What to Wear to: "Cocktail Attire"

As if there weren’t enough evidence of the continued decline of English taste and sensibility, I have managed to secure an invitation to tonight’s Savile Row event at the British embassy. Perhaps the dress code at such an event should be an unspoken understanding, but the organizers left nothing to chance and demanded “cocktail attire.”

The trouble is that most men don’t really know what this means. For women, there is such a thing as a “cocktail dress.” But there is no such thing as a “cocktail suit” for men. So what does cocktail attire for men mean today?

The answer is just “a suit.” The suit used to be a well-articulated item - there were business suits, weekend suits, evening suits, country suits, summer suits, and birthday suits. A cocktail suit would have been a tuxedo. But those days are now buried in the same black-and-white photographs that entomb presidential inaugurations held in morning dress. Today “a suit” means the dark wool number that you see on every politician in DC.

Luckily, this suit works just fine for cocktail attire. Worn with a white shirt and black shoes, it echoes the high contrast and clean lines of a tuxedo, without the risk of your fellow partygoers trying to order martinis from you. I generally wear a dark tie as well; if that’s too buttoned-up for you, wear your shirt open and switch out your suit pants for medium or light grey pants. But a jacket is absolutely required. “Cocktail attire” is not just a late-night version of “business casual.”

There are ways to get fancier. The best items to introduce are formal but not work clothes, like a velvet jacket, Belgian loafers, or black suede shoes. Maybe a peak-lapeled jacket if you have it. As long as you stick to the basic formula of dark jacket and white shirt.

The whole situation would be improved if “cocktail attire” were simply removed from the lexicon and replaced by “cocktail dresses for ladies, jackets for gents.” Alternatively, we could shift to both sexes wearing cocktail dresses. Although I don’t know how well that suggestion will go over with the suit-makers at the British embassy tonight.

Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in May 2015. 

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