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Style SOS: What should I wear to a summer cocktail party?

Style SOS: What should I wear to a summer cocktail party?

I’ve been invited to a cocktail party but there’s no dress code. I don’t own black tie (and don’t think this calls for it anyway), but I think chinos are too casual. What should I wear? – Marcus, via email

Dress codes are tricky things – restrictive when they’re there and confusing when they’re not – but the lack of one does give you some sartorial freedom. You’re right, though, with your initial assumptions. Chinos are definitely too casual for a cocktail party and black tie is only called for when it’s explicitly called for. Fortunately, there’s a world of options between those two poles.

It’s worth pointing out that a cocktail party is not a test. As the name suggests, it’s a party, so you can have some fun with your style. The idea of a cocktail party dates back to the 1920s when it was introduced as a more relaxed alternative to the more formal events of the period. These days most events are far less formal than they were in the 1920s, but the feel of a cocktail party still remains – it’s a lighter, more relaxed affair than anything sit-down. This attitude should translate to your clothes, too.

If you feel most comfortable in a suit then go for it, but do so in a way that means no one will think you’ve come straight from the office. If your tailoring’s blue or black, try bright accessories or even something like a printed shirt. Ideally, though, the suit itself will be a bit more exciting – especially with these longer, warmer evenings, something like Reiss’s tobacco-coloured two-piece sets a sunnier tone.

If that’s a bit much, then separates are an easier way to incorporate colour into your outfit. A teal blazer, like this stylish Reiss number can feel like an easier entrée. You can even try a subtle check like this River Island burgundy and black style. If you’re going for separates a pair of tailored trousers in black or navy will go with anything and can be worn again for other occasions. Save chinos and jeans for barbecues.

The rules on a tie in this situation are that there are no rules. If you want to wear a tie, go for it. If not, there’s no need – but if you’re going tieless, make sure your shirt works without one (a granddad or camp collar makes the question moot and guarantees you won’t look like an off-duty politician). In fact, there’s no need to stick to the traditional shirt and jacket combo either. Weather depending, a polo shirt (think wool or silk, rather than anything too tennisy) or a roll neck are both smart enough, and a bit more interesting.

Finally, to your feet. This is not the moment for trainers – even those really nice minimal ones. Brogues would work nicely, as would loafers (they’re more summery, too). The most important thing to remember is that this is a party, so you want to look like you’ve made an effort. Because you have.

Words: Nadia Balame-Price
Illustration: Ryan Gillet