocktail attire, and this sheer skirt will add a bit of drama to your look.

Available in sizes 00 - 24

Yes, rosette’s are still trending. So if you love the 3-D floral trend, you’ll want to add this luster crepe halter top to your cart. With its detachable flower detail, this top is a versatile option that can easily be paired with everything from high-waisted slacks and a silk skirt to jeans for a more relaxed look.

Available in sizes 00 - 3X.

You’ve heard all about the Miu Miu hot pants, and now, the no-pants trend is hotter than ever. If you prefer the “no pants, no problem” look this season, sparkle in these cheeky sequin brief shorts. Pair them with some fun tights and a pair of heels and you’re all set for your next party!

Available in sizes XS -XL.

For those who can’t get enough of sheer chiffon and love the idea of a playful ruffled blouse, this Patbo top is a fun, fiery option to dress up or dress down. Pair it with a sequin skirt for your next cocktail event or jeans for a more laid-back look.

Available in sizes S-L.

If you’re going to wear sequin briefs this season, then you might as well sport a sequin bra too. Whether you pair it with a matching sequin skirt (or hot pants) or layer under a bold blazer, it’s sexy yet sophisticated and fashion-forward.

Available in sizes S-L.

A sleek structured blazer is always a great option for any cocktail look, especially one with satin lapels. Straight from Mango’s Party and Events collection, this wool one will look chic with just about anything, plus it will give your party ensemble a touch of sophistication.

Available in sizes XS-XL.

Think smoking jacket with an elegant twist. If you like the idea of loungewear that can be dressed up, you’ll love this robe-style jacket by Rose Room. It can be worn a number of ways: tied in the front, the back, or worn open with another layer, plus it can easily transition from the office to the party. Complete the look with the matching silk trousers.

Available in sizes XS-XL.

If you’re looking for a black top that isn’t basic, try playing with shape and structure. This Tibi top has a semi off-the-shoulder neckline and peplum-like silhouette, which feels unexpected and elevated.

Available in sizes 0-14.

Festive fringe for the holidays? A must! People are sure to do a double-take when you walk into your holiday party wearing this high-waist crepe midi skirt from Tayna Taylor style.

Available in sizes 0-14 XXL.

One of my favorite tops that I own. From jeans to fitted and flowy skirts, it looks amazing with just about anything.

Available in sizes XXS - XXXL.

Splurge-worthy sparkles for those who are shamelessly extra.

Available in sizes 2 - 12.

A mockneck top serves so many different fashion purposes and can be easily styled with any of the bottom selections listed here.

Available in sizes XS - XXL.

Powersuit style pants are always a statement, especially if they’ve got a stunning satin shine.

Available in sizes 0 - 12.

Just like silk pants and skirts, silk tops are always a good idea and can easily transition from day to night.

Available in sizes 00 - 16.

Applying the same glittering texture from its famed swimwear to its ready-to-wear garments, Oséree always delivers fun, feathered pieces that can go from the beach to the party — and this golden Plumage shirt with feathered cuffs is exactly that. Pair it with the matching skirt or pants and you’ve got yourself a festive holiday ensemble.

Available in sizes S-M, M-L.

Tip 3: Your Shoes Should Demand Attention — But Not Too Much

Now that fancy flats and sensible block heels are trendy, you don’t necessarily have to wear stilettos to your next party. Thank God. If you’re opting for a kitten-heel or lower mule style, try something with a bold color or embellishment. Especially if you plan to wear a classic black ensemble, adding a pop of color or sparkle with footwear is always a good idea. If you’re a tried and true Carrie Bradshaw stiletto girl, go ahead and rock those sky-high heels while keeping in mind that the opposite rings true for party pumps — the simpler, the better.

Mary Janes are back! These metallic patent pumps are the perfect party shoe for your next event.

Available in sizes 6-10.

Everyone needs a good pair of strappy sandals for cocktail and formal events alike. And with a 3.5 inch heel, these are the best for when you want a reasonable (and comfortable) height.

Available in sizes 6 - 11.5.

Look familiar? Whether you wear just the bow shoes, or pair the heels with the brand’s matching bow dress, you’ll certainly be cocktail ready with these pretty pleats.

Available in sizes 5 - 11.5.

If you’re going to invest in a luxe slingback style, make it these embellished crystal Gucci shoes. Every time I wear these babies out, no matter what outfit I pair them with, the compliments are immediately directed toward my feet.

Available in sizes IT35 - IT42.

Fancy flats are a great solution for those who aren’t too keen on spending the night in painful heels. These Reformation silk and rhinestone flats are a more affordable choice for fans of the balletcore trend and well, comfort.

Available in sizes 5 - 11.

If you’re into classic stilettos, go for these Aquazzura pumps. A favorite of Meghan Markle, being royally chic in the nude or black heels.

Available in sizes EU34 - 42.

Satin, sparkling, and sustainable? What more could you ask for in formal footwear?

Available in sizes 5-12.

