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Cocktail Dress vs Sundress (Detailed Comparison)

Here we have a comprehensive comparison between the cocktail dress and the sundress showcasing the characteristics that make them unique and when to wear them.

This is a woman wearing a black polka-dotted cocktail dress.

If you have received an invitation to a wedding or similar event, chances are you have noticed the words “cocktail attire” elegantly displayed. We know, all too well, the stress that can follow. These words tend to leave us scratching our heads about the appropriate dress to wear and bring with them a terrifying image of being incorrectly dressed, judged, and out of place.

When choosing your dress for a cocktail dress code, it can easily become confusing about what a cocktail dress actually is. There are so many styles and fits, and then there is the close cousin of the cocktail dress, the sundress, to confuse us further. We are here to clear up the confusion for you and answer the question: What is a cocktail dress vs. a sundress?

Cocktail dresses are usually knee-length, well-fitted dresses. They are dressier than office wear and less dressy than formal attire. Sundresses are informal dresses.

Their main purpose is comfort in warmer weather. They are usually more revealing than cocktail dresses and are available in many colors and styles.

Sundresses are essentially pretty different from cocktail dresses, mainly because they are created for different purposes. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed trying to figure out which is what, join us as we uncover the truth behind what makes each dress unique, one sequin, bow, and buckle at a time.

What Is A Cocktail Dress?

MEROKEETY Women's Sleeveless Lace Floral Elegant Cocktail Dress Crew Neck Knee Length for Party

Cocktail dresses were first designed to be worn by the working women of the late 1920s. The idea was to create a dress that was formal and yet functional enough to be worn at evening work events. At that time, women were new to the work scene, and businesses began holding events where staff and clients could mingle and network.

The function literally led to the form in this case. Ladies found it easy to stand and walk in their new cocktail dresses.

These days, cocktail dresses are designed for much the same purpose, though we have added our modern twists over the years. While cocktail dresses may have been originally created only for cocktail hour, we now enjoy wearing them for various occasions, from cocktails to weddings, parties, and similar events.

So, what makes a dress a cocktail dress?

There are a few very basic things to look out for in a cocktail dress. Let’s have a look at what a cocktail dress is and is not.

A Cocktail Dress Is:

  • Knee or midi length
  • Slim fitting but not too tight
  • Made of a luxurious, good quality fabric
  • A little more formal than work or usual dinner attire
  • Sometimes adorned with embellishments, like embroidery, sequins, and similar

A Cocktail Dress Is Not:

  • Full length, mini or maxi length
  • Overly revealing
  • Too tight or extremely flowing
  • Made from cotton or cheap fabric
  • Overly bright and colorful

Accessories to Use With a Cocktail Dress:

Women's Flapper Dress 1920s Gatsby Tassel Sway Dance Cocktail Dress with 20s Accessories Set (S, Black)

A cocktail dress is typically accompanied by accessories. 

This practice came about during the great depression of the 1920s when fabrics were scarce. Designers created dresses that incorporated simple lines and less fabric, helping the accessory market.  

While ladies may have worn hats and gloves as their accessories back then, we tend to go with a few solid staples:

  • Elegant shoes
  • A handbag or clutch
  • Jewelry
  • Makeup and nail polish

Basically, the opportunity to wear a cocktail dress is the chance to dress up a little and feel glamorous while adding some of your own flair. It’s more than your usual day-to-day corporate wear and even dressier than what you would typically wear to go out to dinner. It’s not a ballgown or full-length dress and doesn’t need to be extremely formal.

When you think of a cocktail dress, think of 1940’s sophistication, and you will be on the right track to selecting the perfect dress.

What Is A Sundress?

This is a woman wearing a white sundress and a white hat.

Sundresses are made to be worn in warm weather. They are also known as summer dresses and are an informal style of dress. The term “sundress” was first heard in the 1940s but became popular during the 1950s as ladies began to dress in a way that was more relaxed and expressed their individuality.

What makes a dress a sundress?

Let’s have a look at what a sundress is all about and what it’s not.

A Sundress Is:

Women's Summer Maxi Dress Casual Loose Beach Long Tank Dress Split with Pockets A19shuye-L

  • Informal
  • Made using cotton or other lightweight fabric
  • Loose-fitting
  • Typically sleeveless
  • Any length
  • Any color or print

A Sundress Is Not:

  • Formal
  • Tight-fitting
  • Worn with additional layers
  • Made using a luxurious fabric

Sundresses bring to mind hot summer afternoons enjoying the outdoors with friends or a good book. They may be low-cut, have thin straps, and have a wide neckline. 

They come with a range of fasteners in the front or the back. Fasteners could include buttons, zippers, bows, or simply none at all. The fabric and cut of the sundress often allow for it to be simply pulled over the head for wearing.

If you are looking for a relaxed, comfortable dress to be worn at home or with friends, a sundress will serve you well. Think twice, perhaps, if you are considering wearing a sundress to an event that is anything other than extremely relaxed and informal.

Cocktail Dress vs Sundress: The Downlow

A woman wearing a sundress while she relaxes in a cafe.

In the end, cocktail dresses and sundresses are pretty different. While they are both designed to show off the beautiful features of a woman’s body, making us feel gorgeous and feminine, they go about it in very different ways. 

A cocktail dress will hug your figure and make you feel powerful, classy, elegant, and glamorous. A sundress will flow around you like a summer breeze, showing a little more skin, but reflecting the relaxed, hazy energy of a hot day spent doing things you enjoy.  

Now that you know the difference, you can enjoy the next event you are invited to, stress-free, knowing you are dressed to impress while showing off your unique style.


WikiDiff: Sundress

Brides: Cocktail Attire for Weddings

Landsend: What is a Cocktail Dress