Dear Etiquetteer: We have a wedding to attend in November that requests "cocktail" attire. What exactly is that? When my brother got married he requested festive attire (and clarified what that was) but my date and I were the only ones festively attired. What should we do?
You've hit upon a source of frustration for Etiquetteer and millions of people. The dress code on an invitation is supposed to clarify what to wear, not confuse. Could we all please return to the basic dress codes?:
Casual: Jeans, khakis, T-shirts, etc. Perfect Propriety is maintained when you wear clean and tidy casual clothes, without rips, tears, stains, or anything that's been through a BeDazzler.
Informal: Khakis or dress slacks, sport jackets (great opportunity for you to wear your tweed or linen). No sneakers or flip flops! No jeans.
Business Attire: Conservative dark suits and ties. If this is for an evening function, ladies can wear cocktail dresses. Be sure not to use "Business Dress" on the invitation, as some Tiresome Old Duffer, thinking he's original and funny, will call and ask what kind of dress he should wear.
Black Tie: A traditional tuxedo with a black bow tie and black cummerbund or waistcoat. Ladies wear floor-length dinner dresses (which are not ball gowns).
"Festive" or "Creative" Black Tie: Adding thematic or outrageous accessories to one's outfit using the basic Black Tie description above as a framework.
There's no point in adding "White Tie," as no one ever wears it any more (to Etiquetteer's chagrin).
So to answer your question at last, "Cocktail Attire" falls into Etiquetteer's definition of "Business Attire," not least because the cocktail hour traditionally begins at 5:00 PM. Please do report back on what you see the other guests wearing at this November wedding!
Etiquetteer will eagerly receive all your questions about Perfect Propriety at queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.