Guide to Finding an Evening Dress

Evening wear can be very hit or miss, but these guidelines will have you on every best dressed list.
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You may have a pretty good idea of what styles look good on you for work, casual Friday and weekend fun. Once twilight hits and the cocktails start flowing, sensible dresses can look boring -- and casual pieces can look inappropriate or even sloppy. If you don't spend your weekends reading about what this or that starlet wore on the red carpet last week, the idea of trading your comfy sweats for a little black dress or other dressy garment may have you hyperventilating long before you have to liberate the slimming undergarments from the bottom of your lingerie drawer.

With a couple of important exceptions, dressing for evening is a lot like dressing for daytime. It's still important to choose pieces that suit your body and lifestyle. It's also a good idea to stick with clothes you feel comfortable wearing that are still appropriate for the gathering. When you shop, this might seem challenging, especially while you're wading through rack after rack of evening dresses sporting cutouts, bright beading or skimpy lace inserts. Once you get past the sequined bodices and Day Glow fabrics though, there are always classic evening dress options that will make the most of your curves (or lack of curves) without creating a silhouette that's too revealing for comfort. Think Jackie O instead of Marilyn.


If, on the other hand, you want to make a big splash and show off your great shoulders, decolletage, or sculpted legs, evening is the time to do it. The right dress can make you the belle of the ball, and leave you feeling more confident than you ever thought possible.

On the next couple of pages, let's find the right evening dress for your body, your style and the occasion you have in mind.


Show Your Assets

In any given season, there are hundreds of evening dress styles on the market. You may see a trend toward a particular color, neckline or skirt length, but there are still lots of options to choose from. Although all this bounty may seem bewildering, dress styles fall into specific categories -- just like daywear. If you know that a belted dress, especially if it's two-toned, will tend to make you look short, it's a sure bet an evening dress with a similar design will do the same thing. Daytime or nighttime, the same rules apply.

There can be a gray area here, though. Evening wear styles may be more revealing and daring than what you're used to. Strapless, backless and halter dresses can be very attractive -- on the right figure. Making your bare skin a consideration in your fashion choice could take some getting used to, though. The same goes for choosing tight garments. If you have a bodacious booty, a whisper of spandex in the garment you choose will help you show it off. Too much, or not enough, and your backside could end up looking like a sausage patty or a bag full of hamsters. Don't panic. Shopping with a friend you trust or even just making sure you have access to a three-way mirror will help enormously.


Here's another pretty reliable rule: Always accentuate the positive, like your toned arms or long, slender neck. This showcases your best features and draws attention away from areas you're not quite as fond of, like your so-so legs.

Evening Dress Styles

Our little cheat sheet will help you match the dress to your assets:

The empire waist dress -- You may not see this style much for daytime wear, but it's not that uncommon for evening. Empire styles are snug under the bust line and have a loose drape from there. They're flattering because they show some structure but don't hug the lower body. If you have a thick waist or heavier thighs, this style will look dressy but conceal much more than it reveals.


The wrap dress -- This classic dress pattern is a very flattering option for the voluptuous woman who has nice definition at the waist. The dress actually ties at the side and relies on cascading fabric to drape and sculpt the garment's outline. The nice thing about a wrap dress is that it softens the contours of the body but still appears somewhat revealing. It's an optical illusion. If you're heavier on top than on the bottom (or vice versa) a wrap dress will also even out your silhouette.

The sheath -- This close-fitting dress has a straight, body hugging outline (sometimes with and sometimes without a belt). It doesn't leave much to the imagination, but if you don't have anything to hide, it's a classy way to show off your curves while keeping the effect subtle. Sheaths in neutral colors are also wardrobe chameleons: You can take them from day to evening with a change of accessories like the addition of a jacket, shawl or fancy jewelry.

The classic A-line -- If there's one basic, classic dress style that almost any body type can wear, it's the A-line. It's constructed like a capital letter A, and is close fitting on top before flaring to the hemline. The extra fabric doesn't add bulk like pleats or gathers would. It does provide a nice fullness that manages to be subtle but still successful at hiding body flaws. If you're heavy on top, an A-line will balance that out. If you're heavy on the bottom, it will conceal a muffin top or rounded tummy. If you're new to shopping for evening wear, try asking the sales person to show you a few simple A-line dresses. It's the perfect place to start.

