What is a cocktail dress?

Three older women laughing dressed in cocktail attire in a bar.


There isn’t a singular style of dress which can be exclusively defined as a cocktail dress. This is a general term that’s used to refer to dresses that are suitable for formal and semi-formal occasions. It traditionally describes the dress code for cocktail parties. 

Nowadays, cocktail dresses can fit into many different categories, including occasionwear, wedding guest outfits, party wear, evening and race wear. When we think of cocktail dresses, we tend to think of a mid-length style that’s sophisticated and fitting for a party. This could be anything from a lace tea dress to a classy silk ensemble. 

Cocktail dresses are usually a mixture between conservative and fun - you wouldn’t want to attend an event with this dress code in something that’s too revealing or in something that comes across as dull. Aim for stylish with an air of formality.

What does cocktail dress mean? 

Simply put, a cocktail dress is an elegant knee-length party dress. It gained popularity in the 1920s and 30s when wealthier households had to change into suitable clothing for pre-dinner drinks and canapés. The semi-formal look was designed for the transition from day to night, so cocktail dresses represent somewhere between casual clothes and formal evening wear.   

Post World War I, women began to crave more freedom and independence. They started to spend more time at clubs and cocktail soirées, and as such required a specific dress code. These kinds of social events demanded an outfit that filled the gap between daytime dresses and ballgowns. The cocktail dress succeeded in this by introducing a knee-length style with no sleeves, no collar and some decoration. The versatility of this style ensured that with the correct accessories, these dresses would be suitable to wear any time from the afternoon until late into the evening.   

It wasn’t until the 1940s that the term ‘cocktail dress’ was used to refer to early-evening wear, and it was none other than Mr Christian Dior who started this trend. Cocktail dresses aren’t just limited to cocktail parties. They are generally worn to the following:

 -       Weddings 

 -       Anniversaries 

 -       Formal celebration parties (e.g. birthdays, retirements)  

 -       Race days 

 -       Graduations 

 -       Christenings   

Like smart casual outfits, a cocktail dress has no set definition. Tailor Mark Powell describes them as ‘the clothing you wear on the cusp of evening wear but more colourful’. You can’t go wrong with a classic black and white garment, but it’s true that there are plenty of options to experiment with more vibrant colours and styles of cocktail dresses.  

Are cocktail dresses long or short?

Traditionally, the hemline of a cocktail dress should rest at the knee or mid-calf. However, this rule doesn’t always have to apply. With fashion constantly changing, shorter and longer hemlines can also be suitable as cocktail dresses, as long as they are sophisticated without appearing too casual or too much like a ballgown.    

For instance, a casual shorter sleeveless dress may not be the best option for an occasion which specifies cocktail attire as the dress code. However, a dress that rests above the knee but is balanced out by long sleeves will still look sophisticated and can be an appropriate outfit. Alternatively, a chiffon ‘midaxi’ or maxi dress can make the perfect cocktail ensemble, especially for events such as race days or summer soirées. 

Can I wear a long dress to a cocktail party?

As mentioned above, maxi dresses can definitely be worn to a cocktail party. Although, be careful not to choose something that looks like a bridesmaid’s dress or a prom dress. These kinds of dresses, along with ballgowns, are usually very embellished or have a distinctive fit, such as fishtail or a huge balloon skirt.   

Instead, breezy maxi dresses, like floor-length smock dresses, would adhere to the cocktail attire code as they wouldn’t be too casual and they’d be distinguishable from a ballgown. Regardless of length, simply wear what makes you comfortable. Whether that’s above the knee or to the floor, strapless or long-sleeved, as long you radiate confidence, you’ll be cocktail party-ready. 

What are some examples of cocktail dresses?

●     A-line dress   

A-line cocktail dresses are perfect for those seeking a classic look. With a fitted bodice and wider skirt to accentuate the waistline, A-line dresses are flattering on every body type.  

●     Embellished dress   

Sequins, embroidery, beading and feathers can all be found on an embellished cocktail dress. A bit of sparkle can create a statement outfit, so it’s the perfect choice for evening parties.  

●     Lace dress   

Lace is timeless and perfect for sophisticated occasions. One of the most feminine materials, you’ll be able to find anything from delicate vintage lace to thicker crochet styles.   

●     Long-sleeved dress 

Long-sleeved cocktail dresses always appear elegant and are perfect for the likes of a winter wedding. While most are traditional, edgier options are available if you’re feeling daring, such as designs with mesh sleeves.                        

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