How Party Dresses for Women Have Changed Over the Years

Americans have always loved a good party. But the answer to the question, “What should I wear?” has been ever-changing. Here’s a brief rundown of how party dresses for women have changed over the years.


The Twentieth Century in Party Dresses

According to one researcher and fashion archivist for Collectors Weekly, the idea of the party dress as we know it arose sometime around the 1910s or 1920s. Why? Because there was enough upward mobility for middle-class women to add specialized clothing to their wardrobes.


In the 1910s it was common to see tunics covering more form-fitting dresses, as well as eastern-inspired patterns and silhouettes. The 1920s, of course, is one of the most famous eras thanks to works like The Great Gatsby; bright and boxy flapper dresses were all the rage. The 1930s ushered in cinematic silk and velvet dresses that hugged the body.


Then World War II happened, and fashion responded. While daywear became more practical, evening wear emphasized femininity — think padded shoulders and trim waists in bold colors.


The “New Look” emerged in 1947, thanks in no small part to Christian Dior’s couture collection featuring full skirts and tightly cinched waists. Vogue described this “structured, fabric-heavy hourglass shape” as “inadvertently launch[ing] a special postwar period for women.”


While New Look party dresses dominated the 1950s and the early part of the 1960s, this decade ushered in the rise of the mod fashion movement from London. Many women wore colorful mini dresses — either plain or brightly patterned, but hitting above the knee. Shift dresses also became popular, which juxtaposed intensely with the swingy A-line dresses of the previous decade.


The ’70s were free-spirited, incorporating many elements from hippie culture and rock ‘n’ roll. According to Vintage Fashion Guild, the draped jersey dress from designer Roy Halston, kaftans and Ultrasuede “were the perfect party clothes for a glamorous night of sin” at trendy establishments like Studio 54. Maxi dresses came into fashion during this time.


The ‘80s were bold; some would even say brash. There were shoulder pads, metallic tones, neon and blazers galore. Party dresses tended to be tighter during this era, which was a shift away from the flowy styles of the 1970s. If you could call this decade glam, then you could call the next one grunge. Silky slip dresses were popular, as were off-the-shoulder garments.


As you can see, the twentieth century saw a full progression of exciting trends in party attire — often in response to economic conditions, social movements and the forward-thinking of designers at the time.


The Present: Women’s Party Dresses Today

So, what do party dresses for women look like today? There is more freedom than ever before to surprise and delight come party time — especially thanks to online shopping, which makes it possible to secure styles that may not be in your local stores.


It’s not uncommon to see partygoers in mini, midi or maxi dresses, depending on the exact nature of the event and the time of year. Many women try to get the most bang for their buck from party dresses, choosing a versatile neutral color like black, white, gray or tan and then styling it creatively — often by adding a great jacket, some eye-catching jewelry and a distinctive pair of shoes to a timeless dress. Many people also go the vintage route, purposely paying homage to one of the eras that came before.


What do all these eras of party dresses have in common? They show us the power of shape, color, and material on creating a memorable look perfect for cocktail hour or a night out.