What is a ‘cocktail’ dress code anyway?



“Getting it right means so much but it also means nothing, because here’s the thing: they’re just clothes.”

This is an extract from ‘In My Defence, I Have No Defence’ by Sinéad Stubbins (Affirm Press), out now.

Oh, you’ve been invited to an event? Well, aren’t you the belle of the ball. I expect Mr Darcy will ask you to dance, right there in front of everyone. I bet you and Cha Cha, the best dancer at St Bernadette’s, will set the floor aflame with your rendition of the ‘hand-jive’.

I imagine you’ll be taken home in Theodore Laurence’s carriage after you twist your ankle. Oh, how the debutantes will gossip about a man’s hands touching your naked and exposed and sexual ankle. Well, aren’t we special.

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But oh wait, the dress code is ‘cocktail’ so maybe you shouldn’t go at all. The stress involved in ascertaining the correct interpretation of ‘cocktail’ will far outweigh any fun you could possibly have at this event. Even if it’s your best friend’s birthday party. Even if it’s Oprah’s birthday party.

For quite some time now – or, at least, for as long as I have been aware of the dress code ‘cocktail’ (which happens at around 24, the same time that you realise that the thing you wanted to be in high school isn’t really the thing you want to be now and, oh god, why did I do all that studying and, uh oh, people around me sure seem keen on entering Serious Relationships, is this the time we’re meant to be doing that, because I sort of thought – wait, what are you saying, the reason that my skin is spotty and my hair is falling out is because I don’t drink water, WHO KNEW ABOUT WATER; it’s a time of hard revelations) I have sort of concluded that ‘cocktail’ is a scam.

I have this persistent suspicion that whoever invented the cocktail dress code (King Edward VIII, prior to abdicating? The Baroness in The Sound of Music? One of the Heathers in Heathers?) did so in order to weed out the less-than-ideal people in their lives: the ones who aren’t quite sophisticated enough to fit into the hypothetical photo of their fantasy weekend. I don’t know if I truly believe it, but it has crossed my mind. Because with cocktail, it seems like you either get it or you don’t, and there is absolutely no in-between.

‘The dress is cocktail,’ my work colleague said, while handing me a paper invitation to a company social in a few weeks: one of those events that businesses put on to keep spirits high and employee-turnover costs low. ‘Oh, fun!’ I said and took the invitation. I had only just started this job at a company of about 350 normal people, and I had decided to take on the persona of someone who said things like ‘Oh, fun!’ unironically and asked ‘How was your weekend?’ at the coffee machine. ‘What are you wearing to this?’ I said faux-casually to the girl who sat next to me.

‘Um, I don’t know,’ she said while staring intently at her screen, signalling that I had now been categorised as a frivolous girl and not a serious girl, the kind of frivolous girl who plans her outfits two weeks in advance because she loves outfits so much. She probably had a closet full of outfits that were perfect for this occasion anyway. She probably had dresses that she had worn to the polo and her cousin’s wedding and a couple of pieces she picked up after spotting them in the window while strolling down the street.

She didn’t need them for a specific occasion, they were ‘just in case’ purchases. ‘You just never know!’ she probably said afterwards to her friends (they’re on the same netball team) and her mother-in-law while they drank mimosas at 2pm. Choosing a cocktail dress isn’t a terrifying prospect when opening your closet is like walking out of the elevator onto the fanciest floor of David Jones.


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‘Yeah, I don’t know either!’ I said with a loud, fake, horse laugh, as if she had been the one to ask the question. I didn’t bring it up again. While staring at my new, fancy desktop computer, I thought about how I’d never had to worry about cocktail dresses at my old job – though at that job there had once been a morning when everyone got to work to find someone had smashed a TV through the front door. There was just shattered glass, no door and a TV sitting on the floor, and the council wouldn’t remove the TV because it was on private property. It wasn’t really a cocktail dress kind of place.

I ended up wearing a shapeless black linen dress (which had a mysterious white stain on it that could have been candle wax or bleach) that I wore almost once a week, trying to jazz up my look by adding eyeliner and flat black sandals that pinched my foot sides. I got it wrong.

King Edward aside, it seems most likely that the cocktail dress code was invented around the same time as the cocktail dress in the 1920s. This was a shorter version of the formal dresses of the time, one that allowed you to move around social gatherings with more ease – presumably to make covert deals about bootlegging gin. In a 1936 film called The Ex-Mrs Bradford, a blonde bombshell called Jean Arthur says that a cocktail dress is ‘something to spill cocktails on’, which I know is just a funny thing to say and is untrue, otherwise we’d all be walking around in bin-bag togas.

Basically, if you’re not familiar with this particular lifestyle – a lifestyle of days at the races and weekends at wineries and… ah… champagne museum galas? I don’t know – your only recourse is to figure out what cocktail is by figuring out what it is not. This is what I have learnt that it is not from attending a handful of cocktail events in my life (three, maybe four):

  • Not a ball gown with a train, definitely not that.
  • I mean it, do not wear a ball gown! Put that ball gown back into storage (A basement full of dry ice? The weekend cottage owned by your great uncle, the Count? Paris Hilton’s closet in The Bling Ring, with the stripper pole and all those pillows with her face on it?).
  • Pants. Unless they’re made out of… silk?
  • Anything that ASOS suggests is ‘cocktail appropriate’.

