Can You Wear a Long Dress For Cocktail Attire?

There’s nothing more awkward than being over-dressed or under-dressed at a wedding. Luckily, Zola has you covered with this easy guide. Read on now.

By Maggy Lehmicke

Cocktail wedding Attire
Photo by Hewitt Photography

Cocktail attire is generally associated with knee-length dresses, sophisticated heels, and simple suits. However, as one of the most popular (and versatile) dress codes, there are numerous ways that you can incorporate your own personal style in dressing for this type of wedding...starting with long dresses.

From the color and fabric of the dress, to the hairstyle and accessories you pair with it, a maxi dress can easily pass as proper cocktail attire, if styled correctly. Below are a few pieces of advice to make sure that you’re picking the right gown and accessorizing it accordingly for a semi-formal ceremony.

Seasonality Matters

If the wedding takes place in the winter, no one is going to bat an eye at the fact that you’re wearing a long dress—if anything, it’s likely expected. All that the cocktail or semi-formal attire request means in the colder months is that you’re welcome to pick a more casual option than what you’d choose for a black-tie event. For example, while you may have picked a silk, emerald green number for a black-tie wedding, you might go for a long, cotton gown with moody florals instead.

Pick Your Silhouette (and Fabric) Wisely

A fitted, full-length gown gives off a very different vibe than a flowy maxi with a slit. When planning what length of dress to wear, consider what would seem most cocktail-appropriate and feel the most comfortable to you. If you normally opt for more fitted dresses, maybe consider a knee-length shift or an A-line number, instead. However, if you’re comfortable in something with a lot of movement, then a lightweight maxi-dress is perfectly appropriate.

In addition to shape, fabrics play an important role in the overall formality of the dress. Fabrics such as satin, velvet, crepe, and organza are generally more suited for black-tie—unless you plan to really dress them down with accessories—while lightweight silk, cotton, and linen blends are much more fitting for a cocktail maxi-dress. Slits and high-low hems are also a fun way to dress down your ensemble, while incorporating a bit of personality.

Consider the Venue

Can you wear a long dress for cocktail attire? Photo Credit // Chris Lane Photography

If it’s a backyard wedding or farm setting, then you might not want your dress sweeping the floor the whole evening (or have to wear heels to keep your hem clean). Once you receive the official invitation (or link to the couple’s wedding website!), look up the venue and try to get a good idea of the types of surfaces that you’ll be walking on. There’s always the chance that they’ll rent flooring for the day, but you don’t want to have to rely on it. If you go long, try something that isn’t a ground-duster, or opt for a pair of comfy wedges to add a few inches.

Opt for Alternative Colors and Prints

Because you’re picking a slightly more formal silhouette by going full-length, you can go a little more casual with your color and print choices. If it’s a spring or summer event, maxi dresses in terra cotta or mustard tones are great options, as are dainty florals in vibrant colors. For fall and winter events, jewel tones are always a wise choice, but long-sleeved dresses in moody florals and vintage prints are fun alternatives, too. If you do choose a print, make sure that you pick more subtle accessories so that the look doesn’t become too busy, or make it seem like you’re trying to steal the show.

Keep It Natural

If you’ve got your heart set on wearing a full-length dress, then keep your hair and makeup as laid back as possible. There’s a big difference between cat eyes and a tightly pulled updo, versus relaxed, tousled waves and some subtle lipstick. Details such as undone braids, beachy waves, and natural, kinky curls are great options to complement a less formal maxi. So long as you’re considering the seasons and venue, details such as a low bun, a little bit of extra eye makeup, or a statement lip can work, too.

Dress It Down With Accessories

Earrings, hairpieces, shoes, and bags are some of the simplest ways to dress an outfit up or down. Instead of a sparkly clutch, maybe opt for a relaxed crossbody bag in a fun color, instead. For a fall wedding, consider adding a sophisticated leather jacket over your floral maxi dress. A fancier alternative to a denim jacket, a leather jacket keeps you warm, but also ensures that you don’t look out of place. For a summer event, consider tasteful wedges or block heels in a fun print. Flats are also an option, if they’re polished enough (particularly if they’re in an unexpected fabric such as velvet or satin).