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The Ultimate Guide to Cocktail Attire

We all think we know what “cocktail attire” means — it’s what you wear to a wedding that’s not black-tie, right? There are no strict rules about what makes something cocktail-appropriate, but you do want to keep a few things in mind when planning your outfit. Scroll on for our guide to cocktail attire, from dresses and jumpsuits to shoes and bags.

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. Length doesn’t matter: a mini can be just as appropriate as something that skims the floor. The trick is to choose fabrics that look refined, like silk, chiffon, crepe, or velvet. Embellishments like swishy fringe, lace and sequins are great for amping things up. Avoid cotton sundresses unless you can zhuzh them up with really fancy accessories like sparkly earrings or shiny new shoes.

A Sunny Option

John Zack Plus Off Shoulder Ruffle Midi Dress
$27 at ASOS

Take advantage of the warm weather and go for a seasonal yellow shade. Extra points if you pair it with equally colorful shoes.
Available sizes 14-24.

For Flower Lovers

Farrow Julia Floral High-Low Dress
$39 at Need Supply

Not ready to dive into prairie-core but still love the idea of something with a feminine, homespun appeal? Try this ruffly number and dress it up with metallic sandals.
Available sizes small–large.

A Sophisticated Fall Option

Jacquard-weave Dress
$60 at H&M

The deep V-neck and wrap silhouette make this ideal for the inevitable September heatwave.
Available sizes 0–14.

The Sexy One

By the Way Preston Mesh Mock Neck Dress
$66 at Revolve

If you want to show off, this is the dress for you. Take a cue from the way it’s styled in the image above and elongate your legs with barely there sandals.
Available sizes xxsmall–xlarge.

The Year-Round Option

Ruffle Front Dress
$50 at Eloquii

A flouncy red number can work equally well for the summer wedding season or the holiday party circuit.
Available sizes 14–28.

$50 at Eloquii
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The Cold-Weather Option

Td True Decadence Short Velvet Dress
$85 at Yoox

Shimmery silver velvet is a bit too heavy for summer, but it’ll feel appropriately festive by the time September rolls around. Save this for all of your end-of-year parties.
Available sizes xsmall–large.

The Cocktail Caftan

Scalloped Mock Neck Maxi Dress
$89 at & Other Stories

Yes, you can wear a caftan to a fancy party! Just choose a brightly colored style and add sparkly flats.
Available sizes 0–6.

A Flowy Summertime Option

Asymmetrical Flowy Midi Dress
$89 at & Other Stories

Tan summer skin deserves a dress to show it off, like this golden yellow number. Wear it to a cocktail party with drop earrings and heels, then recycle it for day with slide sandals.
Available sizes 0–10.

The Easy, Pretty Wrap Dress

Cooper St Marilyn Satin Faux Wrap Dress
$170 at Nordstrom

A faux wrap dress means you won’t have any wardrobe malfunctions while still remaining on-trend.
Available sizes 14w–24w.

If You Want Something Unusual

ASOS DESIGN Curve embroidered midi dress with tie dye fringe
$119 at ASOS

Swingy fringe coupled with a bold floral pattern is a nice way to stand out in a sea of jewel-toned cocktail dresses.
Available sizes 12–18.

If You Want Something Sweet

ASOS CURVE Long Sleeve Lace Midi Prom Dress
$95 at ASOS

While it’s not quite melodramatic purple, this long-sleeved lace dress is a close cousin of the trendy color. Take a cue from the way it’s styled and play up the iciness with silver sandals.
Available sizes 12–24.

Because You Only Wear Black

City Chic Amour Cold Shoulder Lace Sheath Dress
$139 at Nordstrom

Just because you only wear black doesn’t mean your dress has to be boring. Try this lacy number with a sweetheart neckline and off-the-shoulder sleeves for a romantic look.
Available sizes xsmall–xxlarge.

A Colorful Dress for the Holidays

CINQ À SEPT Ruffled floral-print silk-satin dress
$262 at The Outnet

The velvet trim and moody shade feels heavy for August, but come November, it will stand out in a sea of black.
Available sizes 0–10.

For the Star of the Party

X by NBD DESDEMONDA EMBELLISHED MIDI DRESS
$298 at Revolve

This dress has everything: a sexy V-neck back, a high slit, color, and sparkle. Make sure to tone down the accessories to keep all the focus on your shimmering dress.
Available sizes xxsmall–large.