What I’m saying is that it must be a garment that makes you seem as playful as a gust of wind whipping up one’s hem, has the power of a raging cyclone ripping up the roots of thousand-year-old trees, and gives the wearer the unmistakable sensation of being levitated from atop a tall hill, the tumultuous air gathering underneath your open umbrella and carrying you, lifting lifting lifting like Icarus towards the sun!

Basically, I don’t know. Knowing if you’ve gotten it right often requires a lot of feedback, too. Would this work???? you write to friends in Slack channels and Facebook group messages, sending links to items that you know can be express shipped in three days or less. Is this okay???? you’ll text to other friends once you’re wearing the outfit, accompanied by a full-body photo of you making a pained face in your grubby mirror.

You look fine, your friends will always reply, which is not actually a signal that you do actually look fine, but could signal that they are exasperated with this two-week-long conversation – and with you – and you better stop right now lest you be the anecdote at their next cocktail party, which you will not be invited to.

Naturally, it’s usually the most stressful events that require this delicate decoding. I might be imagining it, but the social occasions I have dreaded most have also involved a cocktail dress code. Say, weddings for people I don’t really know, which involve me either hiding in the toilet for 80 per cent of the night or getting catastrophically drunk and saying things like, ‘Who wants to talk about Taylor Swift and Kanye West?’ to groups of people in the hope that they will challenge me.

Or, industry events that I have neither the networking skills nor public profile to legitimately attend. Somehow, these are the ones that I always forget to prepare for. Have you ever attended a party where everyone was wearing suits and chandelier earrings, and you turned up in scuffed Dr. Martens and with a stained white tote bag? But it’s too late to do anything about it? And then you got introduced to Ronan Farrow, who had recently won a Pulitzer Prize? And you said, ‘I’m dressed a bit casual!’ and he looked at you like a baby deer who had just plopped out of the birth canal and was attempting to stand for the first time but kept slipping on birthing fluid? Well, I have, which is why I know it’s important to figure out what ‘cocktail’ means.

Of course, the anxiety that you’re not quite dressed correctly isn’t reserved for adulthood. At primary school, casual clothes days were absolutely rife with landmines. What does ‘casual’ mean to them, I would think to myself, trying to subtly discern what other people (children, really) were planning on wearing without giving away the fact that I was thinking about it too much. Thinking about stuff too much is the enemy of casual clothes day. But of course ‘casual’ means such different things to different people. (Is it jeans? IS IT TRACKSUIT PANTS???)

One St Patrick’s Day, I told my mum I wouldn’t dress in all-green casual clothes because I didn’t know for sure if my classmates would – I didn’t want to seem that Irish. All the kids in my class were pretty much first-generation Greek or Italian or Vietnamese, and I didn’t need to remind them that I wasn’t. Naturally, that day everyone in the school was dressed in green casual clothes and I was dressed in my uniform, which gave me a vaguely self-hating and uniform-loving vibe that my mum found very amusing. I never again approached a casual clothes day without gathering intel first.

Getting it right means so much but it also means nothing, because here’s the thing: they’re just clothes. They’re just different materials stitched together that we strategically tangle around our bodies so that our sensitive parts don’t show. They’re not better or worse than each other; they’re not really anything. But somehow they still signal to our peers that we desire to behave correctly, are prepared to match them in a ritual, and that there is no need to panic because things are going exactly to plan.

Even though this is a very adolescent instinct, there is a very small part of my heart – a part that relishes getting it deliberately wrong – that I’d like to protect. Because it means they haven’t quite got you yet. It means you know that it’s all a farce, really, that the only code you care about is your own and you’re willing to prove it. The last cocktail event I went to before the world shut down was at the opening night of a film festival, which I wasn’t nervous about because I had attended this event before. It was the sort of thing where I knew I would run into other awkward people who also never usually attend events, and we would make oh GOD faces to each other from across the room and clutch each other’s arms like liferafts.

This time, I decided that instead of borrowing an outfit that I was scared of ruining or buying a weird dress on AfterPay that I would never wear again, it was okay to wear a pair of plain black pants, pants I had owned for many years and that had survived sitting on curbs, being splashed with beer and being worn at Meredith Music Festival. I wasn’t the kind of girl who had fancy outfits that hung in her closet ‘just in case’. That was okay. After work I smugly took my easily-foldable night-time outfit into the toilets to change, feeling as though I had cracked some code of unattainable, genteel femininity.

I hadn’t worn the pants in a while, and when 5.30pm rolled around, I realised mid-zip-up that the reason I hadn’t worn the pants in a while was because they were now a bit too tight on the tummy. It was too late to turn back, so I just lay parallel on the closed lid of the work toilet and sucked in my intestines until I could do them up, praying the plastic button wouldn’t pop and trying to remember how to do a French tuck to disguise the straining fabric. There was a mark on them that several splashes from the sink couldn’t remove. ‘It’ll be dark,’ I said to no one.

A few hours later, while rummaging the artistic grazing table of stacked cheeses, mounds of meat and strategically placed bread sticks, I dropped a hunk of salami on the floor. As I leaned over to pick it up, I heard the pop of a button.

You can keep up with Sinead here and purchase her book here.

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