What Are Cocktail Dresses?

Elegant, sleek & suitable for semi-formal to formal occasions - Put simply, a cocktail dress is typically a knee-length party dress to wear at a cocktail party. There are many different styles of course, and here we attempt to feature some of the more popular ones. But first, let’s take a look at the do’s and don’ts when dressing for a cocktail party.

Things To Remember

  • Go for high heels. Avoid flat shoes unless completely unavoidable.
  • Choose the right dress line. Go for a full length dress for a black tie (formal) event, knee-length or slightly lower for semi-casual event, and knee-length or higher for casual event.
  • Wear hosiery. Sheer black or a nude colour will suffice for the occasion.
  • Both open and closed-toe shoes are acceptable for a formal or informal event. If the shoes are open-toe then go for seamless hosiery.
  • Avoid wearing skirts or suits (unless your invitation states casual or semi-casual).

Common Questions

What’s a good sleeve length for a cocktail dress?

There are no general rules for the appropriate sleeve length, so wear whatever you’re most comfortable in. Click here for help choosing the right sleeve types.

Do I bring a coat or cover up?

For a late finish cocktail party a coat would be prudent but bringing something as simple as a wrap or light formal jacket would be fine too - you’ll enjoy the party more if you’re not shivering from the temperature.

What necklace goes best with my dress’s neckline?

For V-line dresses - wear a longer necklace with a simple drop for a flattering affect that doesn’t take away from the look. For round neck dresses, a 15 inch or less chain with a decorative pendant or charm works well.

Sleeve Types

Bishop
Loose fitting down the arm, but gathered at the wrist, to allow flowing motion, yet control of the sleeve.
Bell
Fitted much of the way down the arm, but opening into a large bell shape at the bottom.
Cap
These are typical sleeves that will just cover the top of the shoulder.
Dolman
Full at the top, but gradually tightening in to a perfectly snug fit at the wrist.
Fitted
These sleeves are perfectly fitted from top to bottom and do not have any open space.
Gibson
These sleeves are full all the way down and are sometimes made to look fuller through the use of a puff at the top.
Juliet
Juliet sleeves are mostly fitted down the arm, but have a puff of fabric at the shoulder.
Three-Quarter
These come three-quarters of the way down, ending just below the elbow, and are often relatively tight as well.

Which sleeves are right for you?

If you have attractive arms, you may want to show them off and emphasise them through the use of a cap sleeve that shows your skin, or fitted sleeves, that will show the shape of the arm. If your arms are a little lankier than you would like them to be, you can give them more oomph through the use of a Bishop, Dolman or Gibson sleeve.

Have a little extra weight on your arms than you would like? Juliet or Bell sleeves may be your better options. The Juliet sleeves will let the poof at the shoulder pull eyes away from the rest of your arm that you may not want them to see. Likewise the bell at the bottom of the bell sleeves will make the rest of your arm look smaller, in comparison.

Cocktail Dresses for Your Shape

It’s sleek, sophisticated, and sexy. “But how will it look on me?” you ask. Good question. Before purchasing that perfect cocktail dress you’ve always wanted, there are a few things you may wish to consider. So we all can’t have that ‘model perfect’ body that seems to grace the pages of most magazines these days, but is that any reason not to look your best? Of course not! With a few handpicked tips and tricks, you can emphasise the positives, and downplay the negatives.

Identify your body shape

The most important factor is to choose the right cocktail dress for your shape. While most individuals can identify attributes that will fall into more than 1 category, choose the category that best describes you overall;

Pear attributes

What is it? Slender/elongated upper body - Smaller bust - Hips and thighs larger than upper body.

