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!

Shelby Comroe

Shelby Comroe is the Credits Editor and Fashion Assistant at Marie Claire covering all things fashion and giving credit where credit is due. Check her out @shelbycomroe on Instagram if buying designer handbags is your idea of a retirement plan!