Cocktail Dress – What It Is and How to Choose

Aine Lagan - June 11 2021

Cocktail dresses are an eveningwear staple. They’re the dresses you reach for when it’s your best friend’s birthday or if you’re attending a Christmas party. Fun and flirty, cocktail dresses work for almost every occasion. No closet is complete without a cocktail dress that can take you from a wedding reception to a fancy restaurant.

This guide tells you everything you need to know about cocktail dresses, including when to wear one and styling inspiration. 

Cocktail Dress: Definition and History

A cocktail dress is a semi-formal (or in some cases, formal) dress that is traditionally knee-length. It’s the type of dress that works for almost any special occasion, whether you’re heading to the races or attending a family wedding. You’ll find everything from silk to lace and mesh dresses in this niche.

The cocktail dresses first came into being as part of the American Lexicon in 1803. They became popular after the cocktail parties started in the region. It was after World War I that women were allowed to drink in bars. Thus, cocktail dresses became quite the choice for women at evening parties.
These dresses first became popular in the 1920s and 1930s, when they became synonymous with flappers, who wore them to cocktail parties. You can imagine a Gatsby-style party as the inspiration behind the cocktail dress. However, the name didn’t become popular until the 1940s, when Christian Dior began using it.


What makes cocktail dresses unique is that they mix sophistication with contemporary trends. If an event calls for a cocktail dress, it’s usually somewhere that you want to get dressed up to. While it’s not considered a black tie, a cocktail dress is a step up from what you would wear on a night out with friends.

As a rule of thumb, any evening event will usually call for cocktail attire. These events include business functions, engagement parties, and festive events. 

Choosing the Right Cocktail Dress for Different Occasions

Cocktail dresses are the ultimate investment in your closet. You can wear one to formal events, horse races, graduations, weddings, and parties. A cocktail dress isn’t as glamorous as a ballgown, but it’s considered the first step into evening wear.

Your cocktail dress should be both sophisticated and fun, usually with a shorter or mid-length hemline. If you want a versatile one, choose a style with a hem that falls around your knees. This length is flirty while still being appropriate for almost any occasion. 

When you’re choosing which cocktail dress to wear for an event, it’s worthwhile thinking about the venue and the event itself. If your invitation states that the dress code is ‘cocktail attire’, you’ll usually want to stay away from a more casual style or one that is sleeveless.

If you’re attending a formal event, like a wedding, it’s a good idea to choose a slightly more conservative option. You can balance out a short hemline with longer sleeves and swap out a mesh fabric for lace. 

Strapless cocktail dresses are usually more appropriate for parties that don’t involve a religious ceremony, whether it’s a wedding or christening. If you’re attending a milestone birthday or graduation, you can choose a dress that is flirtier in nature.

When you’re choosing a cocktail dress for any event, you want to make sure it’s one that you feel comfortable wearing. An A-line cocktail dress is a classic style that will accentuate your waistline and that is universally flattering. If you need a cocktail dress for an outdoor event or a formal occasion, look out for a style with long sleeves.

How to Style Your Cocktail Dresse

A cocktail dress is a proof that less is more. While a cocktail dress will work for almost any occasion, you usually want to let it take center stage. Cocktail attire sits between business casual and formal, which can make styling feel difficult.

One accessory you want to invest in for your cocktail dress is a small clutch bag. Oversized bags are a no-go as they can make your dress look more casual. A clutch is simple, elegant, and sophisticated – just like your cocktail dress. Leave your shoulder bag at home and opt for a clutch that you can hold in one hand.

As a rule, it’s best to avoid wearing too many statement accessories with your cocktail dress. Instead, choose one. You might decide to go all out with knee-high boots or a pair of statement chandelier earrings, but too many accessories can become overpowering. It’s best to live by Coco Chanel’s rule of taking off one accessory before you head out for your event. 

Keep your accessories as sleek as possible, making sure that they complement each other and your dress. You can keep your look minimalistic and monochrome by choosing accessories in the same color hue as your cocktail dress. If you have gold accents in your shoes, you can carry this motif into your jewelry and other accessories. 

When choosing your shoes, stilettoes and heels are your best friend. If you’re going to be on your feet all day, keep it simple with a block or kitten heel. While you can swap them out for ballet flats later in the evening, you want to avoid sneakers at all costs. Keep your shoes in a neutral hue that complements your dress, or choose your shoes as your statement accessory and go all out with a touch of sparkle or satin. 

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