A grownup edit of special occasion dresses

L.K. Bennett pink floral midi dress

The hotel where we’re currently staying seemed to be hosting quite a few events on the terrace over the weekend. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed while in London, women here do “frock up” for parties and occasions. And almost to a woman, they were wearing some iteration of a floral dress.

So many of you have asked for some ideas for special occasion dresses. It can be so hard to find dresses these days that aren’t too exposed, frilly, floofy, frumpy, or twee. I went hunting, and turned up a few.

When it comes to investing in special occasion dresses, it’s a good idea to think outside the box and skip the one-hit-wonders. Many of the ones I’ve shown here are styles that could dress up or down depending on what shoes and accessories you wear them with.

Special occasion dresses for spring & summer

L.K. Bennett is a favorite of the Duchess of Cambridge, and has a very nice selection of pretty-but-sophisticated dresses for spring. They’re spendy, but I think many of these would be wearable season after season, and can dress up or down. Above, the soft sleeves provide some arm coverage while not being constricting.

L.K. Bennett apple blossom dress

If the occasion or your preference requires a long sleeve, here’s a pretty option.

L.K. Bennett botanical print dress

I am not a wearer of dresses, but might make an exception for something like this one in a lovely botanical print.

LK Bennett pink cotton lurex dress.

And if you prefer solids to prints, this one has an interesting shape and details (pockets!) in a cotton lurex fabric.

But I get it, these are expensive. So I searched out some more budget-friendly options.

Eliza J. polka dot dress

If you’re not into florals, polka dots are a nice option, and it doesn’t get more classic than black and white.

Kiyonna lace overlay dress plus.

Lace sleeves are always a nice option for arm coverage with ventilation. This lace overlay a-line dress is available in several colors up to size 5X.

Talbots belted floral shirtdress.

Yes, it’s a shirtdress, but could be easily dressed up with a different belt, shoes, and accessories. Available in Misses, Petites, Plus, and Plus Petite sizes.

Eliza J. floral dress

If knee-length is workable for you (remember, the model here is probably 5’9″ or so) this is another easy, It-Has-Pockets option.

Boden print maxi dress

Don’t be afraid to wear something bold and colorful if that’s your style. The print on this maxi dress is really fun. Available to size 20/22.

Chico's puff sleeve dress blue print

With a more subtle blue and white print, this cotton-blend dress is machine washable.

In a future post, I’ll round up some shoes and accessories to style your special occasion dress.

Do you have any special occasions on your calendar this spring and summer?

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  1. I love dresses and wear one at least every week. They are so simple. They are one and done. On a recent trip t to the hairdresser I happened to be wearing a dress that day. She complimented my dress and added “nobody wears dresses”. Where I live the majority of women wear jeans, jeans and more jeans. The younger ones wear leggings all the time. It’s like a uniform. I love fashion too much to wear jeans all the time and too old and lumpy for leggings.

    1. You are reading my mind! Finding nice, reasonably priced dresses is a challenge these days. I am mostly transitioning to dresses this Summer. I need to add, and I know I am likely in the minority these days, the leggings do not work for most people and the exposition is just too much!

      1. I’ve made a number of dress purchases from J. Jill. I’m really impressed with the quality and prices. Not one for frills/prints/ruffles myself so these sensible dresses from J. Jill have been great buys. I’m in Canada so looking at the US websites I have to factor in 30% exchange rate, shipping and customs. It adds up pretty quickly.

    2. I do like denim skirts though, and they (a-line, not mini nor almost-maxi) and of course, pockets, have become hard to find.

      Florals and most prints really aren’t my style.

  2. I live in dresses from May through early September, so please keep the dress suggestions coming!! Love these!

  3. Another dress lover raising her hand! Thank you so much for this round up of adult dresses. I have noticed with great dismay the floof and twee abounding in dress styles. No one really wants to wear giant puffy sleeves, smocked bodices, or big bows and sashes. No one over 12 that is. I have a short birthday weekend out of town coming up and plan to wear dresses for sightseeing and dinners. On my short list are a black and white gingham shirtdress, a pale pink linen A -line, and a T shirt dress in fun olive and white stripes. Easy , breezy and always appropriate!

  4. I have more than enough summer dresses in my wardobe so I won’t buy more. You made me buy that Weekend Max Mara dress with the cherries because you went “AWE” as I came out of the dressing room. I mean, who doesn’t like to evoke such an exclamation?
    I do like the Boden dress though, but after my Boden paisley dress miss, I am more careful with such dresses.

  5. So glad you did this round-up of dresses, Susan. Many friends have commented about the lack of dress choices for women our age going to a special event.

  6. I wore that cobalt lace overlay dress to a wedding in March. It was VERY comfortable and flattering on my size 14 hourglass figure – Winner, winner!

  7. I think it is incredibly hard to find the right dress. And yet, dresses are often the most appropriate way to dress for many occasions where we live. One resource I’ve found is Halsbrook. It is a purveyor of “grown up” clothes and I can often find items there. Recently, I did find a dress which is versatile and the right length, so I bought it. https://www.halsbrook.com/shop/dresses/anya-navy-embroidered-midi-shift-dress-85640.htm Thank you Susan for including dresses on your blog. I understand not everyone wears them, but sometimes they are necessary.

    1. What a great dress, Susan D.! Thanks for reminding me about Saint and Sofia. I have a couple of cute tops from them bought pre-plague and that have held up really well, but had forgotten about their dresses.

