What to Wear to a Business Cocktail Party

what to wear to a business cocktail party2017 Update: We still stand by this advice on what to wear to a business cocktail party, but you may also want to check out all of our posts on holiday business etiquette.

Reader C wrote in with an interesting question about what to wear to a business cocktail party, and it has definitely been ages since we talked about business cocktail party attire! Here’s her question:

I am due to start on a graduate programme for a large energy multinational. I have a 3 day induction in London, and I am informed that on two of the evenings there will be dinner and cocktails.

What should I wear? Scared of going over the top, but also don’t want to play it safe with jeans and a ‘nice top’.

Interesting! We sort of talked about this years ago when we answered a reader question about what to wear to an interview dinner, but that was a bit different because she was meeting them for dinner, not working all day and then going to dinner. Similarly, we’ve discussed the best networking dinner attire, as well as what to wear to a dinner reception and interview — but it’s been a while.

Here’s my thing: if you’re going straight from the induction activities to dinner, then you should wear basically the same thing you wore all day, unless you’re told specifically to wear something else. Take some time to freshen up your makeup to go from desk to dinner, and perhaps reconsider a portion of your outfit (remove the blazer, switch to different shoes for standing-around purposes, add a cocktail ring so it’s an easy conversation starter while holding your drink, etc). Ultimately I think people will remember your energy and attitude at these things far more than your outfit — so do what you have to do to look awake and alive and feel fresh enough to meet a zillion new people and express excitement for working on their projects. (For me this becomes a mix of “put on Touche Éclat and a highlighter like Haloscope or High Beam while listening to a crazy upbeat, silly song like Rock Me Amadeus” — but for you this may look different. Some of my favorite makeup products for faking a good night’s sleep may be helpful here.)

Readers, what’s your advice — what would you wear to a business cocktail party under these circumstances? In general, do you ever think the kinds of things stylists in movies come up with (such as bustiers under blazers or other outlandish ideas) have a place in the real world? what to wear to a business cocktail party during orientation

Picture via Stencil.

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It's a question as old as time: what to wear to a business cocktail party? We've answered a lot of Qs over the years (the interview dinner, the networking cocktail hour, alumni networking event) -- in this question a reader has to attend several company dinners and business cocktail parties while in England for a three-day induction for her new job.


  1. Anonymous :

    The nice work appropriate dress you had on all day. Certainly not jeans!

  2. ex Orange Line Rider :

    I feel like this is why 50% of my closet is sheath dresses (probably 2/3 of which are black or gray). They do well on 18-hour days like this, which DC is notoriusly full of.

    I can’t pull off a DVF wrap dress, but that would be something that holds up all day (if you aren’t like me, with the bust flopping around b/c there is more fabric there than my girls need).

    • Triangle Pose :

      Preach! Agreed. The most versatile outfit. I have mostly 3/4 sleeve sheath dresses, solid colors. I try to do dress+lipstick+cocktail ring or a good necklace for networking receptions.

      Now that I bought the MM LaFleur ecru jardigan, I’m going to wear a lot of sleeveless sheath dresses with it for events like this.

      PS Was underwhelmed by everything at the MM La Fleur pop-up other than the jardigan I bought.

      • Anonymous :

        Can you suggest some of your favorite dresses? I LOVE the idea of 3/4 sleeve sheath dress and I have none!

    • Marshmallow :

      Yep! I’d wear my black Tahari “Tonya” dress. Contrasting jacket over the top during the day, ditch the jacket at night. Any black or navy sheath dress is great for this.

  3. Anonymous :

    Seconding everyone who says to wear a sheath dress, with or without a blazer. Caveat though, it should be a work-appropriate sheath dress. My firm had an event with this type of dress code with our summer associates, and one of the female summers decided to change after work into a dress that was much more “cocktail” than “business,” even though I told her in advance not to do that. It did not go over well.

  4. Anonymous :

    It sounds like you’re wearing student clothes during the day because you mentioned graduate school and also jeans? If that’s the case, you might think about slightly elevating your student wardrobe. For instance, you could wear cropped pants with supergas during the day and trade your sneakers for flats for evening.

  5. Our old favorite, the sheath dress, as so many above have mentioned. Depending on your skin tone and the office, I’d pick either a muted take on a jewel tone (I have a pine sheath that I adore, and it serves as a toned-down emerald) or a chic neutral (blush, soft grey), paired with a neutral jacket during the day (black, grey, beige), and shoes that coordinate or match.

    What I will say is it’s a killer to take your work satchel/tote to a cocktail hour, so perhaps plan on a smaller yet professional bag if there is no place to let it be other than your arm throughout the evening. I’ll also second the cocktail ring, but given the possible smaller bag, I’d try for a comfortable wedge that you can tolerate all day without needing to switch shoes.

    Also, my favorite spot for sheath dresses is Karen Millen, and I’ve scored less pricey yet fantastic options at Dillard’s (house brand Antonio Melani), and even H&M (one rare occasion).

  6. Anonymous :

    I would wear the clothes that you wore to work that day whether they be a pants suit or sheath dress. I tend to wear a lot of pants suits. Unless you’ve been told that the dress code for the rest of the day or dinner/happy hour is jeans, I would not wear them.

    Also, YMMV on whether or not it is a “killer” to have your work satchel/tote at happy hour/dinner. If you don’t have a chance to go back to where you are staying, no one else will either. They will either be toting theirs or depositing it somewhere in the room/at their seat for dinner. I often have happy hours/dinner meetings on business trips; we all do this; no one thinks twice best that I can tell. Everyone is more interested in getting to know each other.

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