The cocktail dress is my favorite kind of dress style, and why not? Can you name any other garment named after a drink? There is no other dress that is so closely associated with a specific time of the evening. Few dresses bring to mind such specific cuts, length, social settings, and times in fashion history as the cocktail dress.
While the term cocktails – which refers to alcoholic mixed drinks – has been around since the early 20th century, the word was not used to describe a specific type of dress – one that is semi-formal and worn to cocktail parties – till 1947. After World War II, a time where many had faced extreme deprivation, there was a distinct yearning for extravagance and luxe living. Women from all of society’s echelons spent a great deal of time preparing to dress appropriately for every social situation they found themselves in.
Elegant nightwear, ballerina dresses (a dress that touches the ankle – now known as full length or an evening gown), and tea dresses (a dress that hits about 2 inches above the ankle), were often considered precursors to what later became known as the cocktail dress. Cocktail dresses, depending on specific periods and local customs, range in length from just above the knee to gracing the wearer’s ankles. When elegant silk, velvet, and brocade formal dresses began to enter the mainstream and were cut to be about the same length as day dresses, all things changed, and that type of look began to be worn to semi-formal occasions where full-length gowns were deemed inappropriate.
In the mid 20th century, the cocktail dress generally consisted of a top worked as a bodice hanging from thin spaghetti straps (i.e. there was a distinct décolleté). Those in the younger demographics often wore bouncy petticoat skirts and a wide bow of taffeta, sateen, or in summer stiff cotton fabric.
Later, in the late 1950’s, the cocktail dress had more of a balloon-like skirt that was often worn with a short jacket (bolero), or a cocktail suit made from brocade, and often trimmed with fur. There was a reversal in the 1960’s, when the term “cocktail dress” was deemed too conservative. Luckily, the term re-emerged in the 1980’s as an interim solution between sporty day wear and elegant evening fashion. By this time, however, it was more about the fabric and look of the garment that truly made it “cocktail” rather then any stringent hemline length – as it remains today.