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Updated September 2022
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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Buying guide for Best cocktail dresses

Have you ever been invited to a wedding, work function, or party with a dress code that specifies cocktail attire? It’s important to know what qualifies as cocktail attire in order to dress appropriately. 

A cocktail dress is a semi-formal dress that, in its formative days, was intended for early evening events. It’s an outfit that bridges the gap between a day look and an evening look. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this style of dress emerged in the 1920s. The well-known designer Christian Dior coined the term “cocktail dress” in the 1940s, giving credence to this type of attire. 

A cocktail dress is a staple item you can wear in a variety of situations. This type of dress has a polished look without being over the top. When choosing a cocktail dress, it’s important to think about style, length, and fabric. You’ll also want to ponder which details — shoes, jewelry, a handbag — would best complete your ensemble.

Little black dress
A classic cocktail dress is the little black dress, also known as the LBD. This popular choice can be styled with versatility.

Top considerations when choosing a cocktail dress

Cut

The cut of a cocktail dress may be one of many forms. Some of the most common cuts include A-line dresses, sheath dresses, and bodycon dresses. 

A-line dress: The skirt of an A-line dress is wider than its waistline, and the bodice may be fitted or loose. It's similar to a fit and flare dress, which is designed to highlight the waist and is noticeably more tailored than a full skirt. An A-line silhouette is a classic choice that is considered to be universally flattering. 

Sheath dress: The sophisticated look of a sheath dress comes from its fitted (yet non-constricting) style. It has a straight cut throughout, with some options cinching slightly at the waist. Professional and chic, a sheath dress — with the right accessories — easily transitions from a day at work to an evening party.

Bodycon dress: If you’re looking for a dress to show off your figure, consider a bodycon dress, which conforms to your shape. While the material will vary, a bodycon made of stretchy material promotes more comfortable movement. These versatile dresses can be found in multiple lengths, from midi to mini. 

Neckline

The neckline of a cocktail dress varies as well. It may be strapless or off the shoulder, or it may have another type of neckline shape.

Strapless: With its reliance on a structured and supportive bodice, the strapless dress is a popular choice for special events. These dresses showcase your shoulders and jewelry selections.

Off the shoulder: Not quite a strapless neckline, this style has sleeves that typically fall at or beneath the collar bone. While still highlighting the shoulders, the sleeves provide coverage for the arms. The sleeves of an off-the-shoulder dress come in various lengths and may feature additional details, such as ruffles, lace, or beading. 

Neckline shapes: Neckline shapes vary. The most common choices are round necklines, V-necklines, and “straight across” necklines. Here are a few other options:

  • Square: The sharp and defined lines of a square neckline can make a statement that flatters the collarbone.
  • Asymmetrical: This neckline follows a diagonal cut across the chest and is another play on the classic strapless dress. It can make the body appear more elongated.
  • Halter: With the straps meeting at the neck, a cocktail dress with a halter style has a backless design.
  • Sweetheart: This cut gets its name from the matching lines at the top of the heart. A sweetheart neckline is often found on strapless dresses.

A few other familiar choices include cowl necks, boat necks, and plunging necklines.

Sleeve length

Sleeve length is another element to consider. The preferred sleeve length for a cocktail dress often depends on the season.

Fabric

Common cocktail dress fabrics include the following:

  • Velvet
  • Chiffon
  • Lace
  • Satin
  • Organza
  • Sequin or rhinestone overlay

A dress made of finer material such as velvet or chiffon will produce a more formal look. A detailed fabric-like lace is also common. 

Color

Plenty of variety exists in terms of dress color. Neutral shades work for virtually any season or event — including the versatile little black dress — but a bold color like red or purple can also be a fun choice. 

Length

The cocktail dress was initially designed as a shortened version of the long evening dress. As such, a knee-length hemline was standard. That said, the length of a cocktail dress could be just about anything now, from fingertip length to ankle length.

A dress with added embellishments, such as glitter or sequins, is an especially fun choice for a festive event like a New Year's Eve party.