Tip Two: You Can Also Wear a Jumpsuit

You don’t have to wear a dress to a cocktail party when pants are equally appropriate, especially in the form of a jumpsuit. Again, the same rules apply: No cotton or anything that skews too athleisure. Look for styles that accentuate the waist, and don’t be afraid of pattern or bold colors.

When You Want to Stand Out

ASOS DESIGN Curve jumpsuit with super wide leg
$67 at ASOS

Want something dramatic? The super-wide legs coupled with the bright orange shade make this perfect for a big entrance.
Available sizes 12–24.

The Instagram-Ready One

BB Dakota R.S.V.P. by BB Dakota Saba Jumpsuit
Photo: 18-04-30 lauralove AM1 B2 raypfeiffer W
BB Dakota R.S.V.P. by BB Dakota Saba Jumpsuit
$81 at Shopbop

Swing left, swing right, and boom — you have the perfect Boomerang.
Available sizes 0–10.

Because Black Is Always Chic

Kimono Sleeve Jumpsuit
$63 at Eloquii

All you need are sparkly earrings and a great pair of heels.
Available sizes 14–28.

$63 at Eloquii
Buy
with code: NEEDNOW

A Stylish Alternative to Black

Eliza J Ruffle Detail Crepe Jumpsuit
$168 at Nordstrom

Deep navy is just as sophisticated and would look especially nice with gold accessories.
Available sizes 14w–22w.

The Trendy Jumpsuit

One Shoulder Jumpsuit with Fringe Detail
$85 at Eloquii

How do you translate the fancy robe trend into something you can wear to a cocktail party? Make it a one-shoulder jumpsuit with a fringe trim.
Available sizes 14–28.

$85 at Eloquii
Buy
with code: NEEDNOW

The Most Versatile Option

Amanda Uprichard Cherri Jumpsuit
$207 at Amazon

If you’re looking for something flattering, chic, and versatile enough to wear multiple times, get this one.
Available sizes xsmall–large.

If You Love Flowers

Yumi Kim Hot to Trot Jumpsuit
Photo: 18-07-09 micalbockru AM2 B9 benbrubaker W
Yumi Kim Hot to Trot Jumpsuit
$258 at Shopbop

It’s summer, so you might as well just lean into this print.
Available sizes xxsmall–large.

Tip Three: Your Bag Should Be Teeny

Fans of roomy handbags take note: a large slouchy tote is out of place at more formal affairs. You’ll need to downsize and bring the bare minimum. 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 to downsized cross-body slings, you can mix it up and wear whatever works best with your dress.

The Fancy Cheap Find

Jubileens Evening Velvet Clutch
$13 at Amazon

This simple black clutch looks more expensive than its $13 price tag, especially when you remove the chain strap.

If You Prefer a Handle

ASOS DESIGN Marble Clutch Bag With Metal Handle
$45 at ASOS

Not into squishing a clutch awkwardly at your side when you’re trying to use both hands? Slip your wrist through this handle.

A Pretty Cross Body Style

Black Satin Bow Bag
$50 at Spring

A hands-free bag can be appropriate for a cocktail party if it’s in a nice fabric. The bow detail here reinforces that this is meant for formal occasions.

The Trendy Pouch

Mango Satin Fringed Bag
$30 at Spring

Instagram is filled with swingy little pouches like this fringe number. Here’s your chance to get one for cheap.

For the Minimalist

Like Dreams Valyn Marbled Box Clutch
$61 at Nordstrom

Wearing a black dress or jumpsuit? Try a hard marble clutch to break up the dark palette — without killing the minimalist vibe.

The Instagram-Friendly Option

Shrimps Domenica faux-pearl embellished clutch
$192 at Matches Fashion

Beaded bags are another social media-friendly trend, especially ones by British brand Shrimps. While the one influencers love isn’t on sale, this one is just as good and marked down.

A True Conversation Starter

Ted Baker London Loop Bow Feather Evening Bag
$131 at Nordstrom

Everyone will want to touch this fluffy clutch.

The One You Can Use as Styling Trick

Serpui Marie Adele Round Clutch
Photo: 18-02-15 Accessories PM1 B9 phillee W
Serpui Marie Adele Round Clutch
$160 at Shopbop

While this round clutch in peacock blue will amp up a black dress, a truly pro stylist will play it off more unusual colors like citron yellow, bright red, or even hot pink.

The Cool Girl Bag

Maryam Nassir Zadeh Matilda Bag
Photo: 18-05-30 Accessories AM1 B8 toddmaughan W
Maryam Nassir Zadeh Matilda Bag
$340 at Shopbop

By Solange-approved downtown New York staple Maryam Nassir Zadeh of course.

