Women's Special Occasion Dresses

Woman wearing a black evening gown; copyright Zdenka Darula at Dreamstime.com

Shopping for a special occasion dress can (and should) be fun. Knowing what's available, where to shop, and what type of dress to choose for your event can take the stress out of dress shopping and help you look your best.

Popular Styles of Women's Special Occasion Dresses

There are countless styles of special occasion dresses to suit every shape, size, taste, and event. Some of the most flattering and popular styles are:


Julia Ormand celebrity textured dress

It's a common misconception that textured dresses with pleating, ruching, or draping add volume. They do quite the opposite, in fact, and are a great way to camouflage problem areas. Ruching, pleating, or draping in the right place can minimize your bust, tummy, hips, or all of the above. Textured fabric also adds a sense of movement to a dress for a special event.

This sophisticated draped gown by T-Bags would flatter any shape.


gold sequin embellished dress

Embellishment gives a dress that little something extra. Common types of embellishment are sequins, beading, and crystals. You can go loud or subdued with embellishment; the amount of sparkle is up to your taste and the tone of the event you're attending. You don't want to wear anything too flashy to very formal events.

Go bold with something like this Parker sequin mini, or keep it subtle with a dress like this Lauren Ralph Lauren wrap with brooch closure.


lace overlay dress

Dresses with lace overlay or paneling are extremely popular. They're beautiful, very feminine, and give a delicate, romantic touch to any look. They also add a lovely textural element to cocktail dresses and formal gowns.

This emerald lace mini from Madison Marcus is a beautiful and fun choice. If you're looking for just a touch of lace, try a dress like this BCBG one.


vintage inspired polka dot dress

Vintage-inspired pieces are everywhere you look these days. Shift dresses, pencil length hems, and sweetheart necklines are just some of the classic styles that have had a recent resurgence. These silhouettes have been around for decades for a reason -- they're timeless and flattering. Wallpaper florals and polka dots are classic vintage prints that liven up any casual party dress.

You're sure to look Mad Men chic in this Tracy Reese rose print dress.

Body Con

red body con bandage dress

The body con dress is for women who love to flaunt what they've got. Whether you're petite or curvy, body con dresses can work for you. They're generally made out of blended fabric that essentially acts as a full body Spanx -- it sucks everything in and holds it in place. The inventor of the bandage dress, Herve Leger, made the body con dress iconic and a favorite among celebrities like Eva Longoria and Britney Spears.

If you're going for a sexy look, try something like this French Connection bandage dress.

Empire Waist

pretty empire waist dress

The empire waist is a classic silhouette that's been popular for centuries. The fitted bust and loose, flowing skirt highlights the bust and hides the tummy. It's flattering on every body type, but especially pear shapes wishing to cover their mid-section and focus attention elsewhere.

The J Crew Taryn dress is a stunning, modern take on the empire waist.


Mischa Barton celebrity one shoulder dress

One-shoulder dresses focus attention on your collarbone and shoulders. They're great for petite frames. This style is on the trendier side but can still be quite elegant. There are various types of one-shoulder dresses available and you can choose a suitable level of exposure and embellishment to suit your taste.

A one-shoulder dressed like this David's Bridal design with rhinestone strap is a gorgeous choice.

Top Retailers

Special occasion dresses can be found at all major department stores, as well as many mass retailers and online stores. If you like to be more hands-on, look around local boutiques, vintage, or specialty shops; they can be a great source for unique finds. Here are some of the best-stocked stores out there:

Department Stores

  • Bloomingdales is a trusted retailer of eveningwear, cocktail dresses, and casual event dresses. They carry many popular designers including Nicole Miller, Diane von Furstenberg, and Nanette Lepore.
  • Nordstrom offers casual, cocktail, and formal dresses from labels like Cynthia Steffe and Aidan Mattox, among others.
  • Dillards carries a full range of special occasion dresses from established brands like Alex Evenings and Marina.

Mass Retailers

  • J Crew is an unexpected source for great party dresses. They have a selection of evening gowns and cocktail dresses in an array of styles and colors.
  • David's Bridal isn't just for wedding dresses. They have a huge selection of special occasion dresses perfect for formal and semi-formal events. They carry their own line and feature an exclusive line from Vera Wang.

