A formal dress code can mean anything from white tie to creative black tie, while semi-formal and cocktail are essentially the same. It’s always better to be over-dressed for any event, but you don’t want to be the only one at a cocktail party in a tux or gown. Whether you’re attending a formal or cocktail event, start with your apparel and use finishing touches to help set the right tone.
Apparel for Him
The biggest difference in choosing men’s apparel for a cocktail vs. formal event is the tuxedo or the suit. Both white and black tie formal dress codes require a tuxedo. A black, navy or dark gray suit fits the bill for cocktail parties. While you would wear a black bow tie with your tuxedo and white pleated tuxedo shirt, a solid silk tie and white dress shirt pair with your cocktail suit. Additional pieces such as cummerbunds add formality to a tuxedo. A three-piece suit with a vest is another option for your cocktail party look.
Shoes and Accessories for Him
Black patent leather oxfords are the most appropriate footwear with a formal tuxedo. More detailed variations on the oxford such as wing-tips are another option. Matte leather oxfords in black or brown are more casual for cocktail parties. While formal dress shoes should always be black, choose black or brown shoes for cocktail attire to match the leather on your belt.
Accessories should be minimal for formal events, but cuff links or a white pocket square add sophistication. A tie tack and quality leather or metal watch bring polish to a cocktail party look.
Apparel for Her
Hemlines are the differentiating factor between formal and cocktail dresses. Choose a dress or skirt with a floor-length hemline for a formal event. The cocktail dress can have anywhere from a mid-thigh to mid-calf length hemline. A formal ballgown has a voluminous A-line skirt, while the little black dress with a mid-thigh length hemline is a standard for cocktail parties. You can add a light chiffon or rich velvet shawl to your formal gown for extra warmth. Anything from a sheer beaded jacket to a satin blazer are layering options over a cocktail dress.
Shoes and Accessories for Her
While you could opt for a fancy embellished flat with your cocktail dress, formal events require heels — a low 1-inch kitten heel is fine if you prefer to stay away from higher heels.
Jewelry for a formal event can be fine or costume gemstones, with one statement piece like drop earrings or a detailed necklace. More understated sets like diamond stud earrings with a solitaire necklace and tennis bracelet pair perfectly with cocktail dresses.
Small clutch handbags are a staple for both formal and cocktail attire. A sleek leather envelope clutch is more appropriate for cocktail wear, while a beaded satin clutch is a better complement to a formal ensemble.
References and ResourcesEmily Post: Attire Guide Dress Codes from Casual to White Tie
D'Marge: The Difference Between Formal and Semi-Formal
Glamour: Semiformal? Black Tie Optional? Here's How to Dress as a Wedding Guest
Women's Health Magazine: 8 Rules for Getting Dressed Up