Tip 4: Your Bag Should Be Teeny (If Not, Statement)

Bringing a “gargantuan bag” to a sophisticated soirée is a major faux pas. Just ask Succession’s Mathew Macfadyen a.k.a. Tom Wambsgans. Luckily we’re still living in the era of the mini bag — the best accessory for all your fancy occasions. While clutches remain the default accessory of choice, the recent tiny-bag trend has spawned a wealth of options from silk pouches to structured miniature purses and embellished top handle bags. If you want to go a little larger (let’s say a step up from mini so you can fit more than one lipgloss and your phone), make sure to keep it elegant, dainty, and of course, statement.

If you’re looking for a statement top handle bag that fits a lot of stuff (we’re talking phone, mini wallet, various makeup items, and even a pair of sunglasses), this small (but not super mini) metallic bag is exactly what you need.

If you love the idea of a sequin dress during the holiday season, why not accessorize your look with a sequin bag? You can even match the bag with J.Crew’s silver sequin mini.

A velvet bag to go with your velvet dress, perhaps? This Tory Burch mini flap purse, which features a quilted velvet design and embellished charms, is the party bag you’ll want to wear all season long.

This clutch is essentially wearable metallic art. The unique, sculptural shape will be a total conversation-starter at your next holiday party.

Carry it as a clutch or by its chained straps, either way this glittering flower-shaped bag from Mango’s events collection is a must-have.

Do you really need to spend a ton of money on a special events bag? Not really. Amazon has plenty of affordable options like this ornate black-and-gold rhinestone clutch.

Turn heads with this glittering crystal fringe bag by Retrofête. Featuring tiers of crystal strands, you can sport the bag on your shoulder or carry it as a top-handle accessory.

The bow trend is here to stay, and we can’t get enough of it. When paired with sequins and the color of the season, it’s game over.

Tip 5: When It Comes to Earrings, Go Big

Apart from shoes and a great handbag, your outfit is never complete without some jewelry. Necklaces are fine but earrings, given their placement, accentuate the face and help to fully balance a cocktail look, especially when there’s added sparkle involved. Whether you’re into standout geometric shapes, botanical-inspired clip-ons, classic gold hoops, or dangling rhinestone dusters, with these options, you won’t need much else to top off your outfit.

Floral earrings are always a statement-making staple, especially when you add a pave sparkle.

In addition to flowers, shells have become another popular bauble design. But if you wan a more sculptural shell option, these standout sterling-silver clip-ons are sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

Channel your inner goddess with these silver hoops shaped like a female body and inspired by the Goddess of Baubo, who represents a powerful and liberating force of female sexuality.

A twist on the classic gold hoop, these large ribbon-style earrings have a technically simple design but certainly make a bold statement.

Whether you see them as festive ornament baubles or mini disco balls, these funky drop earrings are the ideal statement accessories to top off any fun party or cocktail look.

When it comes to handbags and shoes, Tory Burch reigns supreme. But if you’re not as familiar with the brand’s jewelry line, these crystal drop earrings that are intertwined with the designer’s signature T emblem are a good place to start.

For the ultimate sparkle, these fierce fringe earrings equipped with strands of crystals are simply a must for any statement-making look.

Chunky, geometric earnings are all the rage right now. And if you’re over the popular teardrop and heart shapes, try these vintage-inspired rectangle style studs.

Tip 6: A *Good* LBD Never Fails

Circling back to where it all began. Of course, you can never go wrong with a fabulous cocktail dress, especially a great little black number. But just because you choose black, doesn’t mean it has to be boring. There’s a wide range of elevated LBD styles out there, but to narrow down the madness, here’s a selection of trendy and chic black options that’ll make other guests wish they, too, went for a LBD.

It’s no secret that H&M and Rabanne’s recent collaboration was one of the most coveted launched of the year. The collection consists of a lot of metallics, sequins, and bold printed pieces, but this LBD is one of the hidden gems.

Available in sizes XXS-XXL.

With its off-the-shoulder neckline, featuring the white peek-a-boo undergarment illusion top, this dress is the epitome of sexy chic. Not to mention, the stretch cotton fabric also means it’s comfortable!

Available in sizes XS - XL.

Didn’t think chiffon and knit would be a good mix? Think again. This slimming mockneck dress with romantic voluminous sleeves and jersey knit body is a beyond elegant look that could be worn to cocktail events every season, year round.

Available in sizes P - XL.

If you’re a fan of velvet, this slinky drop shoulder dress is the alluring ensemble you’ve been looking for.

Available in sizes XXS - XL.

Everybody loves a sexy slip, especially one with sequined embellishments. Look effortlessly chic and sexy in this contrast satin effect slip dress with sequin appliqué detail.

Available in sizes XS-XL.

Staud has mastered the art of the mod mini — and this two-toned belle sleeve number is the perfect example. While the boat neck dress might feature a short skirt, the design features extra long, white flared-cuff sleeves, which add a trendy vibe to the otherwise timeless style.

Available in sizes XS - XL.

If you want a strapless dress to wear this season, make it this romantic velvet sheath. With a tiny white ruffle detail around the straight neckline and a tiered chiffon bottom, this mix-material choice offers a feminine aesthetic.

Available in sizes 0-12.

Elevate your LBD with some sparkles and try this sequined dress by Cara Cara. An ideal cocktail choice for the colder months, the effortless turtleneck is designed in the brand’s stretch sequin fabric and features a tie waist belt.

Available in sizes XXS-XL.

The Ultimate Guide to Cocktail Attire