Save for the “doctor is ready now”, do any four words inspire more trepidation—and less excitement—than “cocktail attire for men”? (We’re exaggerating, but only a little.) At some point over the last decade or so, dress codes and the guidelines that informed them started to feel like a framework of the past. But complaining about the genre’s limitations is like pleading with your pal Rob to stop wearing his signature tuxedo T-shirt: you’re definitely right, but it probably won’t help.
Which begs the question: what, exactly, does cocktail attire mean in 2022, after two years of quarantining at home cozily ensconced in head to toe fleece? The answer: it depends. But it’s less complicated than you think. For the most part, contemporary dress codes fall along a spectrum of formality, anchored by anything-goes Vegas elopements on one end and glitzy black tie galas on the other. Cocktail attire sits squarely in the middle. (Along the way there’s also business casual, semi-formal, white tie, and sundry ill-advised themes some smarmy cabal of wedding planners once thought were a cute idea.)
Because cocktail attire exists in the liminal space between those more casual/formal occasions, you’ve got plenty of leeway to imbue the mandate with elements of your personal style. Traditionalists will point you to a windowpane blazer, solid-colored chinos, and classic leather dress shoes. (And as a general rule, white shirt + dark suit + solid-colored tie will never make you look like a bozo.) There’s nothing wrong with that combination, but it doesn’t quite gel with your hard-earned reputation as a devoted reader of GQ. That’s where we come in.
Below you’ll find all the ingredients you need to chef up a mouthwatering, occasion-appropriate outfit the next time you’re served with an eVite that expressly invokes “cocktail attire for men”. When that email hits your inbox, don’t cut off contact with your hosts immediately (and definitely don’t be like your pal Rob); seize the opportunity. Here’s where to start.
Desperate for more dress code guides? Check out our comprehensive breakdown of wedding attire here.
The Sport Coats
Cocktail attire might not be the first phrase that comes to mind when you think of freewheeling sartorial expression. But it should be! The lax nature of the dress code means you can bust out your swankiest double-breasted tailoring, or the wild-style blazer that’s too brazen to wear to your 9 to 5. (And if you’re in a pinch, now’s the chance to repurpose that navy blue number squirreled away in the back of your closet, provided you accessorize with gusto.)
If your gut instinct is telling you to reach for a sizzling camp shirt, you’re on the right track. But a dress shirt in a funky, left-field pattern ups the ante considerably, without veering too far into *checks notes* “smart casual” territory. A T-shirt and blazer might sound okay on paper, but in practice you’re apt to look like you got lost en route to an SAE wine mixer. So if you refuse to wear a shirt that buttons down to the navel, opt for a luxe, retro-indebted knit polo instead.
If you’re breaking up a suit—or plan on ditching your jacket ASAP to hit the dance floor—you’ll need trousers that can anchor your fit all on their own. Ignore the menswear forum blowhards: jeans definitely play, as long as the pair in question is dark and cut with a tailor’s eye for precision. (Leave the pre-distressed, heavily whiskered joints at home.) If you’re gearing up for a warm weather occasion, creamy trousers are a pro move—bonus points if they come pleated and with a high waist.
Time to think beyond the brogues. You’re not wearing a tux, and your footwear should comport itself accordingly—so skip the patent leather pumps entirely. A dusty-hued pair of derbies or some sleek-as-hell Chelsea boots will help you look reception-ready while you guzzle gratis bubbly and do your darnedest to avoid fixing the boss’ combover. (Doubly important if the boss happens to be your father-in-law.)
The Finishing Touches
Summer cocktail attire is a particularly tricky proposition. The good news? You don’t have to bother with any of the stultifying accessories of more formal events. That means no bow tie, no cufflinks, and no pocket square. (Please, god, no pocket square.) The even better news? Now’s your chance to bust out the statement-making jewelry, sleazy tinted shades, or tie that’s a little too jazzy to wear to work. Maybe even a purse!