What Exactly Constitutes "Cocktail Attire?"

Does anyone actually know what this means?

Street Style - Hera Seoul Fashion Week 2018 F/W
Getty ImagesChristian Vierig

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. ("Just wear whatever you're comfortable in!" she says. I'm comfortable in sweatpants, I think, but I doubt that's what you want me to wear to your wedding.)

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?

You can't properly define cocktail attire without talking about the cocktail dress, a term that first originated in a 1927 issue of Vogue. It's defined as "a short dress that is suitable for formal occasions," a.k.a. something sophisticated that you can also let loose in. Okay, we're getting somewhere, but what, exactly, makes it "suitable for formal occasions?" That would be the je n'ais se quoi, the zsa zsa zu. You know, that little something extra: lace, beading, silk, a bold color, an interesting cut, a luxe fabric.

A cocktail dress is often the default choice for this kind of party, but the lexicon has evolved to go beyond just short dresses. It's now appropriate to skip the frock in favor of a pantsuit set or separates, like a skirt and fancy top. It is possible, however, to be too formal. For this occasion, leave the gown at home. And spruce plainer outfits up with statement accessories: sparkly jewelry, a feathered clutch, etc. As for shoes, you should wear heels (kitten or otherwise), though polished flats or sandals will do too.

Still feeling confused? Take my 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!

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Quiz: Is This Cocktail Attire?
Getty ImagesDavid M. Benett

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 extra tight or sultry, she went for a feminine piece with decorative florals and a quaint little bow. The metallic material and cage heels, gave the outfit its party ready stamp.

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Quiz: Is This Cocktail Attire?
Getty ImagesAxelle/Bauer-Griffin

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 and you're ready to party.

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Quiz: Is This Cocktail Attire?
Getty ImagesMichael Tullberg

Yes. Yara Shahidi masters the quintessential cocktail attire 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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Quiz: Is This Cocktail Attire?
Getty ImagesAlberto E. Rodriguez

Yes. You'll find most women choose neutral or dark colors 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.

Now, you're ready to shop...

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The Party Mermaid Dress
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Dress the Population mermaid dress, $216

SHOP IT

When that wedding invite comes in the mail, "cocktail attire" emblazoned across it, grab this dress. The halter neck highlights your shoulders and back while the mermaid silhouette brings out your curves. Style with beige pumps or metallic rose-colored sandals.

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The Party Pantsuit
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Calvin Klein double-breasted blazer, $1,900

SHOP IT

Calvin Klein straight-leg pants, $890

SHOP IT

Rather than reach straight for the standard black-blazer-and-pants combo, broaden your style range with this checked wool two-piece. The maroon hue is muted, but still interesting, while a yellow stripe down each pants leg adds a nice contrasting color. Since the buttons do snap all the way up, you can technically rock the blazer shirtless, for a sexy secret only you know. Wear with a simple heel like these Pauwau sandals.

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The Party Top
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No. 21 sheer lace top, $240

SHOP IT

This lace tank qualifies as a party top because 1) it has an evening-wear vibe and 2) it looks luxurious. Made in Italy, the tank is constructed with thick beige velvet straps and a tulle outer layer, giving it a semi-sheer appearance. You can wear this underneath a blazer or with a shimmery skirt for a winning combo at any party.

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The Party Floral Dress
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Ted Baker London sheath dress, $315

SHOP IT

This Ted Baker dress is elevated and sophisticated thanks to the tailored cut, while cleverly placed florals give the dress a ladylike vibe. This is the type of dress you can wear to Very Important work drinks with a blazer, or to your friend's bridal shower luncheon on the weekend.

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The Party Skirt
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Milly black skirt, $425

SHOP IT

Once you have this black skirt, the top half of your look will easily come together. Style this with the sheer lace shirt, above, or any silky camisoles you own. The ruche details and ruffle hemline (my favorite aspects) give the skirt a unique flare and are quite pleasing to the eye. Wear with your favorite pair of heels.

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The Party Lace Dress
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Chelsea28 lace sheath dress, $149

SHOP IT

Move aside LBD. This lace and chiffon ruffle minidress is my new go-to for upcoming holiday parties. The pattern is intricate but wearable, while the velvety band highlights the narrowest part of my waist. I'll wear this dress with small pearl stud earrings and classic black heels.

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