How Do I Choose the Best Cocktail Dress?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Choosing the best cocktail dress can depend on personal style, budget, and the type of event. Since cocktail dresses are usually meant for semi-formal affairs, it is often best to choose a dress that is a little too dressy for the workplace, but not easily mistaken for a formal gown. For value and versatility, look for a basic dress than can be jazzed up with accessories. If an event requires a flashier, unique look, find dresses that use unusual details to make a strong statement.

A cocktail dress.
A cocktail dress.

Since a cocktail dress can be worn to a wide variety of events, it is important to find one that helps display personal style. For vintage clothing lovers, look for a dress that incorporates retro details, such as a 1930s drop waist or a pleated skirt. Trendy dressers may want to find less expensive dresses that can be worn for a season, then tossed out or donated without worry. Those who prefer a classic, elegant look may want to find basic, timeless dresses that can suit many different occasions and be worn for years.

A cocktail dress may be made of silk.
A cocktail dress may be made of silk.

Budget is also a concern when choosing a cocktail dress. For a dress that will be worn regularly, it may be worth it to invest in a high-quality brand that uses good fabric, such as silk charmeuse or shantung. Dresses in basic colors, such as black, tan, and red, can also be worth a higher investment, since these are often suitable in all seasons and for many different types of events. For those who prefer a more casual cocktail dress, look for basic designs in soft, dark colored jersey, which is easy to care for, inexpensive, and can be quite fancy with the right accessories. Girls on a budget can often find off-the-runway looks for low prices at clothing stores for teenagers and young adults.

The length and cut of a dress can help determine whether it is appropriate cocktail attire. Most cocktail dresses feature a hem that sits slightly above the knee, since longer dresses are usually considered too formal. An exception to this rule is the maxi-dress, which is a long, flowing dress often made out of colorful, patterned cotton fabric, which can be appropriate for summertime events. As for cut, look for classic silhouettes, such as A-line or pencil skirts, or halter, one-shoulder, and strapless sweetheart necklines.

To ensure that a cocktail dress can be worn over and over, look for a basic dress that allows infinite variation. Choosing a dress that is elegant but simple allows the wearer to focus on accessories, such as shoes, purses, and jewelry, which are easier to play with and vary. Dresses in neutral colors, such as black, brown, and beige, may be the most versatile, since these colors are always fashionable. Another way to increase versatility is by purchasing a multi-way dresses, which allows the top to be tied in a variety of different styles, such as v-neck, halter, or strapless.

For a special occasion cocktail dress that stands out, look for unique details and bold color choices. Detailing such as beading, sequins, or contrasting embroidery can truly allow the wearer to make a clear statement of individuality. Choosing fabrics with patterns like elegant black and white motifs, or blue and white toile, can also create a stand-out effect. Bright, bold colors, such as true red, amethyst, or sky blue, will differentiate the wearer from a sea of neutrals, and can help indicate a strong, confident personality.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


@Fa5t3r - A designer cocktail dress is definitely going to be very expensive, but there are other ways to find decent quality without buying a brand dress.

There are quite a few places now that sell handmade clothes by young designers that will be fitted to your measurements. Often their prices are cheaper than big brands because they are trying to build a name for themselves.

Or you could look for genuine vintage cocktail dresses. This might take a little bit more hard work, but the ability to tell someone you really hunted to get the beautiful dress you're wearing can be worth the effort.


@MrsPramm - Another alternative for people who might not have the finances to buy multiple cocktail dresses is to get one that can be worn in different ways. There are dresses that are designed to look very different depending on how they are put on, although you might have to practice to ensure that you can pull the look off for an event.

One good quality dress this versatile is probably worth five cheap cocktail dresses. There's no point in changing for every event if none of your looks are good.


If you have to go to regular events that require this kind of cocktail dress, and it's likely you'll be meeting the same people at each event, it pays to figure out a way to change your dress each time. Either get one that is very simple, like a plain black dress and jazz it up with different accessories, or get a variety of different dresses.

People can be judgmental about these sorts of things and if you are attending functions as part of your job, then you will want to make sure that everyone sees you making an effort.

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