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Cocktail Attire for Women: Dos and Don’ts That Ensure You Turn Heads In a Good Way

Everything you need to know about cocktail attire from celebrity stylists plus 5 complete looks

Whether you’re attending a wedding, formal night on a cruise ship or your class reunion, and the invite calls for cocktail attire, you might be puzzled at what exactly that means. So were we! That’s because fashion trends are constantly changing and the many different fashion “terms” such as cocktail attire, black tie and many others, it can be hard to keep up. To help, we turned to celebrity stylists Samantha Brown and Dawn Del Russo to get a clear understanding of what cocktail attire is and the dos and don’ts of dressing for occasions that call for it.

What exactly is cocktail attire?

“Cocktail attire is a dress code that implies a degree of formality,” explains Brown. “It’s not as fancy as black tie, but it does call for elevated evening wear in luxurious fabrics. For women, glitzy dresses of any length are appropriate — just not a gown.” In other words, cocktail attire is a dress code that falls somewhere between casual and black tie. It’s generally worn to special events that take place around the dinner hour, such as weddings, retirement celebrations, and of course, cocktail parties.

Cocktail attire vs semi-formal

You might think the terms cocktail attire and semi-formal wear are interchangeable. However, despite their similarities, these dress codes are not the same. Cocktail attire is a bit more formal than semi-formal wear. For cocktail attire, opt for a darker color palette and more substantial pieces like knee-length dresses or fancy jumpsuits with heels. 

Semi-formal wear, on the other hand, includes lighter fabrics like chiffon and linen in brighter colors along with dressy long-sleeve blouses and A-line skirts. Looks that fall under semi-formal tend to still appear polished but are far less fancy.

To learn more about the differences between cocktail attire and semi-formal attire, watch the below video from @BusbeeStyle on YouTube

The ‘dos’ of cocktail attire

A cocktail dress code has its own unique dos and don’ts. Here’s some dos from stylists that are sure to make you wow at fancier events.

Cocktail attire DO: Wear a tailored dress

Red cocktail dress

One of the most important rules of thumb when it comes to choosing a cocktail dress? Making sure it properly fits you. “Choose a well-fitted dress that complements your figure,” encourages Del Russo. You may love a certain style on the hanger, but if it doesn’t accentuate your assets or fit you well, it’s better to go with something else. And dresses that are oversize will only mask feminine curves and add optical bulk. A dress detail that’s flattering on every body type? Ruching. It can cinch the waist, create the illusion of an hourglass silhouette and camouflage trouble spots.

It’s also a good idea to keep the neckline in mind based on your chest size. For example, if you have a larger chest, opt for a slight V neckline that’s not too plunging, as it will create a torso elongating effect that detracts from an ample bust-line.

Shop the look:

Red cinched dress: Buy from Nordstrom Rack, $74.97

Black bow heels: Buy from Macy’s, $59.70

Pear and black flower earrings: Buy from Amazon, $17.88

Black clutch: Buy from Amazon, $28.43

Gold bracelet: Buy from Gorjana, $60

Cocktail attire DO: Jazz it up with accessories 

Cocktail attire with accessories

The accessories you choose can instantly elevate any cocktail look fast — but they can also make or break a look, so choose wisely! “Consider the neckline of the dress for necklaces and hairstyle for earrings,” advises Del Russo. For example, if wearing hair in an updo, beautiful drop earrings will be showcased. Or, if wearing an off-the-shoulder dress, opt for a shorter necklace that won’t be hidden by the neckline.

Even a simple black dress can be elevated with the right accessories, says Brown to take the look from basic to beautiful. She suggests pairing it with jewelry that draws attention to your face like jewel-encrusted hoop earrings. And a bedazzled clutch will add a touch of sophisticated sparkle.

Shop the look:

Black velvet cocktail dress: Buy from Azazie, $39

Silver drop necklace: Buy from Amazon, $30.99

Silver rhinestone hoops: Buy from Amazon, $12.36

Black and silver heels: Buy from DSW, $59.99

Black embellished clutch: Buy from Amazon, $28.43

Cocktail attire DO: Pair it with heels

Cocktail attire with heels

Almost as important as the cocktail dress is the shoe choice. With any occasion, comfort is key, but cocktail attire works best with heels. They add extra height and can create the illusion of longer and leaner legs. Plus, since cocktail dresses tend to be more formal, flats can make the outfit skew too casual. The good news is that there are many comfortable heel options of all heel heights today so there’s no need to sacrifice comfort for style.

