The invitation arrived and the date is here. Your husband (or boyfriend/partner) asks you, "What does cocktail attire mean?" You hesitate a moment and realize that you don't have a definitive answer for him. Here's your reply for future reference: cocktail attire means "get dressed up". Black tie means "get really dressed up".
Here is some background:
Generally speaking, in the great state of California, if you've been invited to a wedding you can assume that the couple to be married and hosting the event has spent anywhere from $75-$350 per guest. That means $150-$700 for you as a couple!!!! What you wear translates into respecting the fact that this soon to be newlywed couple has paid a respectable amount of money for you to join in the celebration.
Let me be more specific:
A good rule of thumb- anything that has a sheen or is shiny works. Keep this in mind.
Dress and high heels is the most obvious choice. However, slacks or suits are lovely, too. Flat shoes for woman are quite appropriate if they are clean, new and embellished.
Stay away from raffia heels, clogs, wood stacked heels or canvas shoes.
Fabrics to look out for are satin, wool, crepe, rayon, acetate and organza. All these fabrics can be worn year- round and convey "evening". Fabrics to avoid constitute denim, chambray, and any cotton including jersey cotton. If you notice; denim, raffia, wood, canvas and cotton are all dull or muted --not shiny (back to my rule of thumb).
A good rule of thumb is think three pieces: pants, shirt, jacket.
The most obvious choice is a suit and tie, any color. Linen and seersucker are reserved for spring and summer. Trousers and a sports coat work as well. Can you leave out a tie with his suit or sports coat? Very carefully. This means everything else has to look tailored and smart. Can you substitute a vest for a jacket or coat? Yes, very carefully. You will need to wear a tie and your vest needs to fit properly--not too big or too snug. Fabric to avoid: denim and any form of cotton slacks.
While we're in the subject, what does black tie or formal REALLY mean? Get really dressed up. For women it's less obvious. It used to allow for long dresses only, but contemporary (thought) is short or long dresses, but no slacks or suits please. For men it's simple: tuxedo- any style, any era. Just needs to fit properly.
So now you're off to the nuptial feast and you're properly dressed. You're ready to show your appreciation for your generous hosts and respect of the occasion. Cheers!
By the way, when the invitation does not specify a particular dress code you can assume it is cocktail attire unless otherwise stated.