What Exactly Constitutes "Cocktail Attire?"

Does anyone actually know what this means?

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Jeremy MoellerGetty 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 plainer 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!

Gucci Cruise 2017 - Party
David M. BenettGetty Images
Is This Cocktail Attire?
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Gucci Cruise 2017 - Party
David M. BenettGetty Images
Yes.

Not only did fashion It Girl Alexa Chung follow the short-dress rule, but she defined it with her own style. Instead of wearing a garment that was tight or sultry, she went for a feminine piece with decorative florals and a quaint little bow. The metallic material and cage heels give the outfit its party-ready stamp.

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Get the Look
Metallic Fil Coupé Tulle Mini Dress
Marchesa Notte net-a-porter.com
$208.50

Follow Alexa's lead and slip into this metallic floral pleated dress. The bubble skirt keeps the piece feeling youthful while the cutout in the back gives it a more daring element. This cocktail mini will look great with barely-there heels. 

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Premiere Of Open Road Films' "The Promise"
Axelle/Bauer-GriffinGetty Images
Is This Cocktail Attire?
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Premiere Of Open Road Films' "The Promise"
Axelle/Bauer-GriffinGetty Images
Yes.

When I think of cocktail party–appropriate pantsuits, I immediately picture a sleek and clean blazer with matching trousers. Enter Kourtney Kardashian with her plunging neckline. The oversize fit and tapered pants are sexy without exposing too much. (Though, if you're going to a party that is a little more conservative, you might opt to wear a silk camisole underneath your blazer.) Accessorize with a pair of heels.

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Get the Look
Single Breasted Blazer
Halogen nordstrom.com
$129.00

This single-button blazer comes in a classic silhouette for all your work functions. It's great to have as a spare piece for when you're dashing from the office to an after-work event. Just swap your blouse for a sequin tank top or a bodysuit like this one.

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Get the Look
The Wonder Stretch Straight Leg Pants
Nic + Zoe nordstrom.com
$128.00

If you're going to wear a black blazer to a cocktail event, you'll need a pair of black bottoms to match. This one has stretch in the fabric, so you can load up on the hor d'oeuvres without feeling any pinches at the waistline. 

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Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala - Arrivals
Jamie McCarthyGetty Images
Is This Cocktail Attire?
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Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala - Arrivals
Jamie McCarthyGetty Images
No.

Fancy, elaborate gowns like this are best saved for galas and occasions that require a strict and formal dress code. There's no need to be this extra because at a cocktail party, you simply want to move from the dance floor to the bar easily without having to pick up your dress's train. Or, is this just me?

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Get the Alternative Look
Noman Velvet Slip Dress
Le Superbe saksfifthavenue.com
$115.83

Instead of a velvet gown, opt for this simple yet fashionable velvet spaghetti strap dress. The back dips low for a little sex appeal. It's undeniably beautiful in the most understated way. 

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2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter - Arrivals
Alberto E. RodriguezGetty Images
Is This Cocktail Attire?
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2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter - Arrivals
Alberto E. RodriguezGetty Images
Yes.

You'll find many women choose neutral or dark colors for cocktail parties since they're easy to wear, but give brighter garments a try. I recommend using Emma Roberts' Vanity Fair outfit as inspiration. The cap sleeve red minidress is eye-catching and bold. Her shoes match the dress perfectly. And a red lip seals the deal. Roberts' party attire is proof red on red on red is a powerful ensemble.

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Get the Look
Sleeveless Cocktail Dress
Harlyn nordstrom.com
$88.80

If you plan on standing out at the cocktail event (e.g. you're the host) then red is the way to go. Everyone's eyes will be drawn to you because of the bold hue as you make your rounds to say hello. To tone it down, simply throw a blazer over your shoulders. 

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Kode Magazine 10th Issue Party
Michael TullbergGetty Images
Is This Cocktail Attire?
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Kode Magazine 10th Issue Party
Michael TullbergGetty Images
Yes.

Yara Shahidi masters the quintessential cocktail look: the little black dress. The LBD works especially well for company parties or your friend's last-minute birthday celebration. Make your dress stand out with a statement shoe. Shahidi chose a cutout stud embellished heel, but you can go for something feathered or colorful, like this Sam Edelman red pump.

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Get the Look
Allora Dress
Amanda Uprichard shopbop.com
$205.00

The LBD that's short and sweet. From the bows at the shoulders to the formfitting cut, all the details have a feminine finish. Post event, repurpose this dress as a girl's night out number or for date night with the beau. 

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2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Viewing Party
TheStewartofNYGetty Images
Is This Cocktail Attire?
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2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Viewing Party
TheStewartofNYGetty Images
No.

A cocktail party isn't the place to flash your bralette and abs. Save the NSFW outfits when you're at a bachelorette party or on vacation.

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Get the Alternative Look
Speckled Sequin Wrap Dress
Jonathan Simkhai saksfifthavenue.com
$695.00

Want something sparkly, like that top the VS model wore? Give this sequin wrap dress a spin. It's shimmery, though not in an in-your-face kind of way thanks to the neutral tones. 

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Variety's Power Of Women: New York
Mike CoppolaGetty Images
Is This Cocktail Attire?
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Variety's Power Of Women: New York
Mike CoppolaGetty Images
Yes.

Cocktail attire has widened beyond the scope of just dresses. Jumpsuits, like this satin emerald-colored option Blake Lively is wearing, work when the fabric is fancy and the look, rich. We also recommend black one-pieces with cutouts or sequins. Switch it up at your next office party with a jumpsuit.

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Get the Look
Belle Jumper
Tularosa revolve.com
$188.00

This jumpsuit has it all: ruffles, a bow-tie shoulder, side cutouts, and culotte-style pant legs. Though the pastel color is perfect for cocktail hour in the summer, you can wear this in the winter with a furry white or brown coat.

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2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Viewing Party
TheStewartofNYGetty Images
Is This Cocktail Attire?
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2018 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show Viewing Party
TheStewartofNYGetty Images
No.

You want to above baring too much at the party. Tiny skirts and barely-there tops, even when worn under a blazer, aren't the appropriate pieces for a cocktail party where you might run into your boss or worst, your boss's boss. Even if the invite list is friends-only, these pieces don't bring the level of sophistication a semi-formal event demands.

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Get the Alternative Look
Chelsea Tiered Ruffle Maxi Dress
WAYF nordstrom.com
$99.00

Though this printed dress is slightly longer than most cocktail dresses, it's still suitable for the occasion. The bright color and whimsical pattern is great for an outdoor cocktail party in the summertime, so keep this in your closet for seasons to come. Make it even more formal with strappy sandals and sparkly jewels.

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