Tip Four: 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. But if you do opt for lower styles, look for ones with bold color or embellishment. And if you decide that you can’t be parted from your sky-high heels, the opposite rings true — the simpler, the better.

A Versatile Pair of Sandals

Sam Edelman Ariella Sandals
Photo: 17-12-27 Accessories PM1 B2 tedketterhagen W
Sam Edelman Ariella Sandals
$50 at Shopbop

Simple enough to go with everything from denim to floral skirts to your favorite black dress.

If You Love a Statement Shoe

Vince Camuto Stellima Tassel Sandal
$71 at Nordstrom

The bright fuchsia and swingy tassels make these bold without being tacky.

If You Love Jumpsuits and Caftans

Steve Madden Trace Slide
Photo: AUSTRIA
Steve Madden Trace Slide
$80 at Nordstrom

Glittery slides give the look a glamorous louche vibe.

If You Hate High Heels

Strappy Heeled Block Sandals
$95 at & Other Stories

These will give you a bit of height but won’t leave you limping in pain.

If You Love the Olsens’ Style

J. Crew Sophia Mule
$128 at Nordstrom

The Row makes a similar-looking mule for much more money.

If You Want a Party Shoe

Raye Corsa Heel
Photo: BUTAWAN
Raye Corsa Heel
$148 at Revolve

Sexy enough to wear with a mini for a night out, but equally appropriate with a calf length dress for a wedding.

Because You Love Sparkle

Jeffrey Campbell Lillian Heel
Photo: NALAGON
Jeffrey Campbell Lillian Heel
$150 at Revolve

What’s better than twinkling rhinestones on your feet?

A Super-Fun Pair of Black Flats

Suecomma Bonnie Chiffon Ruffle Slides
Photo: 18-03-15 Accessories AM1 B1 tedketterhagen W
Suecomma Bonnie Chiffon Ruffle Slides
$224 at Shopbop

Between the frills and the rhinestone trim, these black sandals feel almost fancier than statement heels.

Non-Boring Pumps

Kate Spade New York Lasalle Point Toe Pumps
Photo: 18-05-25 Accessories AM1 B1 andrewyonda W
Kate Spade New York Lasalle Point Toe Pumps
$278 at Shopbop

Polka-dot mesh and a patent bow means they won’t be mistaken for your work shoes.

Because You Love Color

Loeffler Randall Celeste Velvet Mules
$350 at Saks Fifth Avenue

You might think these low-heeled green velvet mules are more appropriate for the holiday party circuit, but the shade is pale enough to be worn year round.

The Investment Pair

Stuart Weitzman Nudistsong Ankle Strap Sandal
$398 at Stuart Weitzman

Stylists and celebs adore Stuart Weitzman’s signature minimal sandals — they won’t fight for attention when you’re wearing a flashy dress. They’re well-worth the investment whether you go for beige or black.

Tip Five: When It Comes to Earrings, Go Big

We’re living in a golden age of danglers, so why would you want to wear any other jewelry? Whether we’re talking about rhinestone shoulder dusters, colorful hoops, or extravagant clip-on baubles, you need little else to finish off your outfit.

The Dramatic Shoulder-Dusters

Cristabelle Graduated Fringe Drop Earrings
$30 at Nordstrom

Shamelessly extra.

For the Phoebe Philo Fan

Calpurnia Drop Earrings
$38 at Baublebar

Céline vibes without the price tag.

Because Hoops Are Trending

Ettika x Revolve Hoop Earrings
Photo: DIANO
Ettika x Revolve Hoop Earrings
$35 at Revolve

This acrylic pair feels especially current with a sleek slip dress.

Because You Love Color

Cassielle Drop Earrings
$42 at Baublebar

The complementary gems are delightfully gaudy and meant to be worn with an colorful dress.

Non-Basic Hoops

Ben-Amun Gold-tone stone hoop earrings
$56 at The Outnet

Trendy yet sculptural. They would look equally good with your daytime clothes, too.

For the Minimalist Who Likes a Bit of Flash

Elizabeth and James Gold-plated mother-of-pearl earrings
$61 at The Outnet

The sleek design is a striking complement to a simple, well-cut black dress.

The Artsy Pair

Gold Standard Asymmetrical Earrings
$68 at Kate Spade

A wearable spin on Calder’s signature mobiles.

The Show-Stoppers

Kenneth Jay Lane Gunmetal-tone crystal clip earrings
$75 at The Outnet

Big, dramatic, and sparkly enough that you can wear a basic black dress and still stand out.

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The Ultimate Guide to Cocktail Attire