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A note about undergarments 

With the assortment of necklines and silhouettes available for cocktail dresses, choosing the right undergarment is another consideration. The straps or other parts of a typical bra may be visible and appear bulky in certain cocktail dresses. And while many dresses may have a built-in bra in the bodice, additional coverage and support may be desired. There are a few ways to achieve this.

  • Bra: When buying a new cocktail dress, you may wish to consider strapless, adhesive, or silicone bra options.
  • Slip: A slip may also be necessary, depending on whether the dress is lined and how sheer the fabric is. Slips come in full-length and skirt styles. 
  • Seamless panties and other smoothing undergarments: Smoothing undergarments can also keep lines at a minimum and create a seamless look.

How much do cocktail dresses cost?

Inexpensive

It is possible to find an on-trend cocktail dress for $100 or less. In some instances, you can find them for less than $50. However, these options will likely be made with a fabric such as polyester or rayon, the durability of which may not be as long-lasting as other materials.

Mid-range

If you’re willing to spend between $100 and $200, you will find dresses made of higher-quality fabric (as opposed to polyester). Often, these dresses include embellishments that make them even more special, such as beading, trim, or other details.

Expensive

A cocktail dress that costs over $200 may not be the most budget-friendly choice, but it’s likely to be a well-made and stylish one. In this higher price range, you are more likely to find unique designer pieces. 

Cocktail dress in neutral colors
Staff Tip
If you’re on a budget, consider purchasing one or two cocktail dresses in neutral colors that can be worn any time of year.
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Tips

  • Match your dress to your style. The color, shape, length, and cut of your dress should appeal to you. Otherwise, you’re less likely to wear it and get your money’s worth.
  • Match your dress to your venue. If you are unsure if your choice of cocktail dress would be appropriate for the event, reach out to the host for further details, or check the venue first. The style and decor of the location can be a helpful influence on the type of dress you choose.
  • Make an appointment with a tailor. A well-fitting dress boosts confidence and gives you a more polished look. Although a dress “off the rack” may fit your body, a tailor may be able to make nips or tucks that enhance your appearance even more.
  • Do some visual research first. Peruse magazines, blogs, or fashion websites to get an idea of available styles. Keep photos of the dresses you like on your phone for quick reference while shopping.

The cocktail dress was historically worn in the late afternoon and early evening. However, these rules are not as strict as they once were. Many events call for cocktail attire at other times of day, from midday holiday parties to late-afternoon weddings.

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Accessories to complete the look

Shoes

Although not a requirement, cocktail dresses are usually paired with high heels. The height of the heel and style of the shoes can dress your look up or down, so shop accordingly.

Jewelry

Jewelry adds a finishing touch and can help elevate your outfit to the next level. Many people prefer to keep jewelry minimal and to select pieces that don’t detract from their cocktail dress.

Handbags

A small clutch or handbag is a suitable choice for a cocktail dress. Avoid anything too bulky that might dress the outfit down.

Cocktail dress in varying styles
Cocktail dresses come in a variety of styles, lengths, and materials. Silhouette and sleeve length also varies. These semi-formal dresses typically fall at the knee. 

FAQ

Q. Can I wear boots or flats with a cocktail dress?

A. Although heels are the standard and would likely go best with a semi-formal dress, boots or flats can be fitting. A pointed toe and quality fabric will help to dress it up more. 

Q. What do you wear over a cocktail dress?

A. While this depends upon the season, there are several ways to add a layer, whether for the purpose of accessorizing or staying warm. If needed, a matching bolero, jacket, or wrap could work with the dress. If the temperature is cold, an overcoat would be suitable. In warm weather, there isn’t a need to add anything; the cocktail dress can stand on its own. 

Q. How do I care for a cocktail dress?

A. Depending on the material, the dress may need to be dry-cleaned. Check the tag on the inside to see if it’s machine washable or not. Store your dress in a cool, dry area, preferably in a garment bag for added protection.
 

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