Cocktail attire: An argument for a new type of evening wear

Friday, December 31st 2021
Share
||- Begin Content -||

Just before Christmas, I organised a Permanent Style Christmas dinner, to thank a few people that had helped and supported PS in recent years. 

We were hosted by Geordie D’Anyers Willis of Berry Bros & Rudd, which was kind of Geordie, and also meant we could use the Directors Dining Room - a fabulous old room at Berry Bros that’s not normally available to the public. That’s the room and the occasion you can see here.

It was a wonderful way to end the year, and it was nice talking to everyone outside the normal bustle of day-to-day work.

Probably more interesting to readers, however, is that I encouraged guests to dress up - but not in black tie. To be formal, perhaps even glamorous, but to eschew both the dinner jacket and, at the same time, their standard everyday clothes.

I did this deliberately because I feel there’s a gap here in menswear. 

Formal clothing today nearly always means black tie. Few people ever wear morning dress or white tie, and even events like weddings - the obvious time to wear tailoring that isn’t a business suit or dinner jacket - have become so varied that it’s almost impossible to give advice on what to wear. And of course, Americans often wear tuxedos to those anyway. 

This wasn’t always the case. Tailoring used to be more varied, with different styles worn to the office, to a board meeting, to church, to cocktails, to the theatre and to entertain at home. 

Indeed, I think the reason you see so much ‘alternative’ black tie at black-tie events, is that people who love clothes really want to exploit the potential of tailoring, but have few opportunities to do so. 

As offices have become more casual, tailoring has also been squeezed from the other end. When everyone is in a dark suit and shirt, with nothing at the neck, it’s harder to wear a collar pin, a pocket handkerchief, a double-breasted jacket or even a waistcoat without looking out of place. 

The solution, I think, is to urge a new appreciation of evening wear. Perhaps we should promote a style or dress code where little touches of glamour, of sartorialism, and even of dandyism are encouraged. 

This is not business clothing, so there is no need for the sobriety that requires. It is a celebration, and the clothing should reflect that. 

As it is in the evening, though - just like black tie - most of the emphasis will be on texture rather than colour. Super smooth worsteds that reflect the light; flannels and velvets that suck it up. Jewellery because it catches the eye. 

The cuts can also be more dramatic too. The shoulders of an Edward Sexton suddenly come into their own, as do the sweeping lapels of a Cifonelli. It’s an opportunity for personality and expression. 

Let’s face it - a lot of the tailoring we love was never really wearable to the office. Unless you were a big enough character to just wear a windowpane suit to the shops, it always struggled to be relevant. 

That’s why everyone gets excited about Pitti - because it’s the one time and place they can wear anything they want. Plus there's the validation of photographers. 

The place to revel in this dramatic tailoring is, I think, the evening event. The party in the suitably chic and glamorous location. 

Perhaps we should refer to it as cocktail attire. That’s a fairly well-established level of formality, and historically it was distinct from business clothing. 

Today the term is usually used at weddings to mean a jacket and tie. But if it’s actually cocktails, in the evening, I think we have the latitude to add other aspects of eveningwear: mohair, satin, perhaps a touch of embroidery. 

My vote is to call it cocktail attire. The term ‘semi-formal wear’ has been used in the past, but I think that’s vaguer and lacks the specificity of evening. 

To be honest I don’t think the historic language is worth burrowing into, because what matters is how we use it in the future. But I’m sure a reader or two will bring it up anyway. I’m certainly interested in any experiences, thoughts, or other suggestions you all have. 

So, the point of the dress code for our Christmas Dinner was to play around with this idea, and see what people came up with. (I put the dress code as ‘cocktail attire’ but added copious notes.)

I wore my black Cifonelli velvet jacket with barathea trousers, highly polished oxfords, and a charcoal roll neck, plus a silk boutonniere. You can see that above.

This could pass for black tie at most events, were it not for the roll neck. With that added, it’s an outfit that doesn’t necessarily belong anywhere - unless you really do dine at home in velvet. But I think it’s a very elegant tailored look, and this is a good setting for it. 

