What is a Cocktail Dress?

What is a Cocktail Dress?

Cocktail dresses are semi-formal and shorter in length, often worn at cocktail parties. Learn more defining features of this women's staple with Anthony’s.
What is Considered a Cocktail Dress?

The cocktail dress is a fairly common women’s clothing staple and has been for decades. But what exactly is considered a cocktail dress?

Dictionary.com defines a cocktail dress as “a semiformal, typically short dress, such as one might wear to a cocktail party”. In the 1936 film “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford”, Jean Arthur jokingly muses that a cocktail dress is “something to spill cocktails on”.

For a deeper understanding of how the modern conception of the cocktail dress came about, let’s dive a little deeper into the history and defining characteristics of this elegant yet fun women’s evening wear piece.

A smiling brunette woman wearing a pastel-colored dress stands in a wooded area with her arms crossed across her chest.

What’s the Difference Between a Cocktail Dress and a Regular Dress?

To fully understand how cocktail dresses and “regular” dresses differ, it may be helpful to recap three common dress code classifications, casual vs. semi-formal vs. formal attire:

  • Casual attire: something you’d wear every day around town or around the house.
  • Semi-formal attire: something you might wear to a special occasion or soiree that’s not quite “black-tie”; similar to but a bit more elevated than “business casual” but not so dressy as a full-length evening gown, for instance.
  • Formal attire: Think “black-tie” or even “white-tie” – that generally means long, floor-length tailored gowns for women.

A “regular” dress as you’re probably thinking of it (i.e. a sundress or an everyday dress) is casual attire. A cocktail dress is a step above a regular dress in terms of formality, but it’s not quite formal attire – in other words, it falls into the semi-formal attire category.

Can You Wear a Long Dress as a Cocktail Dress?

A smiling woman with short dark hair wearing a sleeveless pastel-colored dress walks along a nature path. .

Does “cocktail dress” mean “short”? Usually, yes. But not always. It depends on the context.

If you are considering wearing a dress that’s longer than knee-length, consider the context, including the time of year, the venue, and the host(s) and guests.

As wedding planning Meredith Bartel notes in this piece on what cocktail attire is, “cocktail attire is somewhere between casual and formal. It can help to think of a cocktail hour as happening between day and night.” but “the time of day isn't the only factor determining what cocktail attire looks like. Also consider who is inviting you, the venue where the event is taking place and the time of year.”

If you’re attending an event that is indoors, it may skew more formal. A winter event would also potentially be a more likely setting to wear a longer cocktail dress for practical reasons. If in doubt, and if able, reach out to the hosts of the gathering you’re attending, or think about the general vibe of event attendees.

The Storied History of the Cocktail Dress

The cocktail dress traces its origins back to the creation of the “modern woman”, or even further, as Elyssa da Cruz notes in her essay for The Met, “Dressing for the Cocktail Hour”. This idea of the “modern” woman or “drinking woman” was an “ideal rooted in newfound concepts of individuality and a denial of Edwardian matronly functions.”

As Cruz goes on to mention, the prominence of cocktail attire for women as we know it today was largely the result of collaboration between high French couture and American department stores. “Cocktailing” became an activity for America’s Elite.

By the 1930s, famous Hollywood actresses were participating in cocktail parties dressed in garb that gave them a distinctly fresh and “casual, sporty American chic” look.

American designers started to produce “day-into-evening” wear with “a simple, streamlined silhouette” while “emphasizing the importance of accessories”. This enabled the masses to have access to something elegant they could wear all day and accessorize for an elegant soiree.

It wasn’t until the 1940s, however, according to Cruz, that “Christian Dior was the first to name the early evening frock a “cocktail” dress in the late 1940s, and in doing so allowed magazines, department stores, and rival Parisian and American designers to promote fashion with cocktail-specific terminology.”

Many of today’s cocktail dresses are elegant but with a fun, sporty, and uniquely American twist. In other words, they still embody a cheeky, fun, and playful ethos.

Discover the Elegance & Comfort of an Anthony’s Cocktail Dress

Anthony’s cocktail dresses represent our take on the cocktail dress. Like our other women’s dresses, they are “designed for Florida's beachside lifestyle” while adding a splash of color to your day.

You’ll find that our cocktail dresses are elegant without being overly stuffy or formal – perfect for you if you want something fun in a lighter color that’s comfortable and relaxed while remaining upscale enough for cocktail parties, fundraising events, and country-club gatherings.  

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