Shop the look:

Burgundy lace cocktail dress: Buy from Amazon, $38

Black rhinestone heels: Buy from Amazon, $45.99

Rhinestone drop earrings: Buy from Amazon, $11.99

Rhinestone bracelet: Buy from Amazon, $17.95

Black satin clutch: Buy from Amazon, $16.99

Cocktail attire DO: Keep the hemline at or below the knees

Formal wear for women

Cocktail attire is all about sophistication, which means moderate hemlines are a must. Typically, mid-length dresses or skirts that hit at or slightly below the knee are the way to go, according to both Del Russo and Brown. Sometimes you can go with a hemline that sits above the knee for a date night, but avoid shorter hems for professional settings.

Shop the look:

Pink sequin midi dress: Buy from Amazon, $55.99

Pink heels: Buy from Macy’s, $47.50

Metallic gold clutch: Buy from Amazon, $18.98

Gold hoops: Buy from Amazon, $13.99

Gold necklace: Buy from Sterling Forever, $11

Cocktail attire DO: Match your hair and makeup to the dress + occasion

Blue cocktail dress with updo.

No matter your hair length, it’s best to keep it neat for occasions that call for cocktail attire. Voluminous curls work beautifully for dresses of all styles, but updos pair especially nice with dresses that have intricate necklines or are one-shoulder. To add pizzaz to an updo, you can add in a braid or twist that also give thin hair a boost. For makeup, going with a soft, natural glam look is a safe option. Just add a dusting of a neutral shimmery eyeshadow on your eyelids and pop of color on your cheeks and lips. And for nails, a neutral color will complement any dress shade. 

Related: 8 Updos That Add Volume To Thin Hair: Celebrity Stylists Give the Easy How-Tos

Shop the look:

Blue cinched dress: Buy from Zara, $39

Pearl heels: Buy from Zara, $79

Gold earrings: Buy from Amazon, $13.99

Cream and gold satin clutch: Buy from Amazon, $17.99

Updo by @amyspryhair on Instagram.

The ‘don’ts’ of cocktail attire

Style is subjective, so it’s best to wear what you feel the most confident in. However, if you do need some more guidance when it comes to cocktail attire, read on for a few things to avoid.

Cocktail attire DON’T: Be too casual

The one thing all pros can agree on when it comes to cocktail attire is that it’s not considered casual. “Don’t wear something you’d originally wear to the office to an occasion that calls for cocktail attire,” says Brown. Del Russo agrees and says to avoid denim, casual flats, tank tops, and maxi skirts or dresses. If you prefer pants to dresses, a dressier jumpsuit or trousers can also works well for cocktail occasions.

Cocktail attire DON’T: Show too much skin

If there’s any time to err on the side of caution, it’s at a cocktail party. So it’s best to avoid mini dresses, super tight, sheer fabrics and plunging necklines. When in doubt, go with a sheath dress (since they tend to be knee-length and have a modest neckline) to showcase the body’s feminine shape without looking risqué.

Cocktail attire DON’T: Forget the details

Details are important with cocktail attire, and something as small as a beaded belt or a satin clutch can take your look to the next level. You can also choose a dress that has sequins or embellishments that act as the accessories themselves so there’s no need for extra add-ons.

Cocktail attire DON’T: Wear cotton or linen

The type of fabric you choose can make all the difference when deciding if a dress is considered casual or formal. Brown says, “Skip fabrics like cotton and linen and opt for more luxurious fabrics like silk, satin, velvet or beading.”

For more styling tips, click these stories:

7 Ways to Style Wide Leg Pants To Feel Great and Look Chic

7 Jean Jacket Outfits That Will Make You Look Stylish and Slim

7 Midi Skirt Outfits For Every Occasion From Errand-Running to Cocktail-Sipping

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