Ed Walsh, head of marketing at Turnbull & Asser (above), went for bottle-green velvet - but in a complete suit. Which took in further away from black tie. 

He also wore a cream, hand-embroidered shirt from T&A, with a dash of jewellery. That’s a necklace and bracelet from the ocean diamond collection at Alice Made This

Plus a silk scarf. 

Davide Taub, head cutter at Gieves & Hawkes, frankly always looks like he’s dressed in cocktail attire. He wears black, non-corporate materials, and jewellery. 

Here his peaked lapel, mohair suit was worn without a tie, but with both a one-piece-collar shirt in marcella cotton, and a profusion of jewellery underneath.

Dominic Sebag-Montefiore of Edward Sexton was similar - also going tieless, but making sure the shirt added something by wearing a Sexton silk number. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted one until I saw it on him. 

Jake Grantham of Anglo-Italian (above) did eveningwear in a very Anglo way. 

It’s not Anglo to wear anything shiny, not even normal things like superfine worsteds - and certainly not velvet or satin. 

So instead, Jake made the standard Anglo look more uniform and higher contrast: a charcoal flannel suit, charcoal cashmere tie and (out of shot) black-suede shoes. Everything dark, everything matte.

Tonal roll necks are probably the easiest way to turn a normal suit into cocktail attire, and both Jamie Ferguson and André Larnyoh (above) went for that option. 

André wore navy on navy. Jamie had black under charcoal brown - although under artificial light, both could have just been shades of charcoal. It was only when photographer Alex Natt turned his flash on them that you saw the difference. 

Tony Sylvester (above) wore the most colour, with a combination of tartan, black and red. 

I’ve never been much of a fan of tartan as part of black tie, unless it is traditional dress. But it makes more sense in a setting like this - as celebratory clothing, but not necessarily formal wear.  

There were others, but those were the themes. 

I think alternatives that would have looked great would have been a double-breasted suit with a satin tie, or a sharp three-piece suit with a tie and pinned collar. More sartorial combinations, basically, without necessarily eveningwear materials. 

I find this category exciting because it gives me an excuse to wear dramatic tailoring, but also because it's a way to make tailoring appealing to others. 

If you wear workwear or streetwear most of the time, the idea of a business suit might not be that attractive. But a party suit is something different. It can be sexy as well as elegant - have swagger as well as style.

The club where I work has motivational messages on the walls. Most of them I find clichéd, but there is a nice one about balance. The essence being, that it’s good to embrace all sides of life. 

It’s addressed to women, and encourages them to wear yoga pants one day, but high heels the next. To stay healthy, but enjoy good wine as much as health shakes. 

With men, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sweatpants, hoodies, denim and sneakers. But I think it's a real shame if you can’t enjoy kick-ass tailoring too. 

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
78 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Gary Mitchell

There may well be many more opportunities to do this ‘dress up’ thing than there is to do the black tie thing. My work/life changed some years ago where I went from being often in black tie (or mess dress) events to hardly ever, but dressing this way offers a new way to maintain a happy dress-clothing balance… As for motivational messages on walls or anywhere.. ‘just say no’ is the best policy.
Happy New Year/Happy dress/clothing balance/Happy zen for 2022.

Peter Smith Wright

Interesting that “cocktail dress” is a well established moniker for ladies, so I guess cocktail attire could be the version for men.
I was hoping we might learn a little about what you ate and drank though; BBR is a jewel of a place.
Happy new year.

Gus

Love this. In your mind how does this differ from the concept of lounge suits?

chris

I love this piece.
For me it is incredibly relevant, and an incredibly relevant understanding of tailoring in 2021 for a lot of people that- despite being almost completely absent from tailoring/menswear discussion on the internet.
My job, in entertainment, means that this sort of dress is far more likely to be worn than anything “business”. I would dare say I know potentially thousands of people in the creative industries who would adopt variations of this throughout the year at various events, parties, gallery openings, awards ceremonies etc.
I would love to see more along these lines, including perhaps some commissions relevant to these occasions – for example, Davide’s glamorous shirt – where would I buy such a thing?!
And how would I approach deep glamorous blacks for tailoring in a tailor ?
Some purists might balk, but when you (for example) see the new Beatles documentary, set on saville row, you can see how playing with tailoring in a non traditional setting has existed for many, many years.
Thabks as always Simon.

