What Exactly Constitutes "Cocktail Attire?"

Does anyone actually know what this means?

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(Image credit: Christian Vierig / Getty Images)

I love dress codes. The more specific my friends are about what I should wear to their events or parties, the better. It saves me from having to make grown-up decisions for myself. You can understand my frustrations, then, when I receive an invitation that ambiguously reads, “cocktail attire required.” While I have a vague sense of what this indicates (a black minidress?), I don’t quite understand how to shop for it. Is it taboo to wear gowns? Are pants appropriate? How fancy do I need to be? Better yet, how casual?

The idea of "cocktail dresses" first originated in a 1927 issue of Vogue and the style was defined as "a short dress that is suitable for formal occasions," i.e. something sophisticated that you can also let loose in. The lexicon has appropriately evolved over time and now cocktail attire is a little more forgiving, with jumpsuits and blazers also qualifying for the occasion.

It is possible, however, to be too formal, so leave the gowns at home. And spruce simpler outfits up with statement accessories: sparkly jewelry, a feathered clutch, etc. As for shoes, you can wear heels (kitten or otherwise), though polished flats or strappy sandals will do too. Still feeling confused? Take the quiz, below, and snag some real-life ensemble inspiration. Then, shop a few of my favorite pieces of cocktail attire. You're ready to party!

Marina Liao
Fashion Editor

Marina Liao is the former fashion news editor at MarieClaire.com, where she covered celebrity style (from Meghan Markle to Katie Holmes), fashion trends, and shopping advice, plus conducted original interviews with industry insiders. She's also had many opportunities to write content in other areas such as beauty, food, tech, and even home. Her previous fashion stints include POPSUGAR and Cosmopolitan.