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.