There is no other cocktail parties that has quite captured the public imagination like the classic martini. There is no other cocktail that has quite captured the public imagination like the classic martini. With the summer behind us, it’s time to gear up for the upcoming schedule of cocktail parties-Galas, Ungalas, Mini-Galas, Masquerades, and Homecomings. There’s lots of activity beckoning in the months ahead and half the fun of the party is in getting there.

Are you ready?

While some events may be truly formal-white tie, black tie, long gown-most will require the more versatile cocktail dress. Shorter (upwards from tea length) and usually made of satin, silk, or chiffon, though the fashion police won’t arrest you if you’re wearing something flattering, flirtatious, and fun.

Flattering is the key word. You need to know that you look good. You need to feel that you look good. Otherwise, you’ll be pulling at your hair, dabbing at your nose, and hiding out in the loo most of the night. And what’s the point in that? You’re out to have a good time.

Looking for the right dress should be fun, too. Your favorite magazines are a good place to start. Get a sense of what’s out there this year and pick out some styles that you not only like but that you know you’ll look good in. Remember, models and photographers are going for the unusual circumstance. Something truly eye-catching.

But you live and party in the real world, not caught in one-split second of unique film perfection. Think about it. Will your friends admire your selection or see it as too much? Will you be comfortable in something outré for the duration of the party?

The same rule of thumb goes for movie and television styles. What you see on the screen may plunge more deeply or rise higher than is acceptable for a social gathering. And screen actors and models for the most part adjust their body size to the camera’s eye, which adds at least ten virtual pounds. You don’t have to starve yourself for a dress.

Reality Check

Find out what your friends plan to wear before you buy. Let their consensus-and your budget-guide you. Don’t put yourself in debt for the sake of a party. There will be other events and dresses, so if you’re shopping on a shoestring, look to consignment and thrift shops, which frequently have one-of-a-kind, beautiful cocktail and party dresses.

Otherwise, it’s time to hit the malls, the service-oriented local stores, and your shops on line. There are advantages to each, and if you have the time, sample each outlet.

The mall gives you an array of department stores and smaller chains to choose from. You have a variety of sources all in one place to see and compare. Make a day of it and you’ll begin to narrow down the options. Try your favorites on. Keep notes so that you’ll remember better what you saw and how you felt about each dress. Take pictures.

Even if you fall irrevocably in love with a dress, it’s better not to buy on the spot. Love can prove fickle, even where satin and silk are concerned. And it’s all too easy to pledge our hearts to an exciting hemline that on reconsideration proves unworthy of that first flight of fancy.

Don’t overlook the road less traveled outside the shopping centers. Although it is becoming harder and harder to find the small, locally owned shops that used to dominate Main Street, they do still exist.

Their advantage? You’ll probably find a selection of carefully chosen fashions, cocktail dresses that don’t populate the cookie-cutter mall stores. You’ll have more of a one-on-one connection with the sales people, maybe even the manager or owner, who are well versed in their stock and are ready to assist you in your quest for the right dress.

Beware, though, of commission-based clerks who have their own best interests in mind instead of yours. If you look in the mirror and are aghast at what you see, take the sales assistant’s declaration that this dress is “definitely you” with a grain of salt…and move on.

The Internet has definitely changed the way we shop. Online browsing makes it easy to view literally hundreds of possible dresses at our convenience, without the hassle of driving, parking, walking, all within the time frame of a store or mall’s hours. You can shop in your pajamas. In the middle of the night or before breakfast. It’s easy.

Most online stores have reasonable exchange policies, though you may have to pay a restocking fee. Still, that’s good to know, just in case that impulsive click of the mouse brought disastrous results.

Shopping With Friends

That afternoon at the mall with your best friend or the gang can be a lot of fun, but not necessarily as productive as you’d like. After all, your dress is not as important to them as it is to you. They will ultimately (whether they admit it or not) become bored with the all-about-you theme of the day.

So expect some side trips into the video store, the candy shop and food court, and maybe even an unexpected movie. They are your friends, but they have other interests besides your all-important dress. They may encourage you to buy something, anything, just to get it over with and get on with the day.

They may tell you what they think you want to hear about the totally inappropriate pink frou-frou gown, rather than the god’s honest truth. Or they may deliberately misguide you, coveting the dress for themselves or maybe even wanting to look better than you. Friends are human, too. Accept their failings, and don’t let it cloud your judgment.


To paraphrase, no dress is an island. You need more than just that cocktail dress to have a complete outfit.

Shoes. Jewelry. Evening bag.

Unless it’s a fifties-themed party, it’s not necessary to have everything match exactly. That said, this year’s fashion trend is a moderate return to the blended look of complementing accessories. Good taste rules.

In general, you’ll want your shoes to pick up on color and/or fabric within your dress in order to coordinate your overall look. This gives you freer rein to have your evening bag reflect or stand out from the ensemble.

Again, jewelry should accent, not overpower. Two pieces, three max, whether they be necklace, bracelet, earrings, rings, or hair accessories. One good piece of advice that dates back decades is to take one final look at yourself before you leave for the party and take off one piece of jewelry.

We have a tendency to pile the pretties on at the last moment. Including perfume. But keep fragrance to a minimum. You may adore the way you feel when drenched in the latest scent-sation, but trust me, others may not share your devotion. You’ll be up against an array of bouquets, allergies, and those who just don’t like sniffing your trail.

Undergarments are part of accessorizing. Bodices fit better over a good, quality brassiere. And despite what you see on the street and in the movies, it’s usually considered poor form to display bra straps, hooks, and underarm support at an upscale party.

Also, the dress shouldn’t be so snug that it bunches over pantyhose, waistbands, or other bumps in your tummy or derriere. And if the dress is unlined and on the sheer side, you may want to reacquaint yourself with that lacy slip at the bottom of your dresser drawer.

It’s a wrap. Always bring a shawl, velvet jacket, or lightweight cape with you-just in case. It is difficult to regulate temperature in a public space occupied by a large group of people. Someone is always going to be too hot or too cold. Don’t let it be you. If it’s too hot, you can ditch the wrap. If it’s cold, you’re prepared.

Now Have Fun

You’ve picked out the right cocktail dress, accessorized wisely, and enjoyed the journey. Now you’re ready to go. Banish those last minute nerves and question marks. It’s time to have fun. Go for it, girl. It’s your night. Your time to fly!

Maureen A Martin is a playwright, feature writer, and journalist not unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations of galas and fundraisers.

At, you’ll find a selection of cocktail dresses, bartending hints, notes for those ready to wine and dine, and a bit of cocktail nostalgia. You can sign up there for the site’s free newsletter speakeasy, as well as On the House updates.

The hard-core party-giver can find a wide selection of cocktail shakers, barware, and crystal at

…some ultra modern, some harkening back to the golden days of cocktails, all ideal for the newest Martini concoctions, Margaritas (frozen or non), and the always chic Manhattan.

Giving a party? Give it in style. Need a bread-and-butter gift? Make it something that will last. Looking for a wedding present or gifts for bridesmaids and groomsmen? See that it’s toast-worthy.

Here’s to you!

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Shopping For Cocktail Dresses and Parties