Cocktail dresses circa 1958 and 1960. Photo by Esta Nesbitt Fashion Illustrations, New School Archives and Special Collections, New School, New York, NY.

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The term is often reminiscent of smoky lounges or elegant soirées, but what exactly is a cocktail dress? By default, a cocktail dress is a “short dress suitable for formal occasions”. Or, as actress Jean Arthur explains in the film “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” in 1936, it is “something to spill cocktails on”. From the beginning, the cocktail dress was not defined by a specific silhouette, color, fabric or style, but one thing remains the same: it is a woman’s garment for occasions that require a little formality and at the same time let go of us.

Cocktails came first

Of course, this type of dress would never have existed without the popularity of cocktails, which first entered the American lexicon in 1803. The juicy concoctions became increasingly popular in America and Europe during the 19th century, but no respected Victorian woman would have been caught sipping them in public, and certainly not wearing a dress that sins after the sin Habit is named. Fortunately, it became (somewhat) more acceptable for women to indulge in a few mixed drinks in the 1910s, and cocktail culture really began to grow after the end of World War I. Soon the cocktail dress became the look of choice for pre-dinner parties, making it one of the hardest-partying pieces in fashion history. [6]

The flapper era

While not every woman was brave enough to wear short skirts and jiggle her hair in the 1920s, the decade is often referred to as the flapper era. Armed with greater independence, young women rebelled against the older generations by going to clubs, dancing the Charleston, and smoking cigarettes with cocktails in hand. According to fashion historian Elyssa Schram Da Cruz, this new type of “drinking woman” has been seen at “private cocktail soirées and lounges” and the cocktail dress as a short evening scarf with matching hat, shoes and gloves should accompany her. “” [2] Like modern happy hour, cocktail hour usually took place between 6pm and 8pm, making the cocktail dress a necessary factor in a woman’s transition between day and night. Because of this, cocktail attire became synonymous with flexibility and functionality, so women couldn’t look too sophisticated during the day and look too casual in the early evening. The main selling point of cocktail ensembles for years has been “practicality”. Often times, the only difference between a stylish daytime ensemble and a cocktail outfit was a change in accessories, hence the popularity of the cocktail hat and other coordinating pieces.


The American ban, which banned the sale of alcohol between 1920 and 1933, made the concept of a cocktail dress seem a little naughty, even though millions of people continued to drink regularly. During this time, illegal speakeasies began popping up across the country serving cheap booze to the masses, while the upper class hosted drinking parties at home with the copious amounts of booze they had in store before the ban. Wealthy bon vivants also alleviated the pain of the ban by making indulgent trips to London, Paris and Cuba and bringing new aspects of global cocktail culture back to their homes in the United States. Soon the popularity of intimate, boozy gatherings increased the need for cocktail attire that met the needs of elegant party animals while being less formal than their other nighttime attire.

From 1926. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

From 1926. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

“Vogue” legitimizes the term

The first direct mention of a cocktail dress in Vogue was in the May 15, 1927 issue, which referred to a Patou dress in “Mannish Tweed”. [4], but the term became more common in the 1930s. A 1930 New York Times article stated that the cocktail dress was better known by a variety of names, such as the “late afternoon dress” which was “far more closely related to the evening mode than the afternoon mode” it was earlier, before the acute romance set in “. [5] A year later, the October 1931 edition of Harper’s Bazaar praised the relatively new type of garment and called the cocktail dress “avowedly modern”. [1]

The cocktail culture lives on despite economic difficulties

The American stock market crash of 1929 and the preceding economic crisis completely changed the carelessness of the flapper era, and fashion reflected social change. Cocktail dresses followed the same slim, bias-cut, ankle-length styles that dominated feminine fashion of the 1930s, replacing the cylindrical, short styles that matched the mood of the flappers. Although economic troubles would be expected to dampen cocktail culture, there was still a lot of drinking (especially after the ban), which made the practicality of the cocktail dress even more important.