Online Stores

  • Simply Dresses has countless styles of special occasion dresses for every event imaginable.
  • Shopbop has hundreds of special occasion dresses from trendy designers like Rebecca Taylor, Gryphon, and Marchesa.
  • Net-A-Porter is the online source for high-end designers. They have formal, semi-formal, and casual dresses from Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci, and Matthew Williamson, among others. Check out their sister site, The Outnet, for discounted prices on the same labels.

Selecting the Right Type of Dress

There are three main categories of special occasion dresses covering a range of formality. The kind of dress you need depends on the type of even you're attending. You always want to wear something chic and appropriate.

Evening Gowns

black evening gown

Evening gowns are required for formal and black-tie events. Generally, when dressing for a very formal event, you want to choose a gown that is classic and elegant. You can certainly wear color and dresses with embellished accents so long as you keep it simple and avoid anything too loud or flashy. Formal and black-tie events tend to be slightly more serious and it would be inappropriate to wear an overly festive gown.

Always choose an evening gown with a floor length hem. Anything shorter, even dresses showing just your ankle, are considered déclassé on very formal occasions.

Cocktail Dresses

bright cocktail dress

Cocktail dresses are the most versatile type of special occasion dress. They can be worn to any semi-formal event and are available in numerous styles. The LBD is the most famous of the cocktail dress category, and for good reason. An LBD is always a flattering and chic choice. Try an embellished or lace version for a more modern twist on the classic.

In addition to the LBD, you can find cocktail dresses in every color, fabric, and style imaginable. Bold colors are a great way to brighten up a semi-formal look. Be sure to choose a color that's flattering on your skin tone; don't settle on something because it's the color of the moment if it's not a good match for you. Dresses with beading or crystal detailing and dresses with unexpected silhouettes like one shoulder are also great ways to update more traditional semi-formal looks.

Casual Party Dresses

floral print dress

Not all special occasions are fancy. Daytime and non-formal events allow for more casual dress. You still want to look put-together and stylish, but you can look into cotton or jersey fabrics and choose printed dresses that would not be appropriate for more formal events. A wrap dress is always a great choice for casual parties because it can easily be dressed up or down to suit the specific tone of the occasion.

Completing Your Look

Once you've chosen a dress, you'll need to choose several other pieces to complete your look. As a general rule, if your dress is a bright color or heavily embellished, stick with neutral shoes and bags and minimal accessories. If your dress is a neutral tone, you can accessorize within the same color palette for a sophisticated look or add a pop of color for a more modern twist.

  • Shoes: Unless you're attending a casual event at which ballet flats or sandals might suffice, you should always wear heels. A classic pump is a great choice, especially for more formal occasions. For semi-formal events, you can pair your cocktail dress with open-toe, patent leather, or embellished heels.
  • Jewelry: Don't go overboard with jewelry. Choose two areas to highlight and stop there. For example, if you're wearing a necklace and earrings, don't wear a bracelet. Alternatively if you're wearing a bracelet and earrings, skip the necklace. You should also consider the style of your dress when choosing jewelry to highlight it. If you're wearing a brightly colored or embellished dress, keep jewelry simple with neutral tones and classic pieces. If your dress is on the plain side, a statement necklace or chandelier earrings can really add life to your special occasion look.
  • Bags: A clutch or small evening bag is the way to go for most special events. Again, if your dress is making a statement, choose a simple bag. If your look needs a boost, choose a beaded or metallic bag to jazz up your outfit. If your event is a casual or daytime affair, you can wear a slightly larger bag but should still leave your day-to-day carryall at home.

Shopping Tips

When shopping for a special occasion dress, there are a few things you'll want to keep in mind:

  • Try on a variety of styles to find one that's flattering for your body type and appropriate for the event you're attending.
  • Get something comfortable! This can't be stressed enough. While formalwear is inherently less comfortable than most clothing, try your best to find something that feels good. You don't want to spend the night fidgeting and adjusting your dress.
  • Avoid anything too trendy. If you stick with classic silhouettes, you'll be able to wear your special occasion dress for years.
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