What to look for:
  • Find an empire waistline dress or an A-line skirt. These help to de-emphasise your lower half, making the body look more proportional.
  • Two-toned dresses with light colours on the top and darker on the bottom will accentuate your torso.
  • Padded shoulders will balance the top and bottom.
Straight attributes

What is it? Petite chest and bottom - Few visible curves - Slender legs

What to look for:
  • A dress that incorporates a multitude of layers that gather
  • A surplice tops or wrap accentuates the waist with a flowing skirt
  • A cocktail suit with a peplum jacket
Round attributes

What is it? Waist curved outwards - Thick or thin legs - Wider appearance

What to look for:
  • V-shaped necklines
  • Empire waistline dresses
  • Eye catching accessories
Inverted Triangle

What is it? Broad Shoulders - Narrow waistline - Petite hips

What to look for:
  • Asymmetrical hemlines
  • Flair skirt with a neutrally coloured top
  • Wide legged cocktail suit
Oversized Hour Glass

What is it? Tiny waist - Large chest and hips - Small bone structure

What to look for:
  • Monotone colours
  • Looser fitting clothes
  • Flashy accessories to divert attention from curves

Remember that beauty comes not only from style but also from self-confidence. When you feel good about the way you look, it shows. Spend a little time planning and shopping to find that perfect cocktail dress and you’ll be well on your way to turning heads in no time at all.


Casual Wear

If you’re going to a ‘casual’ cocktail party but you don’t want to appear underdressed or overdressed for the event - how do you know what’s appropriate as well as in style? Here are a few options:

  • Cocktail Suits- If it’s not new then try it on beforehand. Nothing is worse than having a distracting conversation due to someone fidgeting with their clothes
  • Skirt and Blouse- A knee length seasonal skirt and a wrap top will definitely do the trick
  • Dress - A knee length cotton dress is nice and fun

Stay away from

  • Skin tight pants - no matter what kind of get together you’re at tight pants gives the impression that you are wearing an everyday outfit.
  • Long dresses - long dresses are usually associated with formal events. If this is a casual get together then you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
  • Tank tops and t-shirts - why? This is a cocktail party. Even if the invite says “casual”, a tank top or t-shirt is pretty inappropriate to wear.

Plus Sized Dresses

If you need a dress for that special event, but are afraid you aren't going to find one that compliments your body shape, you aren't alone. There are a lot of women who experience stress when it comes time to buying a dress, because of a little extra weight they are holding on to. But this kind of shopping doesn't have to be stressful. Arm yourself with the knowledge you need so you can shop with confidence.

  1. Firstly, you need to know the look you want. Fashionable clothes are made in all sizes. Just because you are a little larger, don't think you can't find pieces that are stylish. Look through current magazines at the fashion trends.
  2. Do you need shape wear? Some women like to use undergarments that have some support and help to tuck that tummy when you wear it, if you are going to use these items, you need to have them on when you go shopping.
  3. When you do find items of clothing that you think may work, try them on. A lot of people like to guess that something will fit. There is no way to know for sure other than to put it on your body. Once it is on take some time to really look at yourself in the mirror. Look specifically at the areas on your body that you know are the trouble spots and see if the dress is flattering.

Tip! One of the best dresses you can get is the proverbial 'little black dress'. Black is a flattering colour for plus sized women and a little black plus sized cocktail dress can be worn to almost anything. Just dress it up with some jewellery and you're ready to go.

Cocktail Dresses for Weddings

A cocktail dress is a very versatile dress that can be suited to a number of occasions, so unsurprisingly a wedding is pretty high up on that list of occasions. When it comes to attending weddings, there are a few rules to keep in mind when choosing dress. If your dress is white, forget it. Only the bride gets to wear white. This is her day and no one gets to take that colour except her. Black cocktail dresses are also out at weddings. Black is a bit sombre of a colour for a wedding.

Dressing for the Occasion

Now that you know what colours not to wear, you can focus on what you can wear. If the wedding is semi-formal or an informal evening event, a regular cocktail dress will do just fine. If it's a formal evening event, you can still wear a cocktail dress, but it needs to be very dressy (think beaded or heavily accented with a wrap and stunning jewellery.

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