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What is a Cocktail Dress?

By G. Melanson
Updated May 21, 2024
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Sometimes referred to as a “party dress,” a cocktail dress is a mid-length semi-formal dress that is often chosen for evening outings. Although the style of dress itself emerged during the 1920s, contemporary fashion designer Christian Dior has been credited with coining the name. The classic “little black dress” defined by Coco Chanel is a type of cocktail dress, and is often touted as a versatile must-have for any woman’s wardrobe. One of the most iconic images of this type of dress in popular culture is that worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Most cocktail dresses can be dressed up or down depending on which items they’re paired with. One of the benefits of these dresses is their appropriateness for both a professional environment in the daytime and a social outing in the evening. In the daytime, women might wear cocktail dresses paired with fitted jackets or cardigans, creating a conservative outfit suitable for an office environment. In the evening, the same dress could be worn to a lounge or club when paired with eye-catching accessories or the footwear most often worn with the frock, high heels. Boots can also be worn with a cocktail dress if they are fitted rather than loose or clunky.

Although the cocktail dress is known for its versatility, there are certain types of dresses that are inherently formal or fancy and difficult to dress down. These are distinguishable by such features as sequins, satin, halter necks, bubble skirts, beading, and plunging necklines. There are also certain styles of dresses that might be too informal depending on the event, such as dresses with buttons down the front, jumper-style straps, or dresses worn layered over shirts.

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Discussion Comments
By nicoleblue — On Apr 24, 2012

Now, do you have to be drinking a cocktail to wear a cocktail dress?

By yournamehere — On Aug 03, 2010

@@naturesgurl3 -- I feel your pain. A lot of times it's really hard to find vintage dresses, particularly if you want to find the old designer cocktail dresses.

Although there are some places online that sell them, I think your best bet is honestly to hit the yard sale and flea market circuit. Once you get the word out, vendors will start looking for dresses for you, and hold them for you if they find them.

Another thing to try is wearing modern, vintage-style cocktail dresses. There are a lot of modern brands that are remaking the old classics, so that way you can get an elegant cocktail dress without having to break the bank.

By naturesgurl3 — On Aug 03, 2010

Does anybody know some good places to find vintage cocktail dresses?

I love the style of the 1950s and 60s dresses, but they're so hard to find.

Any tips?

By galen84basc — On Aug 03, 2010

I am such a fan of the black cocktail dress.

There is really nothing that little thing can't do -- wear it to work if you're feeling fancy, wear it out in the evening, wear it anywhere!

There's a reason that the LBD is so classic. It flatters almost everybody, and can give you an instant lift if you're feeling down.

I think every woman I know has that special LBD that they could wear every day, and once you find it, you know it -- it's almost like a love affair!

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