Marilyn Monroe in 1954. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Marilyn Monroe in 1954. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The devastating effects of World War II had an obvious impact on cocktail dressing, but after the war ended, an increase in the popularity of cocktail parties at home gave cocktail dress a whole new life. Women’s clothing in the western world at the time was heavily influenced by Christian Dior’s “New Look” collection from 1947, which made laced waists and full skirts the ubiquitous silhouette for formal wear, along with the shapely shift dresses featured in films by the likes of Marilyn Monroe. Dior famously called one of his early evening dresses a “cocktail dress,” which led to an increase in the use and concept of cocktail dressing in the late 1940s. This terminology was also a clever marketing technique used to attract alcohol-loving American customers who enjoyed hosting and attracting cocktail hours. After all, the famous French designer declared in his autobiography “Christian Dior and I” from 1957 that the cocktail was “the symbol of the American way of life”. [3]

1950s.  Photo: Flickr

1950s. Photo: Flickr

French fashion trends are coming to the US

The 1950s are considered by many to be the size or age of the cocktail dress. French couturiers continued to release cocktail-specific dresses in a variety of colors and styles, and American women were quick to buy cheaper copies made on Seventh Avenue to have their own little piece of high-end cocktail culture. Most importantly, cocktail hours and cocktail parties helped define the domesticated roles of women as wives, matrons, and hostesses, as these types of gatherings had become an integral part of social life between the 1950s and 1960s. While cocktail engagements weren’t limited to income or social status, there were pretty strict rules of etiquette that hostesses and guests followed. Etiquette (and drink recipes) could vary by year and social group, but the short and stylish cocktail dress was the only real requirement for any of these gatherings. [2]

The decline of cocktail dressing

Yves Saint Laurent's Mondrian Collection.  Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian Collection. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

For true cocktail aficionados, the period between the 1970s and 1990s is mostly viewed as the low point in beverage mixing history, and the popularity of hosting semi-formal cocktail affairs slowly faded along with cocktail shakers. In the late 1960s, even upper-class women were hosting soirées in palazzo pants and overalls at home, and the idea of ​​the cocktail dress became more of a style than some sort of occasion attire. From Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Mondrian’ dress in the mid-1960s to the seductive slip dresses Carrie Bradshaw wore in the late 1990s, designers have never stopped making so-called ‘cocktail dresses’, regardless of whether or not they were meant to be or not that purpose.

Step into the 2000s, considered by many to be the cocktail culture renaissance. Of course, this modern “golden age” has more to do with trendy bars, creative bartenders and innovative creations than with parties and dressing. For the most part, the days of cocktail etiquette and semi-formal dressing standards are long gone. These days, a cocktail party is more of a come-as-you-are affair, and cocktail dresses are only available at weddings, Christmas parties, and exclusive fashion and entertainment events.

Although the cocktail dress was originally intended to provide women with an informal and practical option to dress in, today it is one of the most formal things in many modern women’s closets, not limited to any time or social function. With that in mind, the cocktail dress is an outdated concept, but that doesn’t mean it’s banned. So, cheers on the cocktail dress! It has kept women looking their best while sipping alcohol for almost a century and will continue to do so for decades to come.

Unlinked sources:

[1] “Baron de Meyer examines eight Paris collections.” Harper’s Bazaar. October 1931: 83.
[2] Da Cruz, Elyssa Schram. “Cocktail dress.” In The Berg Companion to Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele. Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010. Accessed January 4, 2017.
[3] Dior, Christian. Christian Dior and I. New York: Dutton, 1957
[4] “Mode: aces in mode.” Fashion. May 15, 1927: 91.
[5] “Informal evening skirts are ankle-length and heavy. They are made of gray, printed chiffon.” The New York Times. May 11, 1930: 126.[6] Borrelli-Persson, Laird. The cocktail dress. New York: Collins Design, 2009.

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