Ravi

Couldn’t agree more, Simon, that there’s definitely a gap between business suits and black tie. I’d been searching for something to fill that for years, so much so, that my first ever bespoke commission was what I described to Michael Brown as an evening suit. He made a single breasted, peak lapel navy suit in cavalry twill in his signature style, which I’ve found to be perfect. It can be dressed up by adding a black tie and lapel rose, or dressed down by wearing with an open neck collar or even a roll/mock neck. It’s still my favourite thing to wear (although that could be simply because it was my first commission and also because Michael made it), and I wear it surprisingly regularly.

Peter Hall

It’s the equivalent of the little black dress. A great excuse to wear black. I’d probably go for a black velvet jacket and patent shoes, over a roll neck. I used to love wearing my mess dress in the RAF, that was our equivalent of black tie, but with added colour and bling(medals). Trews are great in this environment.

Thorn

Is not a roll neck worn with a jacket rather warm for an indoor event?

JayMc

Simple solution to this: John Smedley Roll neck in Sea Island Cotton

Benjamin

Your outfit looks great Simon, although I find it hard enough to wear a velvet jacket at an evening event given how hot and stuffy these occasions often are, even, or especially at winter. But to wear with a rollneck too, I don’t think I would last more than 15 minutes!

zo

Happy new year all!
On a tangent, Simon do you, or anyone else, know where I can find rtw one-piece collar shirts?

Tamaki

The Armoury and The Anthology have some

Haackk

I think you are very on point on the claim that cocktail attire will become more and more relevant.

Would a navy velvet jacket work in your outfit? Also, would charcoal/ mid grey flannels work as substitute pants?

Thanks

Haackk

Thanks.

Just to be clear: Would you say a midnight navy velvet jacket would work with black pants?

Also, would you categorize a black single breasted peak lapel tuxedo worn with a rollneck (could be red, dark green, charcoal or black) as coctail wear or would it be too formal? I remember Saman Amel styling tuxedos with rollnecks and calling it evening wear.

Shoddy

I wear a midnight velvet jacket in this context and think it looks ok with charcoal rollneck. I’m not convinced about navy rollneck; but better than either I think are velvety mini cord shirts in a very very slightly contrasting tone, either black or very dark red (maybe a really dark green?). Silk would probably be good too. This can work with black trousers or even black jeans (in a slightly Jagger-y way; but maybe only with single breasted jacket.).

Robin

Reading this article got me thinking about (Indian) weddings I attend .
I’m talking about wedding not requiring traditional cultural dress.
(Note : I am Indian myself)
The women make a huge effort (probably too) and are an array of colours .
The men ……oh dear …. The worst fitting cheap grey / navy / black suits from the high street.
I sigh and think “it would make so much sense to have men come in black tie”.

My hypothesis concludes that this is why dress codes developed. So that the women could show off the colour whilst the men acted almost as a background.
In the absence of that you significantly lower the bar !

Yash

Hi Robin,

I am also Indian and having been to numerous Indian weddings over the years the sentiment “The Men….Oh dear….” is about right. In fact probably putting it mildly.

My personal bugbear having attended my umpteenth wedding of the season (pre covid era) is significant numbers of blue suits (in the oddest shades) in shiny materials, all too short and tight in the coat, trousers, thighs etc. The above also applies to grey and black suits. Funny materials and way too tight. But all worn, almost without exception, with nut brown or light brown shoes, long with a squared away end and two or three lacing’s in a derby style from Dune or similar.

And then topped of with the ultimate touch of pink (wrong material and shade) or similar (electric blue perhaps) ties with a knot the size of a dinner plate (but not nice like some Milanese style master) and matching silk handkerchiefs.

I sincerely hope (Simon) that no one takes offence at my comments. They are based on twenty years of observation and attendance of both Indian and Western weddings in the UK.

