Every woman should own at least one classic cocktail dress. The term "cocktail dress" technically casts a broad umbrella over any kind of dress that can be worn to a formal event. These days, the phrase usually calls to mind a short black dress that flatters the figure.
True cocktail dresses can be any length, color or style as long as they match the formality of the suits that the men in attendance will be wearing. If the men will be wearing casual or business suits, the women may wear day dresses in bright colors and loose cuts. Nighttime events generally call for darker colors and feminine silhouettes.
Historically, cocktail dresses have always adjusted as trends shifted. The first party dresses that were intended exclusively for evening wear debuted during Prohibition. These early cocktail dresses are now easily identifiable as flapper gowns. Since drinking alcohol was illegal, people had to create other pretenses for hosting large gatherings. They decided to focus on formality to make their parties different from casual daytime get-togethers. People started dressing up to compensate for the way the lack of alcohol negatively affected the atmospheres of their parties.
Christian Dior was the first designer to hone in on darkly romantic dresses for nighttime affairs; he referred to his dresses in this mold as cocktail dresses. To this day, the clothing from his namesake design house is dark and dramatic. The man took socializing very seriously. His cocktail dresses from the early 1950s added sharp angles to typical housewife dresses. The puffed skirts and trim waists were still present, but they were exaggerated for maximum effect. The mod era of the 1960s saw young women wearing cocktail-type dresses as casual day wear. The fashionable silhouette during this time period was fairly shapeless, so designers had to find ways to make cocktail dresses fancier without pulling them out of the landscape of recognizable fashion. This was accomplished by making them out of high-quality fabrics and adding details like buttons and structured collars. They were made out of overtly feminine colors like bright Pink and pastel blue.
Audrey Hepburn's iconic black dress in “Breakfast at Tiffany's” sparked a major shift in formal wear trends. By the mid-1970s, cocktail dresses were almost exclusively long, black and sleek. The cocktail dress as it is thought of today began to define itself. Edgy designs featured bare shoulders and deep V-cut backs. The simpler the designs were, the more shocking they were. After the softly feminine designs from the previous decades, it was shocking to see women wearing harsher styles. These dresses required confident attitudes and admirable figures.
This was when supermodels were just beginning to rise to prominence. Fashion became a more exclusive realm. These long dark gowns remain the archetypal cocktail dresses, although the standards have loosened somewhat in recent years. The grunge period saw the introduction of casual dresses that were not necessarily feminine. More recently, Zooey Deschanel has inspired young women to integrate floral cocktail dresses into their daily wardrobes.
Cocktail dresses signify fun social events, so it is only natural that fun-loving women would want to dress as if they are always going to parties.