What is the difference between cocktail and formal dress

Nikki ParkinsonFashion, How to 33 Comments

It’s the season for balls and formal events – well, it is judging by the number of questions that I’m receiving on the subject – and the photos popping up on my friends’ Facebook feed.

Here is just a selection of the questions from SY readers:

Renee, a North Queensland mum is attending two events – a formal ball in Melbourne and the the other a wedding in the UK – in a castle. She wants to buy one dress for both events and is hoping a dress cocktail dress would work for both.

Suzy is attending a university college reunion gala ball in July at Brisbane City Hall. In terms of a dress, she’s not sure whether to wear a long “ball type” dress or whether a below knee length cocktail type dress will be suitable and doesn’t really want the expense of buying a ball dress when she knows she’ll never wear it again.  

Hayley is heading to a formal wedding in New Zealand in July – with the ceremony outdoors and reception indoors and is looking for ideas on what to wear and stay warm.

Karen is heading to a cocktail event in Melbourne and wonders if she can wear a slim-heeled ankle boot with black, long-sleeved floaty tunic dress.

I don’t have a formal or cocktail events on the horizon but these can be the types of events that pop up with little time to prepare an outfit.

And it’s not as though many of us have much call for this type of outfit on a day-to-day or even month-to-month basis.

So where to start?

Understanding the difference between cocktail and formal dress, that’s where.

Traditionally formal or black-tie events require the wearing of a long gown; for a cocktail event, shorter frocks or pant or jumpsuit outfits are the go.


There’s always a but, isn’t there?

The dress code lines can be – and often are – blurred.

I’ve been to formal events where women work cocktail dress; and I’ve been to cocktail events where women wore long or maxi gowns.

11 tips for dressing for a formal or cocktail event

Rather than blurring the lines any further, my tips below aim to help you if you’re asked to attend either type of events.

1. Do start with any listed dress code. A dress code sets the tone of the event and dressing to meet it goes some way to ensure that you fit or blend in with the crowd. If I stick to the code, it makes me feel more confident in my outfit choice. (And if you’re organising an event or an occasion, please DO specify a dress code. Leaving it open actually increases the dress stress for anyone on the invite list.) 

2. If the dress code is formal, decide if you want to meet the code or not. It may be that you would feel more comfortable in a cocktail-style dress – or you don’t want to invest in a long gown that may not be worn again in a hurry. Either way, make the decision and own it so you can go on the hunt for a perfect outfit that suits YOUR style.

3. Decided on a long gown? Buy in a style and colour that is timeless. I’ve got two black long gowns sitting in my wardrobe that should I get that impromptu formal event call up, I’ll be good to go. One is four years old; the other is 18 months old.

What to wear to a winter formal event

1. Sacha Drake Cate dress $399 | 2. Unreal Fur cape $219 | 3. Mimco bracelet $69.95 | 4. Steve Madden heels $69.96 (on sale) | 5. Samantha Wills earrings $89 | 6. Atmos + Here clutch $11.99 (on sale)

4. Don’t be afraid to wear a gown from the vault. If you think your friends or family keep some kind of catalogue of what you wore when and wear, think again. Don’t let those thoughts prevent you from re-wearing a favourite.

5. Hit up your friends. If you have friends similar size to you then why not see if they have gowns that would rather come out to play than sit unloved in a wardrobe. My girlfriends and I have been doing this since our uni ball days – and I’m pleased to report that my daughter’s generation is continuing this budget-busting tradition.

6. Browse and buy at thrift shops. One of my uni friends did that last year for our college reunion and her gown looked like it had been made for her.

7. Hire your formal or cocktail outfit. Try GlamCorner; Runway Dream; Rent My Rack; and Runway Collection.

8. Seek out a skilled alterations person to re-work a dress. This applies equally to an existing dress or a dress that you’ve just bought that could be made to fit you even better.

9. Updating an existing gown for a winter event is as simple as adding winter accessories. Think luxe textures – a velvet clutch or a faux fur stole or cropped jackets. They add more than a hint of luxe. Most venues will be heated in winter but a stole or jacket will be your insurance policy to and from the event.

What to wear to a winter cocktail event

1. Sacha Drake Primrose dress $349 | 2. Threadz jacket $99.95 | 3. adorne necklace $44.95 | 4. Country Road ring $59.95 | 5. Diavolina heels $199.95 | 6. Louenhide clutch $79.95

10. Formal or cocktail footwear is typically on the dressy side. For a winter event, opt for a closed-in pump or slingback. A fine-heeled boot or shoe-boot will give edge to a cocktail dress. In summer, it’s about the strappy heel and showing off a pedicure, if only for a glimpse at the hemline.

