What Is A Cocktail Dress And Why You Really Need One

Every woman needs a cocktail dress (or the equivalent dressy pants outfit). But what’s a cocktail dress? The dictionary definition is “an elegant dress suitable for semi-formal social occasions, falling to just below or just above the knee.” Most of us probably think of the classic little black dress when we’re choosing cocktail or semi-formal attire. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What Is Cocktail Party Attire?

The cocktail dress spectrum covers so much more than the little black dress, and you should always have one or two pieces of cocktail attire in your wardrobe for special occasions. What is considered proper cocktail attire for women? Here are some of our favorite options of cocktail dresses for women over 50.

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Mac Duggal Beaded Floral Ruffle Sleeve Sheath Cocktail Dress, $498 | Vince Camuto Popover Cocktail Dress, $148

Little Black Dress

Audrey Hepburn had it right in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, a little black dress and some fabulous jewelry combined with dramatic sunglasses work for any occasion. This Mac Duggal beaded sheath is worth the splurge, but this off the shoulder Vince Camuto dress is a steal.


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cocktail attire black jumpsuit pink pantsuit
Black Halo Jackie Cap-Sleeve Belted Wide-Leg Jumpsuit, $415 | Tahari ASL Women’s One-Button Blazer, $159 & Pants, $99

Pantsuit Or Jumpsuit

Just because everyone else is wearing dresses doesn’t mean that you can’t rock some pants. This Black Halo jumpsuit is just as sleek as a little black dress, or you can go for jewel tones in this wild berry Tahari ASL pantsuit. Wear it over a sleek tank top or silk blouse with heels.

coctail dresses bold orange and teal fountainof30
Rickie Freeman for Teri Jon Draped Sheath Dress w/ Floral Applique, $560 | Tadashi Shoji Pleated Long Sleeve Chiffon Dress, $428

Bold Color Cocktail Attire

Orange might seem like an unusual color for cocktail attire, but this unexpected shade will stand out, especially paired with turquoise or lapis jewelry. We love the silhouette of this Rickie Freeman for Teri Jon midi dress. Teal is another interesting choice, and this Tadashi Shoji chiffon dress is perpetually stylish. You can wear other bold colors at cocktail parties such as red, magenta, yellow or cobalt blue.

what is a cocktail dress floral prints
Chiara Boni La Petite Robe Dalmira Floral-Print Ruffle Long-Sleeve Cocktail Dress, $795 | Sam Edelman Matisse Floral Faux Wrap Midi Dress, $168

Cocktail Dresses In Prints

A little floral dress will serve you well, especially with a dark background which works in all seasons. This Chiara Boni La Petite Robe floral print long-sleeved cocktail dress  is a worthy splurge, and this Sam Edelman faux wrap midi dress is comfortable and elegant at the same time and is completely affordable.

what's a cocktail dress little white dresses
Mac Duggal Sequin Beaded Floral Cocktail Dress, $398 | Dress The Population Livia Fit & Flare Dress, $198

Little White Dress

A lighter version of the little black dress works for spring, summer, and even winter depending on the accessories (just don’t wear it to someone else’s wedding). This Mac Duggal sequin beaded dress is super sleek, while this Dress The Population frock is the cocktail dress equivalent of the perfect white t-shirt.

Keeping a classic, proper cocktail dress or two in your wardrobe always comes in handy. What is your most memorable cocktail attire moment? Share your story in the comments below!

Shop Cocktail Attire for Women

–Jacqueline Zenn

You may also like to read more of Jacqui’s fashion tips like When Matchy-Matchy Is A Good Thing: Best Matching Sets For Summer and The Best Wide Leg Pants For Women Over 50.

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1 thought on “What Is A Cocktail Dress And Why You Really Need One”

  1. Yes, having a LBD is always handy but as I get older Black is not looking as flattering as it once did. I just happen to be on the look-out for a navy or chocolate brown dress. I like the idea of a white one for summer.


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