Special events can offer an exciting opportunity to whip out a new outfit — after all, it’s not every day we get the chance to wear our favorite party dress and heels.
So when you get an invitation that reads “cocktail attire,” it can feel like the perfect occasion to express yourself in creative new ways … until you can’t decide what to wear.
Because, as fun as it sounds, dressing in cocktail attire can also be overwhelming.
But there’s no need to fret, I’m here to walk you through the basics. From budget tips to clothing staples, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about dressing for a cocktail party.
What is cocktail attire?
Cocktail attire denotes a type of dress for evening parties and functions that requires women to wear a semi-formal dress, skirt, or pants. Cocktail events provide an opportunity to dress up and style yourself to look both classy and festive, and can leave you with a lot of room for creativity. That being said, there are some general rules when it comes to dressing for a cocktail event, and it’s important to understand what’s appropriate.
Perhaps the most common outfit choice for a cocktail event is a dress. But cocktail party dresses can’t just be anything — there are some general style and length rules that are necessary to know.
Cocktail dresses should not be confused with floor-length gowns, mini summer dresses, or low-cut ultra revealing party dresses. Remember: cocktail events are different from a girls’ night out, and a good a rule of thumb is to not wear something you wouldn’t want your boss to see you in.
So, when it comes to choosing a dress length, it’s good to go for a midi, or mini dress (depending on the cut) that finishes at or above the knees. Going any shorter or longer puts you at risk of either underdressing, or going overboard.
Dress color & style
While it’s important to not underdress for a cocktail event, it’s also important to not overdress. In other words, a cocktail event is not a totally formal gathering, so feel free to have fun with your outfit!
Cocktail attire can be fun, adventurous, and creative. Choosing a dress with nice embellishments, including lace, or patterned details, can be the perfect way to remain semi-formal while also expressing your individual style. And if detailed designs aren’t your thing, try going for a pop of color, or a unique cut.
Don’t worry if you’re not a dress kind of girl — there are alternatives. Another great option for cocktail events are skirts! As far as length is concerned, skirts should follow the same rule as dresses and, for the most part, fall at or above the knee. Skirts can be lacy, flowy, or silky and can either be simple and paired with a fun top, or detailed and paired with a simple top.
Cocktail pans & sets
If you have a closet full of pants and no cute dresses, fear not. Pants will do.
In fact, wearing pants to a cocktail event can be a very stylish statement — if you do it right. For instance, wearing a chic two-piece dress suit, a slick jumpsuit, or some stylishly cut pants can be a great way to look both sleek and fun. But wearing a plain pair of slacks with a boring blouse can be a little underwhelming — so be sure to have fun with it! If you have an all-black pants/shirt combo or jumpsuit, try adding a pop of color with earrings, shoes, or a handbag.
From pumps to pointy toe, cocktail events offer the perfect opportunity to break out your favorite pair of heels. The shoes you wear can either make or break the outfit, so it’s important to make a conscious (and comfortable) choice when picking out a pair of heels. For instance, if you’re wearing all black, try adding a little color with a red or white heel. But if you’re wearing an embellished dress, you might want to keep the shoes a little more simple. Cocktail events are fun and stylish, but you don’t want to overdo it. So, try to avoid wearing heels that are visibly hard to walk in, or are distracting from the rest of your outfit.
Jewelry can be the perfect flourish to any cocktail attire outfit. Cocktail attire jewelry should be semi-formal, and can vary based on the rest of your look. For example, adding some sparkly earrings, or a colorful necklace, can dress up any simple outfit to make you look more festive and chic. Or, oppositely, adding some pretty, simple pieces can add a little daintiness to a fiercer looking outfit.
On a budget? No problem!
Even though cocktail attire is often perceived as being expensive or out of reach (especially on a college budget), it doesn’t have to be!
With the right resources, buying cocktail attire in college won’t put you in a financial hole. Ever hear of a thing called student discounts? Notable brands like BCBG, LOFT, Kenneth Cole, Topshop and Steve Madden offer a generous student discount (10-15%), and have great sales where you can save even up to 80%. You can also check out department stores like Macy’s, which offers some pretty incredible deals on the latest fashion trends and styles.
If you still can’t find what you want, check out The University Network for student discounts and other deals. TUN’s Student Save Engine is designed to save students money. You can also earn TUN Tokens when you shop at participating brands, which you can redeem for quality products, gift cards, online classes, or cash.
Cocktail events don’t happen all the time, so when they do, they can be exciting opportunities to get dressed up and look festive! Just remember, cocktail attire is a well known dress code, so don’t get carried away with looking too crazy. It’s important to keep a cocktail look chic, classy and comfortable. But do have fun with it, and feel free to experiment with some new clothes!
Natalie Colarossi is a journalism major and global studies minor working toward her bachelor’s degree at Ohio University. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.