What to Wear to a Cocktail Attire Wedding, According to Fashion Stylists

Dress codes can be tricky, so we're breaking down the basics.

Cocktail Attire Wedding Dress Code

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On the hierarchy of wedding dress codes, “cocktail” is by far rock bottom.

In this context, the word “cocktail” loses all meaning. You’re dreaming of alcoholic beverages garnished with fruit, but, in reality, these delicious drinks have zero to do with this ambiguous dress policy. If you think a happy hour type of going-out outfit will suffice for a cocktail attire wedding, you’re wrong. However, if you’re leaning toward formalwear? Well, you’re wrong again.

So, where’s the happy medium? Is there a happy medium? Or are we stuck mulling over this heinous fashion inquiry for the rest of time?

These are the types of questions that keep cocktail wedding attendees up at night. They’re also the questions we posed to experts so we can finally get some sleep and dress appropriately for this kind of occasion.

“Nothing brings people together like an unclear dress code," Rahimah Yoba tells InStyle, unironically. The celebrity stylist and costume designer explains that cocktail attire has evolved over the years and will most likely keep evolving with current events like the pandemic, the conversation surrounding gender and pronouns, as well as the introduction to virtual reality and the metaverse.

“[Cocktail attire] is now a mixture of comfort and ease with a splash of sparkle and non-gender-specific silhouettes,” Yoba says of the dress code. “It’s fun, free-flowing, and fashion-forward with an overtone of individuality.”

Cocktail Attire Wedding Dress Code

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If you’re looking for a more cut-and-dry definition, celebrity styling duo Danielle and Alix sum up cocktail attire as “a balance between formal and casual.” It’s elevated, appropriate, and gives attendees more freedom to play with their looks.

“[It’s not as] conservative as a black tie dress code,” the pair tell InStyle. “You can venture into suiting, interesting silhouettes, vibrant colors, and standout accessories.”

Is the fog starting to clear?

If these definitions are still too vague, we’ve done our due diligence. Ahead, fashion experts give detailed examples of their go-to cocktail wedding guest outfits. Hopefully, they provide some much-needed inspiration if you’ve RSVPed yes to this dress code and are now stuck standing in front of your wardrobe, wondering what to wear.

Try a Tea-Length Dress

Cocktail Attire Wedding Dress Code

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Tea-length hemlines fall below the knee but above the ankle, somewhere around the mid-calf. Celebrity stylist Dani Michelle (who is currently working with DSW) tells InStyle this style of dress, in fabrics like satin, silk, crepe, or velvet, is her favorite for events where the dress code is cocktail attire.

“Tea-length dresses are the perfect moment to show off a really special shoe,” the stylist says of the style. “Brands like Khaite, Galvan, and Alex Perry have a lovely range from fitted to loose in their collection.”

Think Small

Cocktail Attire Wedding Dress Code

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If you don’t already have something suitable in your wardrobe, Dani Michelle tells InStyle one of her clever tricks is to take a formal dress you feel like you’ve worn too much and shorten it. By reinventing the number into a cocktail dress, you’ll breathe new life into a tired wardrobe favorite.

“I even love an ankle-wrap shoe with a cocktail dress to make it a little sexier and less formal,” she says. “DSW has endless options for both strappy and cocktail attire shoes.”

Stick With a Classic Formula

Cocktail Attire Wedding Dress Code

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Danielle and Alix tell InStyle their go-to formula for “cocktail attire” is a midi dress plus a special shoe and bag.

“This structure feels timeless and feminine and allows some personality to shine through. Some shoe designers we love for this type of occasion include Rene Caovilla (their snake wraps specifically!) and Sophia Webster; their heels can make any simple dress pop. Along with that, we are big fans of Judith Leiber’s novelty clutches & Paco Rabanne’s iconic sparkle bags.”

Swap a Dress For a Suit

Cocktail Attire Wedding Dress Code


“Formal wear and tailored suits are now seen in the same setting as edgy, oversized women’s pants suits and deconstructed blouses," says Yoba. That means that if you're not a fan of dresses, it's not a problem. If you do opt for a structured pantsuit instead of a dress, the stylist says all you have to do is accessorize with sparkly jewelry to elevate the look, which will instantly take it from daywear to cocktail attire.

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