11. Be comfortable in your outfit. Seems like a simple thing but aiming for this is crucial to your enjoyment of the evening. If wearing shapewear is not your thing, then choose a style that doesn’t require it. Same if the thought of wearing a strapless bra makes your girls head even further south. Look for a style that works for you and your under garment preferences.

Comments 33

  1. Hey Nikki I am attending an award gala. I initially bought floral top with pencil skirt then switched to a cocktail midi dress and heels. Black dress with gold heels ans hold hoops. What’s your opinion

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  2. Hi Nikki,
    Im always confused & despite googling & asking around I remain that way!
    We are invited to a 4 pm wedding in Canberra In November, where dress code is “ Elegant Cocktail” OMG …… I have packed a sleeveless lace dress just below knee, a complimentary jacket, block heel sandal. Also have a short sleeve black jumpsuit with gold belt & gold slides. I really am at a loss. Will probably freeze anyway & really does anyone look at the guests?

  3. Hello Nikki,

    I have an invitation to a formal event. My dress in the vault(lol) is right on top of my ankles. Should i consider it good enough for the formal event? Thank you.

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  4. I’m still confused! I’m attending a grand opening that is after 5 pm that states, “evening, cocktail or formal attire is suggested” so I went and bought a floor length black evening gown (very lacy but long sleeves and form fitting) and I think I may be over dressing for this event. What do u think?

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      The fault here is the organisers of the event Rita … no wonder you’re confused! They are. They’re covering off on everything. Your gown does fit the evening/formal theme but people will also be in cocktail length dresses as well.

  5. Love this! And yes the boundaries get blurred (I had a formal dress code at my wedding and cousin’s in jeans, as per. Ahh family, what can you do.) but that’s the fun. If you know the rules, you can choose to break them. Confusion about this stuff is the worst.

  6. I have to go to a semi-formal occasion in July and I haven’t been sure what to wear. I was thinking my Sacha Drake dress and a fur coat. This post has confirmed what I think I will wear!

  7. LOL! Your post today was spectacularly good timing! I was called upon today to be a last minute date for a girlfriend to attend a Gala dinner with formal dress! So of course I am wearing my trusty Sacha Drake outfit, a faux fur stole and some subtle bling and I am good to go. Who knew your advice would come in handy so quick? Thanks Nikki. x

  8. I can’t remember the last formal occasion I went to where I wore a long gown (besides my Year 12 formal, but let’s not go there… *shudder*) – it seems to be all about the cocktail dress code for me these days. Love your winter cocktail event outfit – super stylish with a hint of sexy. Fab advice as always. x

  9. Thankfully I don’t have any formal occasions coming up, but I do love the SD Primrose dress you’ve pictured here. A classic for sure.

  10. I bought the Sasha Drake dress in the first photo online for a special occasion and I’ve never worn it (expensive mistake). I’m a size 14 and it makes me look like a size 100! So beware that dress is not for everyone.

    1. Oh dear! It’s not so much about the size though … for me it’s about waist positioning – particularly in a long-length dress. You have to feel good in a gown like this though so even if buying online it’s a good idea to return it straight away if you don’t have that feeling.

  11. I went to a ball a few years ago … when I was somewhat (i.e. a lot) heavier. I wore a beautiful tunic, black pants and spiky heels, cos I couldn’t find a dress that didn’t make me look like a blimp (See this was before I knew you)! I didn’t feel out-of-place or frumpy (my biggest fears). It’s about fabric and makeup and accessories too, isn’t it? x
    PS – just how amazing is Sacha Drake?

    1. It so is about the hair and makeup and fabric you’re wearing as well Cheryl – makes all the difference to the occasion. And thanks re the Matthew Eager dress! Was a blast from the past looking back at that post!

  12. This is a great post Nikki, I don’t have a cocktail or formal event to go to but if I did I have a dress very similar to the Sasha Drake one pictured I was going to pass it on but I think I will keep it in my wardrobe just in case since I don’t think it will date!
    I couldn’t agree more about being comfortable I can’t stand strapless bras so I’ve gotten rid of anything that needs one.Have a great day Nikki Xx

  13. Great tips/post Nikki. That SD Cate dresss is a stunner as well. I had a formal/ball style do for our school’s 150th anniversary last year and I found a very similar style fur jacket to the Unreal fur cape at my local op shop for $50. It gave the perfect winter/luxe vibe. I hope everyone has a ball at their event (boom tsh!). x

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