"Cocktail attire" isn't formal, but it's not casual Friday, either

Q: I received a party invitation that reads, "cocktail attire." What does that mean, exactly?

A: It means different things to different people, especially in different parts of the country. What's considered de rigueur in Manhattan might look funereal in San Francisco.

No matter what part of the country you're in, however, cocktail dress does not mean running shoes or, chic as they might be, Birkenstocks.

Men should wear a jacket and tie and, preferably, a suit. Unless you're in an especially creative environment, it's safer to stick with a collared shirt. When in doubt, bring out the navy-blue blazer — it can take you almost anywhere in today's casual workplace.

Accessories are everything for women, mainly because cocktail parties often require us to head directly from work to the party. So if you can bring along a small purse and add some sparkly jewelry and sexy shoes, the simple work outfit — pants or skirt — can come alive without too much fuss.

Remember that electric lights wash out even the rosiest complexion, so don't ignore lipstick, blush and mascara at the least.

In more formal settings, a dressy suit, such as a black wool crepe with sparkly buttons, will serve you well. Fashion magazines tell us black is in this year, again. Never be shy to ask your host what most people will be wearing. That might sound like, "I just want to understand what 'cocktail attire' means." For the record, formal dress — tuxedoes or white tie for men and gowns for women — is only appropriate after 6 p.m.

What's in, always has been and always will be, is a smile. That's your best accessory.

Mary Mitchell is a Seattle-based corporate trainer and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette." E-mail questions to Mary@themitchell.org. Sorry, no personal replies.