Interestingly, I have also attended several weddings in Bombay and New Delhi and that is a totally different kettle of fish. Very elegant, real style, interesting use of materials and mixing styles in a bold manner without overdoing it. And actually, in many instances, dressing up rather like some of the styles/outfits outlined in this very excellent article.

Many thanks,

Yash

Yash

I totally forgot about the salesmen here in the UK. Luckily there are enough people with sufficient passion for clothing left to sustain some beautiful shops and resources such as PS.

Thomas

Nice outfit Simon. I am not sure why but I always find roll necks with the ribbed effect on the neck section much cooler / attractive than the ones that are just plain. I think all the roll necks featured in the article were plain. Perhaps the “plain” style for me is more reminiscent of spring weights rather than autumn/ winter. I appreciate the warmth argument but the ribbed version is my personal choice. Welcome your thoughts and Happy New Year.

Phil

I agree, this feels like a modern way of dressing up. Thank you for the inspiration.

Could you tell us who made your trousers? I really like the cut and the fabric.

Matthew V

Dressing to make an effort, to feel stylish for the sake of it, not just for work. And getting to go out and socialise. Tonal, smart but not too formal at the same time. Cocktail attire. My kind of clothing for an evening out.
Happy New Year and hears to a positive 2022!

Matthew V

Thank you and many apologies for some poor spelling – it should read ‘here’s to’, not ‘hears to’! Oops.

Gus Walbolt

I’m looking forward to you doing a deeper dive into this topic. I especially like the look of roll-necks and velvet jackets (and embroidered slippers) but what about Spring/Summer options especially for us in warmer climates?

Jim

“Cocktail Attire” is how my consulting firm describes dress codes for our annual holiday parties, and you see people wear more creative outfits like those above (although there is still a lot of standard suit and tie). We’re based in the US, and our office attire went from “business casual” to more casual probably 2-3 years ago.

Craig

I like André’s look the best, probably because I’m also a big fan of wearing thin rollnecks with suits instead of a shirt. It’s a great way of acheiving the the effect you describe, and lets your suits do double duty. I like this look much more than a collared shirt without a tie. It takes a little digging to find a rollneck that’s suitably thin, but they are out there. It’s also a nice way of adding color to an outfit.

Michael From Connecticut

Spot on Simon…as always. You have captured both the spirit and the fun of that evening charmingly and well.
As we gear up for festivities here in the wet woods of Connecticut…out is coming the old Dege & Skinner smoking jacket that Nick D’eath cut for me in a great plaid…something that he made for me years ago before he became head cutter,,, add a simple white shirt and old grey flannels from Fox that appear to be wearing out at the knee… Can’t put it together any better that that. Great outfit to wear as I haul wood from the barn, stacked on a sled…I must say.
Please keep up the great work you have done in 2021 and know that many of us try to patronize your partners/subscribers as best we can, as we are all in this together, “until the lights go on again.”
Good luck and health in 2022.

And

That is what I was saying last article on “atypical black tie”: there already is such a dress code, cocktail attire, indeed.

Nigel C

Hi Simon. I love this kind of discussion. I am a big fan of something relaxed and elegant that isn’t black tie. I just think it’s a nice thing to do and makes you feel good. The examples here are each great and they work in this type of setting. As I often remark women understand and make the right level of effort more innately than men for some reason at events when this is appropriate. It reminds me, too, of Tony Sylvester’s black tie among friends article from a couple of months back where there were some super imaginative ideas.
I can’t help but wonder if men are steered away from any kind of ‘cocktail’ attire like this because the black tie uniform and related rule book is so dominant. The rules guys pour scorn on anyone deviating – whether the outcome is elegant or otherwise.
Best wishes for 2022 to all. N

Justin

Simon- Happy New Year. I live in Los Angeles and usually attend a few semi-formal Christmas parties and dinners every year. As it’s LA, I’m typically the most formal person at the parties even when wearing an odd jacket and tie.

I’ve struggled to decide on a new jacket that could be interesting and elegant but not so formal as to stand out (given the climate, tweeds look odd in LA and velvet is too formal). Lately I’ve considered a deep brown corduroy DB jacket, to be worn with charcoal trousers and either open necked shirt or with a dark cashmere tie if looking to go more formal. I considered going with W+S or possibly even Sexton just to add a touch of swagger (I have coats from both that I love).

