Dressing for Cocktail Parties

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Two invitations fly through the letterbox; one reads ‘Birthday party celebration – smart casual’, the other reads ‘Cocktail party – 8pm’. Stumped? Well, don’t be. Adding mystery to the surprisingly commonplace announcement of a cocktail party is standard; it gives the evening a promising air of the unknown.

The fact that one party announces humbly that there is really no need to dress particularly specially for the occasion gives us cause to wonder why on earth there is no stipulation for the cocktail party, and there is but that simple explanation; the sense of mystery.

On the other hand, some might argue that ‘cocktail’ attire is self-explanatory. Women collect countless ‘cocktail’ numbers; little black dresses, expensive heeled sandals and handbags which conform to the idea of ‘dressing for drinks’. However, for men, the ground is a little less firm. Cocktails in the 1920s meant lounge suits during the day or black tie after 7pm. But what does it mean in 2007?

How formal?

Firstly, I would wager that cocktail parties are more casual now than they were in the 1920s. We have shrugged off the black-tie evening formality. However, in my experience, invitations to ‘black tie’ drinks functions are still received in some circles. The key is the stipulation; if it expressly advises a certain formality of dress, then there is no choice.

However, if no specific ‘black tie’ request is made, then a man must use his instincts to decide how formal the event should be. If ‘cocktail attire’ is stipulated then the man is stuck in a quandary. However, the usual form is that no stipulation is made which leaves the man to independently decide what rags to don for the event.

What suit?

A suit is a good start for such an event, though one doesn’t have to contrive such formality; a two button velvet jacket and smart trousers, or even decent denim would pass as uniform for the modern martini swilling lounge-lizard. Shawl collar suits look like they were made for cocktails, so if you have one, wear it.

Avoid pin and chalk stripes in suits – these scream ‘Just left the office!’ It is important that a man should look revived and fresh for these events. If you have to go straight from the office to the party, pack a change of clothes.

Shirt and tie?


I think a shirt and tie are perfectly acceptable for cocktail parties; some may view the addition of the necktie as unnecessary, but I have my own personal and positive views towards the accessory. It works well. However, a shirt with a strong collar can stand on its own and can make the wearer appear more youthful. Ties may not be appropriate for likely-to-be-hot-and-sweaty events either. If choosing to wear a tie, for these functions stay away from clubby stripes, fat knots and vulgar patterns; the cocktails are likely to be bright (and strong) enough without you adding to the kaleidoscope. Stick to slick colours like black, dark navy, grey and brown. Tone-on-tone shirt and tie combinations work well on parties.

The right colours

If you don’t see the appeal of tone-on-tone, stick with subtle colours of shirt, although understand that some contrasts can set off an outfit beautifully. For example, wearing a black or brown tie with a pale pink shirt is metrosexual chic. Other suggested combinations are wearing a dark navy tie with a cornflower blue shirt, underneath a silver-grey jacket, or a white shirt with a silver-grey cashmere tie.

Creating the look

Tie your knots properly, don’t wear fat ties and make sure the bottom of the tie just grazes your belt buckle; too short or too long and the look will be destroyed. The idea is to re-create the delicate image of a pan-European playboy who breaks hearts and knocks back dirty martinis.

Keep extra decoration to a minimum. If wearing a pocket square, neatly fold it and place it squarely into the breast pocket. White linen is probably the best for this, although black may be used if attempting tone-on-tone looks.


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Winston Chesterfield is an amateur composer, fashion blogger, trained lawyer and style aficionado. He lives in Westminster, London and blogs at www.levraiwinston.com.