Receiving an invitation to a social event is exciting, whether it arrives by mail, email or social media. Most of the information you need is already there like where, when and what to bring. But then you notice the host has asked attendees to dress in specific attire — cocktail attire, to be exact.

You may find yourself wondering something along the lines of, “So, what exactly is cocktail attire?” Rest assured you’re not alone in asking this dress code-related question.

Here’s more on what to expect from cocktail attire so you can look great — and feel confident — at your next party.

Get to Know Some “Twists” on Cocktail

Just like you can ask a bartender to make your drink “with a twist,” there are a couple different spins on the basic idea of a cocktail party that may influence your dress choices.

Town & Country outlines a few variations to consider:

  • Classic Cocktail: A by-the-book event taking place between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. calls for women in knee-length (or slightly below) dresses and men in casual suits.

  • Summer Cocktail: The setting is outdoors, like on a beach or in a garden. The dress code may be a bit more seasonal, lightweight, casual and colorful.

  • Fancy Cocktail: Typically used for holiday parties or weddings, this flavor of cocktail skews more toward chic and fancy — calling for bold accessories and heavier fabrics.

  • Formal Cocktail: You can think of this type of party as akin to a “country club wedding reception” calling for longer dresses and more conservative outerwear.

While it may not always be obvious at first glance which twist on cocktail attire is most appropriate, you can use clues such as the venue, the season, the reason for the party, the host’s personality and the language on the invitation to make your best guess.

Stick to the Dos and Don’ts

Understanding the basic rules of cocktail attire will help you put together a look that’s true to you — creative, comfortable and distinctive — without accidentally committing a fashion faux pas.

Here are some general dos and don’ts of dressing for a cocktail event from Who What Wear:

  • Do keep hemlines and necklines appropriate; don’t wear anything overly revealing. Dress like you might bump into your boss at the event.

  • Do wear chic trousers if you’d prefer pants to a dress; don’t wear overly casual pants like jeans.

  • Do accessorize with a small, elegant bag; don’t bring an oversize purse or a tote.

  • Do add an eye-catching accessory; don’t layer on too many standout accessories that clutter your look.

  • Do reach for mini or midi cocktail dresses for women rather than a floor length gown (unless the dress code is leaning more toward the fancy/formal side of things).

  • Do wear heels or formal flats; don’t wear sneakers, no matter how nice.

  • Do wear subtle, well-fitting undergarments; don’t struggle with revealing straps or unseemly lines.

The key to slaying the cocktail attire dress code is looking chic and put together without crossing the line into strictly formal dress — or erring on the side of looking casual, like you wore the same outfit all day before showing up to the party.

It falls somewhere between a fun night out with your friends and a black-tie optional wedding. When in doubt, opt for a knee-length dress in a solid color or an elegant jumpsuit in an interesting fabric. Avoid overly busy patterns, but feel free to incorporate sequins, shimmer or satin. A fitted garment is a good look, but an overly body-contoured dress may cross the line into inappropriate.

Looking great at your next cocktail party is a matter of gleaning all the clues you can about the nature of the event from the invitation, finding the sweet spot between casual and formal and accessorizing in a sophisticated manner.

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