Do you think such a combination would fit the bill? If not, I’d very much appreciate an alternative suggestion. Thanks.

Jan

Happy new year and thank you for another interesting post. Understand and appreciate all of the points but I don’t really understand how those rollnecks fit in. They can look elegant and certainly change the look and feel of a ‘normal’ suit but because of the shape and material I do not think they are a great match for cocktail attire, which in my mind is basically a dressed up party outfit. Much better suited for an evening at home, the restaurant or the cinema. Given the number of rollnecks present here I must represent a minority. Or maybe it’s just a bit of trend right now and a normal shirt is a bit too boring for the real pros?

Thorn

I mentioned in a discussion a couple or three years ago a short-lived attempt in the mid-sixties to promote roll necks as an alternative shirt to be worn with a dinner jacket. They were made out of shirting material, cotton (or polyester for the less well-heeled) and to make up for the lack of stretch had a zip at the back. I believe even M&S sold them.
They never caught on.

Dimitris

A very “sleek” article! I enjoyed it as if i was there. Serious and without boastfulness, as often happens in sartorial forums. Very nice choise of space as far as i can tell from the photos, very beautiful and out of the ordinary subtle costumes… fantastic velvet !!!
For me, the best part of your thoughts is…

“I think alternatives that would have looked great would have been a double-breasted suit with a satin tie, or a sharp three-piece suit with a tie and pinned collar. More sartorial combinations, basically, without necessarily eveningwear materials.

I find this category exciting because it gives me an excuse to wear dramatic tailoring, but also because it’s a way to make tailoring appealing to others.”

Thank you
Dimitris, Athens Greece

Bryan

Would a crew neck instead of a roll neck work under suiting especially in warmer climes? If the crew necks were sufficiently neat and well fitted such as one finds at Sunspel?

William

The difference between traditional black tie and this new paradigm of “cocktail attire” that you’re proposing is intriguing. Why men who care about menswear might be interested in this new dress code raises interesting questions about the events for which we dress themselves.
You write, “[cocktail attire] is not business clothing, so there is no need for the sobriety that requires.” Black tie is also not business clothing, and yet the dress code has, in general, a very strict set of rules. Black tie as a dress code is fairly sober, to use your phrasing. In fact, and please correct me if you think I’m wrong, black tie is more restrictive than a business formal dress code. I’d wager that you still have more creative license when picking suiting for the most formal offices of the world than when dressing for black tie galas and balls today. The point is, black tie shares the same “sobriety” as business clothing. Maybe it’s because the events that demand the dress code –charity balls, state receptions, award ceremonies– are often social forms of business: the minister hosts the ambassadors, the NGO president hosts the big donors, etc, etc.
And that’s why your idea of “cocktail attire” is so alluring, and could be so enduring. It fills the niche of a dress code for evening events you actually want to attend! Joke aside, this compelling vision of “cocktail attire” seems to be for those holiday dinners or reunions with friends where the primary purpose of the evening event is actually socializing or having fun. Most men aren’t going to make their mates dress up in black tie for a dinner among friends! Black tie is often enjoyable to wear, of course, but it’s not usually ‘letting loose,’ being creative, or having fun with your clothes. It’s just like the gala to which you would wear your cummerbund: it’s conceptually fun, and you definitely like the idea of it, but you also might come to view it as a chore. You might be at your gala and wish you were at a Christmas dinner with friends. And you might be at at that same gala, in your tuxedo, and wish, deep down, that you were wearing a roll neck and tartan pants.
Thanks for another insightful article.

Paul Boileau

Great article. I love mohair and this is perfectly suited to events like this. I would have worn a silk turtleneck shirt a la Turnbull and Asser (surprised the T&A fella didn’t wear one…)

P.A.

Hi Simon,

interesting article and very relevant considering how formal life has evolved recently.

