Why is Winter Cocktail Attire Sleeveless?

Why is Cocktail Attire Sleeveless?

Valentino Short Sleeve DressIt’s cold outside. Snow’s falling. You have to bundle up to leave the house.

So why is it when you go to the mall or shop online for winter cocktail attire, 90% of what you find is short sleeve or sleeveless? It just doesn’t make any sense this time of year. Who decided that women’s evening attire should be so skimpy on top?

The British, c. 1800.

They had some very good reasons:

1. The exposed neckline and shoulders offset and balanced their long, full evening skirts.

Evening Dress 1804-1805Evening Dress, 1804-1805
The Costume Institute

2. An open neckline and bare arms provided the perfect backdrop for statement jewelry. Every woman of means had a matching set of jewels – a parure (pah-roo) – and the only acceptable time to wear them was as night, with evening attire.

Parure 1809Parure, 1809
from Ladies In Fashion

3. If there was dancing involved – and there always was at balls, a staple of British society in those days – then sleeveless gowns allowed women to cool off quickly from the exertion.

Finally, it was a sign of wealth. Only those with money could afford the heat, luxurious cloaks, and carriage blankets required to keep a sleeveless woman warm in winter. It was an extravagance unimaginable to the lower classes.

Evening Dresses, c. 1802Evening Dresses, c. 1802

But going sleeveless was only acceptable at night.

Mirror of GracesIn one of the many “How To” books so popular at the time, Mirror of Graces; or the English Lady’s Costume (published in London, 1811) advised:

In the morning the arms and bosom must be completely covered to the throat and wrists.  From the dinner-hour to the termination of the day, the arms, to a graceful height above the elbow, may be bare; and the neck and shoulders unveiled as far as delicacy will allow.

Covering skin during the day allowed a lady to remain untanned and modest, for only laborers toiled in the sun and got tans, and only women of easy virtue showed their shoulders before sundown. Societal rules were very strict in those days about how a lady of stature should act and dress. Many of those tenets became standards of conduct that are still in use today.

Including wearing evening attire.

The Italians were the first to come up with the idea of different clothes for day and evening. Flush with profits from the Medieval Silk Road trade in the 15th century, they sought to increase their status – and distance themselves from the lower classes – by “changing for dinner” into elaborate evening attire. The custom spread quickly among the European middle and upper classes, and has remained in effect ever since. When Victorian multi-course formal dinners (like those shown in Downton Abbey) declined after World War I, the more casual buffet-style cocktail parties took their place. Coco Chanel created the first little black cocktail dress in 1926.

But going back to the early 1800’s, how did ladies keep warm after they handed their cloak to the butler or footman?

Evening gloves. A short sleeve gown called for an elbow-length glove, a cap sleeve or sleeveless gown called for an opera length glove (above the elbow). Not only did gloves keep arms warm, they also kept skin-to-skin contact to a minimum, which was deemed too intimate when dancing or shaking hands. Gloves also reduced the spreading of germs and viruses. They were removed when dining.

Titanic, 1997Kate Winslet wearing opera gloves in Titanic (1997)
with Leonardo DiCaprio.  Story set in 1912.

The reason we get so cold in sleeveless cocktail attire these days is because we’ve done away with most of the accessories that kept previous generations warm: hosiery, gloves, and wraps. If you look at pictures of your mother, grandmother, or other female relatives from the 1940s and ’50s, you’ll see all of these accoutrements. Women were so elegant in those days, so…

Pillow Talk 1959Doris Day in opera length gloves in Pillow Talk (1959)
with Rock Hudson


The word “glamour” first came into common use around the same time as sleeveless evening gowns – in England, c. 1800. Coincidence? Hardly! It was a sign of the times. From the Scottish glamer, it meant a magic charm cast on people so they saw things as being better than they really were – a visual deception. So people strove for “glamour” in their dress, homes, and carriages to make them look “better” and more monied than they really were.

Two hundred years later, we’re still doing the same thing. We just use labels and logos as status symbols instead of jewelry and horses.

So how can you look glamorous – and stay warm – with what’s fashionable today?

Well, if you always get cold, don’t like sleeveless attire, or can’t wear it because of religious concerns, there are still lots of cocktail and evening attire options, many of which won’t make you look matronly or like a nun.

Here are some examples:

Sheer Sleeves

You’ll find lots of cocktail and evening attire with sheer sleeves, which both covers modestly yet gives the illusion of a sleeveless top.

Alberta FerrettiAlberta Ferretti


Elbow Length Sleeves

Don’t like showing your upper arms? Try an elbow-length sleeve that covers yet still looks festive.

Matthew Williamson

Matthew Williamson

Short SleevesAvenue.com

Three Quarter Length Sleeves

Three quarter length sleeves extend below the elbow and offer both coverage and warmth.


