party time

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

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

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

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

The Sexy One

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

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

The Cold-Weather Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: 18-04-30 lauralove AM1 B2 raypfeiffer W

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

Because Black Is Always Chic

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

A Stylish Alternative to Black

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

The Trendy Jumpsuit

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.

The Most Versatile Option

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

Photo: 18-07-09 micalbockru AM2 B9 benbrubaker W

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

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

If You Prefer a Handle

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

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

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

For the Minimalist

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

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

Everyone will want to touch this fluffy clutch.

The One You Can Use as Styling Trick

Photo: 18-02-15 Accessories PM1 B9 phillee W

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

Photo: 18-05-30 Accessories AM1 B8 toddmaughan W

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

Photo: 17-12-27 Accessories PM1 B2 tedketterhagen W

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

If You Love a Statement Shoe

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

If You Love Jumpsuits and Caftans


Glittery slides give the look a glamorous louche vibe.

If You Hate High Heels

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

If You Love the Olsens’ Style

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

If You Want a Party Shoe


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


What’s better than twinkling rhinestones on your feet?

A Super-Fun Pair of Black Flats

Photo: 18-03-15 Accessories AM1 B1 tedketterhagen W

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

Non-Boring Pumps

Photo: 18-05-25 Accessories AM1 B1 andrewyonda W

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

Because You Love Color

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

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

For the Phoebe Philo Fan

Céline vibes without the price tag.

Because Hoops Are Trending

Photo: DIANO

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

Because You Love Color

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

Non-Basic Hoops

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

For the Minimalist Who Likes a Bit of Flash

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

The Artsy Pair

A wearable spin on Calder’s signature mobiles.

The Show-Stoppers

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

If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

The Ultimate Guide to Cocktail Attire