What are your thoughts on a black linen DB jacket ? my guess would be that the black colour would make it formal thus relevant with smart trousers for such laid-back formal events, as well as casual enough thanks to the texture of linen to be worn at the pub with jeans and an open-necket shirt, or roll necks, etc.

I have also seen quite a few vintage black linen dinner jackets, more specifically Italian if I recall correctly. Were they more of a thing in the past ?

Cheers
P.A.

P.A.

Thanks for your insight.

I already have a navy linen DB jacket and get a lot of use out of it! It works very well both at the office and in a more casual setting.

On another note, I tend to run quite hot, hence the black linen DB as dinner jacket; is velvet particularly hot, especially at social events where the crowd tends to run up the temperature ?

Chris

Great article and agree Simon, there should be a new dress code and I think Cocktail Attire fits perfectly. Love this idea. Will look to find a way to arrange something with that as the dress code.
Out of interest, I think I remember you writing previously you were not a fan of roll necks with jackets. If that was correct, I’d be interested to know what made you change your mind?

JayMc

Great post, great idea. As someone who has always worked at home I like a dramatic, tailored look when I go out at night in the city, and your concept of cocktail attire nicely encapsulates my ideal evening sartorial mode.

Ben

A very interesting article, Simon, and I think hugely relevant. What struck me most was how low-contrast and tonal most of the looks were. I had always considered that what makes black tie so striking is the way deep midnight or black is offset against a bright white shirt, which really comes alive at night or in lower light. If cocktail attire is about playing with established principles of evening attire, I wonder why so few went for a version of that high-contrast look?

Patrick

Yes, I felt the same as some of the comments below. My now distant(!) memory of the UK is of overheating in indoors in winter, which is something particularly relevant to shopping for clothes. Does not dressing in a manner that is even a little too warm and that is more comfortable with a window open suggest that you have dressed inappropriately? Surely the fundamental of male dressing is that one should be comfortable? The Turnbull and Asser chap got it right with that wonderful shirt.

Patrick

Yes, I am sure you are right. We are all different, and as usual I enjoyed the article.I am Australian, so of course am inclined to dress for heat as a default mode. We went to Darwin recently and made an expedition to Kakadu. You would appreciate where I am coming from if you saw the sign on the main restaurant: “The dress code here is a minimum of shirt,shorts and sandals, if you want to dress more casually please eat at the bar next door.”

Toni

Very inspiring article – thanks a lot and I think there is a potential gap in my wardroabe.
One thought – isnt the occasion you are describing an opportunity for a (classic, double breased) navy blazer with brass buttons?

Andrew

This is a fantastic article.

I rarely have the opportunity to wear any tailoring at work. When others are in shorts and flip-flops, or battered jeans and a corporate hoodie – it’s always difficult even to upgrade to something like a shawl cardigan (never mind a Neapolitan jacket!)

On the rare occasions demanding daytime semi-formality or business sobriety, I’ve greatly enjoyed the chance to wear grey flannels and a soft navy blazer; but in the evening when out for dinner or at parties with friends (including weddings), this feels not quite smart enough; and certainly lacks the drama/contrast for evening.

Most of my clothing money therefore goes towards capsule pieces straddling the casual end of the spectrum. This definitely leaves a gap for evenings out of all sorts- especially dinners at nice restaurants and so on.

so.. for those like me on a limited budget, nice to consider adding to my capsule one of the truly flexible options here. Fascinating that both Andre’s choice and Jake’s choice would be usable in a wide variety of settings – a dark grey flannel can mix it with any normal suits (outside high summer) in the daytime if needed; but is also great for night-glamour dressing —> whether as Jake shows here, or with cold/dark knitwear like Andre. Bravo! Less flexible, but also quite cool, might be a charcoal corduroy suit for winter…?

William

As many others have already noted, I think this subject is both timely and exciting!
I have recently been thinking about attempting to integrate a pleated, open-collared shirt (in chambray blue) into my wardrobe…haven’t really seen it anywhere!
Also, been considering a velvet, shawl collar dinner jacket (in a burgundy or midnight blue)…do flannel trousers work with this? What trouser fabrics would you consider for “cocktail attire” to pair with a velvet dinner jacket?