Adrianna PapellAdrianna Papell

Full Length Sleeve

A full length sleeve offers full coverage, but be careful to balance the skin you show with the skin you cover so you’re not “all clothes,” like a nun in a habit.

Jenny PackhamJenny Packham

Ralph LaurenLauren Ralph Lauren

Trendy Sleeve

This is a fun one that calls attention to your arms, but it will also keep you warmer than going sleeveless.

Maison Martin MargielaMaison Martin Margiela


Cocktail Suit

More of a suit kind of gal? Then pair one with evening accessories to make it cocktail appropriate.

Emilio Pucci

Emilio Pucci

Holiday SuitWomenSuits.com

Matching Jacket

This was a favorite from the 1930’s-1960’s, and you can still find some of these ensembles if you look. If not, find an evening jacket the coordinates with your cocktail dress to keep the chill at bay.

Alex EveningAlex Evening

Jessica HowardJessica Howard

See how easy this is?

Not everyone’s cut out for short sleeve or sleeveless attire. If you’re not, find pieces that suit your body and lifestyle. Don’t let anyone tell you that you HAVE to expose your shoulders or upper arms, because you don’t. You just have to balance what you cover with what you expose to create a balanced look. When you find the amount of coverage that’s right for you, you’ll look good and enjoy yourself.

Precisely what parties are all about.

Good luck!

Diana Pemberton-SikesDiana Pemberton-Sikes is an image consultant and author of Signature Style Blueprint, an ecourse that shows women how to create a signature style that suits their budget, body shape, and clothing personality. Get Signature Style Blueprint today.

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  • Carol Hollan

    Reply Reply December 13, 2013

    Thank you!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 14, 2013

      You’re welcome, Carol! Thanks for asking the question – it really got me thinking! 🙂

  • Emilie Johnson

    Reply Reply December 13, 2013

    Great article! I’m a history teacher and lots of things we do today only make sense if you know the background. I also love it that one of your examples of a nice cocktail dress is a plus-size.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 14, 2013

      Hi Emilie,

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes, sometimes you have to go back and look at the origins of something to understand why it’s done that way now. Once you do, it makes perfect sense.


    Reply Reply December 13, 2013

    Thank you for showing some dresses on heavier models! They look really elegant, too.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 14, 2013

      Hi Slccom – you’re welcome! I like to offer size and price point variety. I don’t want anyone thinking, “I can’t do this because I don’t have the money,” or “That won’t work on someone my size.” It DOES work, once you know where to look. Take care!

  • Ellen

    Reply Reply December 14, 2013

    Great job! I always enjoy the history behind the fashion!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 14, 2013

      Hi Ellen – You’re welcome! I find that understanding the background makes the “rules” easier to remember. Great stories are like that… 🙂

  • Patti Walls

    Reply Reply December 14, 2013

    I enjoyed the article. I was thinking that Doris Day’s outfit would also illustrate the need for evening wraps, because she had a little white fur wrap that she wore with the white gown in the outdoor scenes.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 14, 2013

      Hi Patti,

      Glad you enjoyed it! Yes, Doris did wear a beautiful wrap with that dress. So chic, so elegant!

  • Jennifer Crawford

    Reply Reply December 14, 2013

    It’s nice to know the history behind cocktail attire. This morning I stopped at a shop and this came up. It was fun to share your article. It explains so much. Love the Jessica Howard. Thanks!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 17, 2013

      Hi Jennifer – Glad you liked it! Part of the reason I give the historical perspective is to get people talking and thinking. Thanks for sharing!

  • Peggy

    Reply Reply December 15, 2013

    I enjoy these historical perspectives that you give about various fashion customs. Always interesting. And your advice is always practical and welcome. Thank you!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 17, 2013

      Hi Peggy – Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying it! I like the history, because when you know where customs come from, they make so much more sense.

  • Elizabeth Day

    Reply Reply December 15, 2013

    Thank you for this great research and timely information. I would love to repost this on my blog next week with your permission. Thank you. F

    • Diana

      Reply Reply December 17, 2013

      Hi Elizabeth – You’re welcome, and you may absolutely post this article on your blog, so long as you include my byline. Thanks for asking!

  • Carol Fritz

    Reply Reply January 12, 2014

    Had cocktail reception for incoming Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar when wind chill brought temperatures to zero.

    Wore a sleeveless, Mediterranean blue ponte dress with off-white faux fur jacket and silk scarf. Red hat, tweed coat, and warm boots. Had to lose long underwear and put on stockings before the event. Showed off my legs and was complimented by several attendees on my look.

    Thanks, Diana!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply January 13, 2014

      You’re welcome, Carol! Sounds adorable! Any pictures?

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