Cocktail Dress Fashion

Read about the history of cocktail dress fashions of the 20th century in this overview.

Cocktails and cocktail parties are a twentieth century phenomenon. Although the exact origin of the word cocktail is not known, it probably dates back to the early 1800s. One popular story tells of an innkeeper who served a meal of chicken that was stolen from her neighbor, a former English Tory. To flaunt the victory of American independence, she placed feathers from the cock's tail in the grog or punch. Others say that the word is of French origin, brought here by French officers during the War of 1812. What is known for certain is that the cocktail party itself originated in the United States.

Cocktails became fashionable during prohibition. The new cocktails, often with fancy names, were a mix of one or more types of alcohol and fruit juices usually used to mask the poor quality of bootleg liquor. Because drinking alcohol was prohibited in public places, people held private parties in their homes. These cocktail parties, typically held in early evening between the hours of 6 and 8, soon developed a reputation as chic and sophisticated events.

Attending cocktail parties meant wearing the appropriate outfit, hence the beginning of cocktail dress fashion. During the 1920s cocktail dresses were a just a fancier version of daytime attire""long, loose fitting columnar-style ankle length dresses in jewel tone colors. Small hats, gloves, shoes, and tiny handbags completed the look.


As the 1930s approached, the cocktail dress still mimicked daytime fashions, but was on its way to becoming its own fashion style. The decade between the 1930s and the 1940s saw the creation of day to evening wear and the emergence of the cocktail suit. Day to evening wear was often embellished with faux rhinestone buttons and accessorized with costume jewelry such as brooches for evening events. Hats and gloves remained de rigueur at every cocktail party, a tradition that lasted into the mid-1960s.

During the 1940s, black became the favored color for the cocktail party dress. Instead of the wool crepe used for daytime fashions, dresses were made with fancier fabrics such as silk or satin. The small cocktail hat remained a favored accessory, as did gloves. It was at the end of the 1940s that the term cocktail dress was coined.

The 1950s was the heyday of cocktail culture. Cocktail bars and lounges proliferated as places to socialize, listen to music, and drink the ubiquitous martini. Cocktail dresses were form fitting and feminine looking made of silk organza or similar fabrics. Black remained the favorite color of the cocktail dress, but other colors were considered fashionable as well. Many dresses were sleeveless with low plunging necklines and cinched waistlines that exaggerated a woman's curves. Hats and gloves were still considered an essential part of cocktail fashion.

By the 1960s pastel colors and silver and gold lame fabrics had replaced black as the favored color. Again, as with every other era, cocktail dress fashions followed current fashion trends. As the 1970s approached, fashions became much more casual. Quite often pants or jumpsuits with flared legs replaced the cocktail dress. In the 1980s this casual trend was reversed and cocktail dresses once again became fancier and more formal, usually made with satin fabrics and embellished with lace.

It was not until the 1990s that there was a revival of vintage cocktail dresses from previous eras. The "little black dress" once again became the height of cocktail dress fashion, and remains so today in its many variations.

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