Formalwear is attire that was designed for a particular occasion.  The history of formal dress began in the Middle Ages with a gown called the kirtle. The kirtle was a loose-fitting dress that was often worn on a weekly basis. But because it was quite plain, women often added a train to it to make it suitable for formal occasions. These gowns were typically worn at weddings or to other religious ceremonies.

The world’s very first formal gown was the mantua, which was introduced in the early 18th century.  With a thick overskirt, a petticoat, and a long train that was often allowed to trail, the mantua was a heavy and uncomfortable gown.  But because it was the most elaborate dress of its age, it was worn to all the best parties, especially those at Court, in the presence of a monarch.

Formalwear for females got evermore elaborate with dresses like the sack-back and the ball gown. It was not until the 19th century that the term evening gown was used to describe a dress that women could actually comfortably wear. These evening gowns ranged from ornate floor-length numbers with flounces and puffy sleeves to off-the shoulder dresses with low necklines and no sleeves.  Even the hemlines rose a bit from floor to ankle length.

The greatest leap forward, or backward, depending on your perspective, occurred during the 1920s. It was the age of the flapper and girls just wanted to have fun. They wanted to move and dance and have a good time without being encumbered by heavy, elaborate dresses. Fashion designers were quick to accommodate them with shorter, simpler gowns that used less fabric and fewer layers. In other words, these dresses were lighter and cooler, which meant that women were finally free to move around like men. It was at this time that the arbiter elegantiarum finally accepted party dresses as formalwear.

Where are we now?

The modern evening gown is available in any silhouette and is generally worn to only the most formal events, such as an opera, a wedding, or a formal dinner. Of course, the evening gown is not the only type of party dress. As dress codes have been relaxed in recent years, more and more gowns have been accepted as formalwear. It really does depend on the occasion. 

White Tie

A white tie event is the most formal of the formal affairs. Dress codes are strictly enforced and fashion faux pas run rampant. According to etiquette, ball gowns are the only appropriate choice for female guests at a white tie event. But that has changed a bit in recent years. It is now considered permissible to wear a full-length evening gown. However, the gown should be more elaborate than those that are worn to less formal events.

Black Tie

A black tie event is slightly less formal than a white tie one, but the dress code is still quite rigid. Women are expected to dress in evening gowns with hemlines that fall between the mid-calf and the floor. On some occasions, it is acceptable to wear a fancy cocktail dress, but that really does depend on the time of year and the guests.

Cocktail Party

A cocktail party is a semi-formal event, which means that women have a wide range of fashion options. For obvious reasons, most girls go with cocktail dresses. What are they? There really is no standard definition. But most designers agree that a cocktail dress has a hemline that ranges from just above the knee all the way down to the ankles. Because they are still considered somewhat formal eveningwear, most women wear longer tea-length (above the ankle) or ballerina length (touching the ankle) gowns.

The most famous cocktail dress is the little black dress (LBD). Introduced in the 1920 by fashion legend Coco Chanel, the gown is a versatile and affordable alternative to traditional eveningwear. In other words, it is the ultimate party dress. The beauty of this dress is that is simple and elegant, which makes it easy to dress up or dress down to suit nearly any occasion. With the right shoes, hairstyle and jewelry, a girl can wear a little black dress to a formal affair. She can also remove the ornate accessories and wear it to a casual cocktail or office party. It is no wonder the LBD is considered a fashion staple that every woman must own.

Short black dresses with hemlines that fall far above the knees are not considered little black dresses. Because of their length, they are often referred to as miniskirts or simply as minis. They are not nearly as popular as the classic LBD, because they are not nearly as versatile. A miniskirt can only be worn to a casual affair.Most of the world’s top dress designers offer party dresses for fashion-conscious women. Find your favorite styles online now.
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Author's Bio: 

Scott Payne is a freelance writer who writes about weddings and specific products such as party dresses.