Etiquette Guide for Cocktail Dresses

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Dress codes can be ambiguous and confusing, especially for guests who don't have the whole picture of the planned event. When an invitation calls for cocktail dress, women have more wiggle room than other dress codes. If you're planning on getting gussied up for a swanky cocktail affair, make sure your outfit is both chic and appropriate for the event, the mood and the party organizers and you'll always be one of the best-dressed in the room.

Events and Dress Codes

Cocktail dresses are most appropriate when the event calls for any of the following dress codes: cocktail, semi-formal, casual dressy, business formal and festive dressy. It's usually a solid choice when the event is going to be fairly formal, but no black tie. Think along the lines of community benefits, weddings, work parties and holiday events.

Dress Identification

Cocktail dresses are usually identified by their length. Unlike a formal gown, cocktail dresses are typically knee-length or shorter. Think about the timeless little black cocktail dress, which is usually made of more formal fabrics, like chiffon and silk. What's more, they often have embellishments that take them beyond a day dress. Cocktail dresses are rarely made from patterned fabrics. Patterned fabrics are usually more appropriate for day or casual cocktail attire, not semi-formal or nighttime cocktail dresses, so plan accordingly, based on the time and location of the event.

Cocktail Questions

Your definition of cocktail dress might be completely different from another's, so one foolproof way to ensure you're dressed appropriately is to contact the event planner. Ask what she's wearing and plan to wear something similar. That way, you're not stuck in a glittery strapless number at a garden party, when everyone else is wearing day cocktail dresses. It'll also save you from being completely underdressed at a swankier, more formal affair.


When an invite stipulates cocktail dress, you don't necessarily have to don a cocktail dress. Instead, you can use separates for a dressy look if you're more comfortable or have a tight budget. A pencil skirt worn with a silk top or a pair of trousers worn with heels and a blazer can work just as well as an LBD. Just steer clear of casual fabrics, like khaki and denim.


One way to always ensure that your cocktail dress is within the bounds of proper dress etiquette is to choose a simple, classic cocktail dress and then use your accessories to change the mood for the dress code. Take the classic black sheath, for example. With statement earrings, sky-high heels and a bold lip, it's perfect for nighttime drinks at a cocktail wedding. Don flats, a chic cardigan and demure hair and you're ready for garden cocktails. It's a timeless trick that can take you to different events, always dressed perfectly for the occasion.