Halter, strapless and thin-strap dresses -- If you have nice arms and a toned upper body, showing off a little skin in one of these three styles may be the right choice for you. If you have a large bust line, choose a halter to a strapless or spaghetti strap number unless there's structural support built into the dress itself.

Ruffles, feathers flowers -- Garment embellishments can help create balance and work as effective camouflage. If you have a flat chest or backside, a ruffle can add fullness where you really need it. Ruffles, feathers and cloth flowers aren't the only options. Bodice beading can add fullness, and even the pattern or texture of the fabric can help balance your look. If you're heavy on top, or bottom, you probably already know it. Choosing a dress with cleverly placed embellishments requires recognizing and accepting where you might need, well, a little extra something.

Cutouts and asymmetry -- Cutouts and asymmetry startle the eye into noticing a specific part (or parts) of the body. The human eye looks for balance, and when it sees something out of balance, like an uneven hemline or a wedge-shaped area of exposed skin where there should be fabric, it focuses on that spot. Cutouts and asymmetry used in evening dress design are both features that help draw attention where you want it to go. They can also create complexity that will eliminate the need for other embellishments, like lots of jewelry.

Color -- Color can do a lot for a garment. When you start exploring the options, remember that color is the slave of fashion. That teal number could be the in-thing this season and out (way out) next year. If you want to play it safe, choose neutral colors for any dressy garments you'll want to wear over a number of seasons. You know about the little black dress; it's a classic for a reason. Black is always in good taste for evening, and it will flatter your figure, too.


Finding the Right Evening Dress for the Occasion

The saying is true: It's better to be overdressed than underdressed.

Shopping for an evening dress is only part of the what-should-I-wear challenge. Understanding what type of dress is appropriate for an occasion can be a big hurdle, too. In the movies, the handsome lead characters wear whatever they want, wherever they want. In real life though, there's usually a dress code. It may not be written down, and it's likely a loose set of rules, but you're better off knowing what's expected sooner rather than later -- or too late.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid embarrassment is to ask about the appropriate dress for an occasion in advance. Your company Christmas party or other gathering could easily be casual -- or formal -- so getting the straight scoop from human resources or someone else in the know is the best way to avoid disaster. If there's no one to ask how to dress, you can always use an approach that's worked for decades (if not centuries): Ask other women who are planning on attending what they'll be wearing. A large enough consensus is as good as a written note from your host.


A description of the occasion can also give you the clues you need to dress appropriately. Here are some examples:

  • Cocktail parties -- The classic cocktail dress is short (but not too short) and dressy. Leave the long gown at home for this one. Cocktail parties are usually somewhat conservative, from a wardrobe perspective anyway. If a dress looks too daring, it probably is. Steer clear of very revealing or tight dresses in favor of something more refined and subdued. Your little black dress is a perfect cocktail party option. The type of garment you'd wear to a cocktail party is also appropriate for what's often called "business formal" attire. Think nice, but not too sexy.
  • After five occasions -- Cocktail party attire is appropriate.
  • The opera -- Formal attire is expected: This typically means a cocktail dress, long gown, dressy pant suit or fancy coordinated separates.
  • Black tie affairs -- Formal attire is expected. If an invitation indicates "black tie" but with a qualification, there may be wiggle room for a broader interpretation that could include a somewhat less fancy outfit, say something lightweight for an outdoor event.
  • White tie affairs -- This is as formal as it gets. Think Cinderella after her Fairy Godmother's visit. Appropriate attire includes evening gowns and ball gowns (full length). If you've been waiting for the right occasion to wear Grandma's diamond earrings, this is it.
  • On a cruise -- Cruise lines are becoming somewhat more casual in their approach to evening dining, but be sure to read the literature before you pack. You may just need formal attire if you're eating in the main dining room.
  • An evening wedding -- The dress code should be spelled out in the invitation. After five styles (cocktail dresses) are common. If you have doubts, ask.


Lots More Information

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  • CelebMeUp. "Choosing the Right Dress for an Occasion." 5/14/12. (9/3/12).
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  • "Evening Dresses." (9/3/12).