What to Wear to a Cocktail Party – Your Ultimate Guide!

by Kathleen Loxton
womens fashion cocktail hour attire dresses

Cocktail hour is more than spending an evening with your closest girlfriends and taking advantage of the 2-for-1 offer at your local bar.  This is your chance to impress: to don one of your cocktail party dresses and turn heads with your attire – and your wit. So grab your mates and an espresso martini as we bring you our top tips on creating the perfect look for your next cocktail party.

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What Is Cocktail Hour Attire?

Dressing for a cocktail party can be quite daunting; after all, where does dressy casual attire end and professional cocktail attire start?

If we look back through history, British aristocrats created the cocktail hour as a time to forgo the expected formality of the era and enjoy themselves. Donning dresses of shorter lengths and shoulder baring cuts became signature, hence the cocktail dress: not as formal as black tie nor as boring as your Sunday best.

womens cocktail party dresses attire black evening

PHOTO CREDIT: River Island Fashion GPS

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What Is a Cocktail Dress?

Cocktail party dresses for women come in all shapes and sizes:

  • If you prefer to create more curves, body con and sheath dresses will accentuate your waist line.
  • Wrap dresses can also be extremely flattering as they draw eyes to your waist.
  • If you want to hide your mid-section a bit, empire and tent dresses will do the trick nicely.
  • Similarly, a fit-and-flare dress is ideal for pulling more attention towards your upper body if hips are an area you prefer not to show off.
  • Wear a full skirt or A-line to help balance out a broader chest and shoulders.
  • Halter dresses can have daring necklines, but to keep it more formal go for a shallower neckline.
womens cocktail party dress attire blue white


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Dressing for Different Cocktail Party Events

Your choice of cocktail hour attire will alter depending on the type of event you are attending and its dress code. Here are some of the most popular parties where ‘cocktail’ dress is expected:

Wedding Cocktail Dress Code

Ah, weddings: one of the key occasions on which you’re supposed to dress up and spend your time sipping (not guzzling – we’re ladies remember) your glass of champagne whilst looking fabulous.

What Should I Wear to a Wedding Reception?

  • You can always go with your little black dress as this will look great while you’re sitting and dancing.
  • You can also choose a cocktail dress which is more flowing, as this will fit in with the romantic atmosphere.
  • Always choose a pair of sexy heels or wedges and your sparkly clutch. Take some flats with you in case it all gets a bit too much.
  • Fancy something different? Add some colour into your outfit. Choose a bright coloured dress or accessories.

Wedding Cocktail Dresses for under £100

Wedding cocktail chic attire should make you look and feel fabulous, but not take away from the bride.

outfit grid womens cocktail party dresses wedding attire


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Business Cocktail Dress Code

The world of business no longer sticks to office hours as it now expands into the late evening. For a business reception, always think smart: business cocktail dresses should be suitable enough so you can stand and talk to your boss and clients, after all.

What to Wear to a Business Cocktail Party

  • Match your male colleagues’ two-piece with your best LBD and a blazer. Or champion equality with a smart pant suit. Stick with a dark colour and add a white shirt, or go without underneath.
  • Enhance your business cocktail attire with a pair of classic black heels and minimal accessories.
  • Forget about your work purse and go for the tiniest clutch you can find!

Business Cocktail Attire for under £100

Have a look at some of the best choices for your professional cocktail attire.

outfit grid business cocktail party attire dress suit blazer


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Cocktail Reception Dress Code

When attending a cocktail party reception you should always go glamorous (unless stated otherwise by the host/hostess). Think dresses, heels, clutches, colour and lots of sparkle.

What Should I Wear for a Cocktail Reception?

  • If you’ve been requested to wear a black tie cocktail dress, you’ll have the option to choose a floor length gown.
  • If your event is less formal, a party dress or jumpsuit will work. You can opt for different colours, shapes and textures.
  • Short length dresses are allowed for a cocktail reception if they look smart.
  • And of course, choose your finest heels and clutch bag. You can also add a coat, depending on the weather.

