Decoding "Cocktail Attire": What It Means, What to Buy, and How to Make It Your Own

At least it's not business casual.

If I told you the truth, which is that nobody really knows what "cocktail attire" means and we just kind of muddle through it without wearing yoga pants, you might hit me. Because I want to be helpful and avoid physical violence, here's a more satisfactory answer, broken down by definition, a mini quiz, and some light shopping.

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Cocktail Attire, by Definition

In the simplest terms, cocktail attire is what you would wear to a nice party that hasn't quite reached the level of formality or stuffiness of black tie. The standard outfit is a shorter or midi-length dress, but separates are fine, as are trousers (non-denim). The general vibe is dressed-up but still fun, so you could do sparkles or a massive butt ruffle. You need examples? Here we go.

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Quiz: Is This Cocktail Attire?

Answer: Yes. The LBD is the velouté of cocktail attire, so if you really cannot read the situation/crowd, this is always a safe bet—even with the matching leggings.

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Quiz: Is This Cocktail Attire?

You bet. With a sparkly skirt—but especially as part of a monochrome look (high chic)—knits can fall squarely under the cocktail attire umbrella. Great news if you fear the cold.

Ralph Lauren Collection, $1,734

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Quiz: Is This Cocktail Attire?

Mais oui. Bit of a stumper, this one, but a few factors make this work: the aforementioned sweater, the blazer, the vinyl finish of the culottes (not a typical fabric of your life), and the single statement earring.

Shop similar: Solace London, $325

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Not Quiz: Buy These Earrings!

& Other Stories, $25

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Ear ornaments have and will be the preferred holiday accessory, but these make a statement that's more "I'm angry but festive!"

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Not Quiz: Buy These Boots!

Liudmila, $1,276

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So much cooler than a normal pump. Plus they've got a built-in party game, if the host asks you to take your shoes off before entering.

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Not Quiz: Buy This Dress!

Mango, $60

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Why don't you layer a lurex turtleneck underneath, maybe even in a mixed metal, gasp?

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Not Quiz: Buy This Bag!

Rocio, $845

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You only need, like, cab fare and an Altoid, anyway.

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Not Quiz: Buy These Velvet Socks!

Darner, $32

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Buy them, wiggle your toes in them...

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Not Quiz: Buy These Tinsel Shoes!

Charles & Keith, $39

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Then stick them into these hairy dudes.

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Not Quiz: Buy This Really Fun Bag!

Susan Alexandra, $235

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Makes you think of weaving beaded fish keychains for your friends and not having to pay taxes, doesn't it?

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Not Quiz: Buy This Scrunchie!

Donni, $38

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Styling tip: Position the bow so it makes ears.

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Not Quiz: Buy This Liquid Metal Blazer!

Topshop, $100

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Do it!

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Not Quiz: Buy These Foil Trousers to Wear with the Last Guy!

Topshop, $85

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Might as well get the pants too.

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Not Quiz: Buy This Other Bag!

J.Crew, $138

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And set off the whole, leftovers-themed shebang with a contrasting texture, like this pouf of an evening bag.

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Not Quiz: Buy This Trench!

Zara, $149

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And whether you go with a slinky club dress or a suit that's like Reynolds Wrap, cover it all up with a big, blanket-like trench.

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