Fashion / Style

The unspoken rules of the cocktail dress code

cocktail dress code

As we're thrust into the so-called 'silly season' there's plenty of social gatherings punctuating out upcoming schedules. And as with most parties, one of the most important decision to make – for both style and practicality reasons – is what to wear. A dress code is way to ensure that your guests are dressed appropriately for the soirée you're hosting; it's really that simple. Unlike the late 19th and early 20th century however, no two people interpret a dress code the same way – particularly when it comes to cocktail dress.

This ambiguous dress code that occupies the fine line between smart casual and black tie is infamously difficult to execute. While we often think of cocktail dress as a mood more than sometime definite or tangible, there's no denying that sometimes a bit of structure makes the whole process easier – most of the time that is. Helping us to be neither over or underdressed. To help guide you on your sartorial journey, we're sharing our rundown to understanding exactly what cocktail dress means to us – for both hosts and guests alike.


What does cocktail dress mean?

As with most of the dress codes we now govern our lives by, the humble cocktail dress rose to significant popularity in the twenties and thirties; when wealthy households would enjoy pre-dinner drinks and canapés. With any social event of that era, a designated dress code was absolutely necessary to fit the nature of the gathering. Given that cocktail party events took place in the hours between day and night, the time was ripe to come up with a fresh perspective on dressing. Now, we understand cocktail dress as semi-formal attire that bridges the gap between casual daywear and the formalities of black tie and even the rarer white tie.


Dress length is important

For those of us who value practicality, thankfully cocktail attire doesn't require us to don a floor-length gown – although you can wear one if you want, it's the 21st century after all. In saying that, dress length is still very important to nailing any dress code. When it comes to cocktail, find a balance between floor length and mini by opting for a length in-between. A midi dress is the ideal choice in this situation. Keeping your outfit choice sleek and sophisticated is also key, and this is where well-tailored pieces will make a world of difference.

Although cocktail dress might still have its limitations, there is still plenty of room to experiment with colour, cut and a few embellishments where appropriate. It might seem like a safe bet to opt for more muted shades, but there's nothing wrong with compensating for the shorter dress length by adding drama elsewhere.

From left to right: Jacquemus, Bianca Spender, CAMILLA + MARC, Faithfull The Brand, Paris Georgia.


Does 'cocktail dress code' mean you have to wear a dress?

Despite all this talk about dress length, cocktail does not require you to actually wear a dress. This may have been an unspoken rule in the early origins of the dress code, but in a modern setting, trousers jumpsuits, suiting and knee-length skirts are also appropriate. Particularly if you're wanting to stand-out in a sea of midi-dresses, a well-tailored silk trouser and a complimentary blouse will never go astray. Similarly, a pantsuit with a neck or sleeve detail is a foolproof way of maintaining cohesiveness in your outfit; while bringing some edge to the cocktail dress code.

From left to right: Paris Georgia, Reformation, SIR, St Agni, Harris Tapper.


What are appropriate cocktail dress shoes?

As we know, the right shoe can make your outfit. Similarly, the wrong shoe choice can throw an otherwise perfect cocktail look askew. For such events, a heel is always required – unless your host indicates otherwise. Unlike more formal occasions, your heel of choice does not need to be a stiletto. Block and the now-fashionable midi-heel are also excellent choices. Regardless of your heel-height choice, one rule remains when dressing cocktail – less, is more. If your outfit is your focus piece, make sure to go light with your shoe choice – more tonal shades, less embellishments and simplified styles. Alternatively, if you're wanting to make an impact with your accessories, don't double up on 'drama' with your dress of choice.

From left to right: Ferragamo, Charles & Keith, St Agni, Gucci, Tony Bianco.


Try to match your bag of choice

To maintain an air of elegance around your look, keep your bag of choice as refined and sophisticated as possible. A clutch is the perfect choice, but you can try a minaudière or a shoulder bag if the tone is right. Similarly to your dress choice, just because your style of bag should be classic, it doesn't stop you from playing around with various textures, finishes and colours.

From left to right: Bottega Veneta, Charles & Keith, Coach, CAMILLA + MARC, Jacquemus.


When it comes to accessories, there are no rules

Add the final touches to your cocktail outfit by selecting a piece of jewellery that does all the talking – or no jewellery at all. You could focus on one area you would like to showcase, with a simple necklace or a bold set of earrings. Or you could layer multiple accessories or pieces of jewellery. Get creative and be inspired, fashion is a form of art after all. The key with cocktail dress is to look dressed up without wearing a ballgown – so however you do that is really up to you.

From left to right: Sophie Bille Brahe, Swarovski, Poppy Lissiman, Amber Sceats, MEJURI.


Stay inspired, follow us.

Cover images: One, Two.