Cocktail Reception Attire for under £100

Take a look at some of the best choices for your cocktail hour attire.

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Cocktail Bar Dress Code

Let’s say you’ve booked your favourite cocktail bar as a surprise for your BFF’S 30th. What should you wear? Always choose casual-dressy as cocktail bars have a more relaxed atmosphere but expect you to make an effort.

What to Wear to a Cocktail Bar

  • Go for dressy casual attire that is no longer than knee-length. This isn’t the occasion for your floor-length ball gowns.
  • Play around with your accessories and make your outfit more glamorous by adding lots of sparkle. Think earrings, rings, bracelets – go all out!
  • If you plan on heading to a club afterwards, wear those flirtatious high heels you’ve been storing in your closet for the right moment.

Cocktail Bar Attire for under £100

Have a look at our favourite styles for your cocktail bar attire.

outfit grid womens cocktail party bar club dresses


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Best Splurge Cocktail Dresses

If price isn’t an issue for you, opt for a designer number that will have everyone asking where you got your dress from.

From chic classics to avant garde styles, here are some of our favourite splurge party dresses for women.

outfit grid women cocktail party attire dresses gowns

PHOTO CREDIT: Vivian Chan, Farfetch

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Cocktail Party Accessories

You’ve found your dress. You’ve also got your comfortable heels and a tiny clutch bag. Now it’s time explore statement jewellery.

A cocktail dress is a great canvas for bright, beaded bib necklaces or multi-layered gold strands. Consider trying asymmetrical earring sets, too, to create conversation.

Even just adding one simple piece of jewellery can complete your entire look. Watch this video to learn how to accessorise your little black dress.

What Not to Wear to a Cocktail Party

There’s nothing worse than turning up to a party having followed the wrong dress code. Awkward! Follow these top tips on what to avoid when dressing for a cocktail party

Avoid fabrics which are too casual. You should always avoid wearing casual styles such as chinos, jumpers and denim. A cocktail party is all about being fancy, so leave your loungewear at home.

Watch your layers. You should always make sure that you choose pieces from the right season. Don’t wear a faux fur coat in the middle of summer – nobody likes a sweaty Betty!

Stay away from bright colours. If you want to wear brighter shades, make sure you don’t go OTT. Stay away from luminous and monochrome shades (unless requested by the host) as they’re too bright for a cocktail event. The best summer and spring formal dresses tend to err towards the pastel.

Forget about your comfortable shoes. High heels or wedges are the best option for a cocktail party as they’re incredibly sexy. You should avoid wearing your most comfortable shoes (trainers, pumps, Converse) as they’re made for the more casual events.

Wear the right underwear. We’ve attended many cocktail parties and witnessed ladies wearing the wrong underwear. Make sure you choose the right colour and style. You want all eyes to be on your cocktail dress and not your obvious undergarments!

Quick Guide on Dressing for a Cocktail Party

  • Always read your invitation. It’s important to know all about the event you’re heading to and how you should be dressing.
  • Follow the dress code. Even if your host/hostess wants you to wear a chicken suit – you wear it. No questions asked!
  • Choose the right style for you. You have to feel comfortable, so choose what feels best. Whether that’s a cocktail dress or tuxedo, dress to feel confident.
  • Remember to accessorize. It’s important to complete your look with heels, a clutch bag and bling.
  • Enjoy your evening. Once you’re there, enjoy your night. Remember, not everything lasts forever!
cocktail party attire womens dresses evening wedding

PHOTO CREDIT: Dorothy Perkins, Fashion GPS

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What Do You Wear to a Cocktail Reception: Final Note

Whatever event you attend and whatever dress code you’re given, remember these three simple rules: check the invitation, always follow the dress code, and remember to buy the host/hostess a gift!

Read more great articles on women’s fashion here at alexie.co.

Still looking for inspiration, then checkout this blog post about what to wear to a cocktail party

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