What Is a Cocktail Dress? Cocktail Attire for Women

What Is a Cocktail Dress?

We’ve all heard the term “cocktail dress” and we’ve all received invitations to various events where the ambiguous “cocktail attire required” is printed in cursive at the bottom of the invite. And yet, many are unsure about the defining factors of the cocktail dress or cocktail attire. Simply stated, a cocktail dress is a semi-formal dress intended to be worn to late-afternoon or early-evening social gatherings, events, or occasions.

The answer to the transitory space between casual daytime wear and fancy evening wear, the cocktail dress was born. Originating in the early 20th century when the wealthy began to gather and socialize for cocktail hour, the cocktail dress was the perfect way for women to wear something dressier than their daytime look and more casual than their formal dinner dress. The in-between dress for the in-between hours was the defining origin of this caliber of women’s dresses.

While the modern-day cocktail dress is an ode to its historical origins in name, it has undergone an evolution in purpose and aesthetic over the last century. As styles changed, so did the cocktail dress. However, through changing silhouettes, hemlines, waistlines, and fabrics, the cocktail dress has prevailed as a staple fancy enough but not too fancy to be part of most women’s closets. So where does this leave us in the 21st century? Whereas in the past, these dresses were reserved for swanky late-afternoon drinking, nowadays, these special occasion dresses are typically worn for events, special occasions, festive parties, or even in professional settings. In terms of style, these dresses have also evolved to meet the fashion and style of the modern woman.

Cocktail Attire for Women

When you see “cocktail attire” written at the bottom of an invitation, it’s time to get excited. Cocktail attire for women is a wonderful opportunity to get dressed up and feel glamorous in a way we don’t get to every day. Cocktail attire is a standard dress code for many parties and evening functions. Falling somewhere between business casual and black-tie formal, cocktail attire is typically a nice balance of formal with casual and elegance with comfort. While cocktail attire is not exactly conservative, it is reserved and sophisticated.

Cocktail Dresses

In terms of style, cocktail dresses are typically a step or two up from your regular streetwear or work dresses. They often are made of more luxurious fabrics such as silk and satin and can be detailed with tasteful additions such as sequins, embroidery, or conservative prints. A cocktail dress should make you feel dressed up for an occasion, unlike your standard going out to dinner wear. Keeping hemlines more generous and necklines tamed are good rules of thumb when choosing a cocktail dress. We’re off to a special event, after all, not a night club.

Just as the cocktail dress originated as the in-between attire of the in-between time of day, in between is also the best approach with the length of your cocktail dress. When determining the length of your dress, it’s best not to go too short or too long. Typically, a cocktail dress hemline will fall right above the knees. If you are looking for something a little longer, avoid a floor-length gown look or maxi dresses for women. Instead, opt for a midi dress that offers a more streamlined look with its length, but is not too over the top.

Cocktail Shoes

Like everything else to do with cocktail attire, cocktail shoes should be a nice balance of extremes—not too fancy, yet not too casual. Perhaps leave your usual street shoes at home and choose shoes that are a little dressier and formal. This being said, tall stilettos could be overkill. Choose a simple pair of heels or mules that will add a sophisticated finish to your look. Choose neutral hues such as black, nude, or navy. A sandal- or pump-style heel will look smart and subtle enough for the perfect accompaniment to your cocktail dress.

Cocktail Accessories

Wearing accessories with your cocktail attire is a wonderful way to dress up and embellish your look more without going over the top. Avoid too much jewelry or too many statement pieces that could detract from your overall ensemble. We’re not off to Cinderella’s ball, after all. Choose one or two statement pieces, such as a necklace, hair accessory, or earrings, that will catch people’s attention without taking away from the rest of your outfit. Accessories are a fun way to add a twist of personal style to your cocktail attire look. Also, you will want to choose a clutch or small purse that matches your outfit rather than bringing along a bag.

Cocktail Attire for Occasions

Now that we’ve covered the basics of cocktail attire, it’s time to learn about the different kinds of cocktail occasions. Cocktail attire is ambiguous, but it also exists on a spectrum. For example, there is formal cocktail attire, casual cocktail attire, and festive cocktail attire. All of these dress codes fall under the heading of cocktail attire but may require slightly different touches or recommendations to have your outfit truly fit the bill.

Formal Cocktail Attire

Formal cocktail attire is like cocktail attire with a black-tie flair. Often a dress code for weddings, this is the dressier variation on cocktail attire. The best go-to dress for formal cocktail attire is your fancy black dress. Black and other neutral hues are great choices. Choose a dress that is made from high-quality materials and that isn’t too short. Pair your dress with some sleek and sophisticated accessories to complete your look. Remember, formal cocktail attire is fancier than regular cocktail attire, so feel free to get a little dressier.

Casual Cocktail Attire

Casual cocktail attire is the more relaxed variation on cocktail attire. Perfect for garden parties or summer events, the feel of this look is a little brighter and more comfortable. Choose a dress that is looser, such as a shift style or flowy dress. Lighter colors and more relaxed patterns are perfect for this look. No need for too much glitter or sequins here; instead, opt for simple yet chic accessories and a casual clutch or chain strap bag. Simple block heels, cute wedges, or snazzy mules are great for this aesthetic.

Festive Cocktail Attire

Festive cocktail attire is often the dress code for dressier holiday parties. During the holiday season, it’s likely you have a cocktail event to attend. Festive cocktail attire is similar to regular cocktail attire, except festive touches like bright colors and glitter are integrated into the overall aesthetic. Choose a bright red dress, gold sequins, or anything that glitters. Metallics or anything that shines is also perfect for the festivities.

Do's and Don’ts of Cocktail Attire for Women

Though it may seem as though we have covered all the bases of cocktail dresses, there are still some do's and don’ts surrounding cocktail attire for women.


Do wear pants. While we don’t recommend wearing jeans, wearing a tailored pantsuit, a jumpsuit, or appropriately styled dress pants can be a fabulous outfit choice for a cocktail party. Do get your dress cleaned or steamed before the event. A crumpled or wrinkly dress can wreck even the most stunning dress. Especially if your dress is silk, get it cleaned or steamed beforehand. Do wear a stick-on or strapless bra and seamless panties. Keeping your undergarments subtle is highly recommended for cocktail attire. Do find a way to express your personal style, even when adhering to cocktail attire unwritten rules.


As just mentioned, try not to let your undergarment peek out from underneath your dress. Don’t bring a chunky bag, but instead bring a clutch or small purse. Don’t wear short dresses or floor-length gowns, but instead find the perfect mid-length between above the knees and the mid-calf. Don’t show too much cleavage—your neckline should not be distracting from your outfit. Don’t wear flip-flops or street shoes, but instead enjoy the opportunity to wear something a little fancier. Don’t wear women’s jeans, but instead explore wearing a jumpsuit or pants suit. And most important of all, no matter what you wear, don’t forget to have fun.

Showing off a cocktail dress is a fun way to get dressed up and feel fabulous. When choosing your dress, always keep in mind that we are trying to strike the balance between fancy and casual, and comfortable yet elegant.

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