      1. I was so surprised that I like it as much as I do! I had never ordered from them before and had no idea about the quality. But, I had read their online statements about quality and decided to take a chance. When it arrived, I was so pleasantly surprised that this could be a $98.00 dress. It’s a great color for me and just the thing for casual events or dinners out in Dallas. It IS long. I am fairly tall, so it works for me. It would probably be too long for someone not at least 5’6″ tall. I’m a little over 5’7″. I am tempted to buy the same dress in the sold navy as I could wear it to church services or a funeral or some other event. I will definitely be looking at the Saint and Sofia dresses for autumn with long sleeves.

  8. Yes I think we do ‘frock up’ (great phrase) for events over here even if we wear jeans most of the time. In fact the further north from London you go the more women tend to dress up in that way and in the large cities up north an ‘event’ may just be a Friday night drink! I noticed that my collection of dresses have languished in my wardrobe over the last two years precisely because I had no events to attend. I’m allergic to floral prints but there are also some great plain linen dresses in vibrant colours around this year.

  9. Thank you for your post about occassion dresses. Being petite and over 70, I avoid dresses with a lot of volume, large prints, or ruffles. After many tries, I find I choose dresses with one color, and show my shape, waist. Current fashion tends to overwhelm my size person. I do like midi dresses, and have taken a liking to one piece jumpsuits that come in petite sizes, which can come in beautiful fabrics.
    Happy Spring

  10. Hi Susan, if you don’t wear dresses, what do you wear to an occasion that would “require” one?
    Love your blog!!!!

    1. Hi Molly, thanks! To be honest, we haven’t been to an event in probably over a decade that would have “required” a dress. Today, I’d probably wear a pair of silk pants and maybe a matching top.

  11. I live in Florida and more and more women are wearing golf dresses for casual occasions. It is a flattering look and they usually come with shorts to wear underneath so you don’t have to worry that they are too short. Also Lily Pulitzer, Gretchen Scott, and J. McLaughlin make cute pattered dresses that you can wear to church or dinner out. I agree that formal dresses are harder to find especially if you are short. Ruffles and puffy sleeves just seem to be overwhelming.

      1. It is probably considered Athletic Wear–just google “golf dress” and you will get a lot of choices. Generally sleeveless with a collar or short sleeved with a collar of some sort. I am not very tall so even the really short looking ones fit well.

  12. I’m not a dress person either and would have to wear a 1960’s A line dress to make it work for me. Cannot do drills, ruffles, lace, flowy and unstructured:-)
    Nice selection though.
    Which hotel are you staying in right now?

  13. Which one of these dresses would you wear, Susan? I consider you classic California chic, yet none of the above seem to fit into that category? Similarly, I like dresses in theory, but when it comes to actually wearing them, I find florals and waists and fluffy sleeves and tiers and X-shapes to be not my style.

    1. None of these are really my style, but our lives haven’t called for special occasion wear in many, many years. A simple shift dress (with sleeves) would probably be more my dress style, but no one seems to be making anything like that currently.

      1. Exactly! A simple shift dress with sleeves — my ideal! I did see your comment above, also, about silk pants and a top. I think I need to find a tailor, as I need a dress, but what I want is not available. Thank you!

  14. Thanks for this post Susan. I have been searching for dresses, mostly for at-home wear, for some time. While I like to be dressed and “public ready” every day, I find my typical uniform of knit pants or jeans with some sort of t-shirt or tunic to be quite boring. I have managed to find a few online but in the area where I live, leggings and cut out tops seem to be the trend. (Pittsburgh) Our major large department stores are history, I even had a dream last night about fining Joseph P. Horne’s being open again! My friend was a buyer in Misses and Juniors, my opportunities were endless! I will be visiting the online shops mentioned. I need a change!

    1. Take a look at Athleta if you haven’t already. I live in a hot climate, so in summer I like a lightweight knit dress for at-home or running errands, Athleta often has great choices that are not exactly “athletic wear” but still have the comfort level. For my slightly dressier occasions (Lunch or dinner out) I’m a big fan of Tommy Bahama linen dresses. I have several of their shift dresses & many of them have pockets; unfortunately they are mostly sleeveless. My arms are terrible, but I’ve begun to realize (again, hot climate) that I might just have to start pretending they look better than they actually do, and stop worrying about it!

  15. Not necessarily “special occasion” but my favorite summer dress is the sleeveless linen A-line shirt dress from Garnet Hill, which I own in five colors. Very comfortable and easy to accessorize with jewelry & sandals & possibly a cardigan, and suitable for many occasions.

    1. That’s a great suggestion. For me, dresses are not necessarily “special occasion”. I wear them all the time–especially in hot weather wear jeans are way too hot for our climate.

  16. I love to wear dresses in the summer as it can be very hot where I live , I find dresses more comfortable and cool.
    For everyday wear I look for a simple cotton or linen shift, very hard to find. Our lifestyle does not call for ‘dressy formal wear’ thank goodness.
    I like many of the dresses you posted, but they would not suit me. LK Bennet dresses are gorgeous on a tall slim figure. The Duchess of Cambridge looks beautiful in them, though I suspect she’d look beautiful in a potato sack! Currently I doubt I will need a formal dress until my grandchildren marry, so I have at least 10-15 years to search!
    Thank you for your posts, love your style and though the items you post are beyond my budget, I can try to emulate the look.

    1. Sometimes J Jill has simple cotton or linen shifts. I still have a linen J Jill shift in my closet from years ago. It is outstanding quality. I haven’t been into their store lately to check on quality, but they are worth a look. I don’t care for florals unless they are somewhat abstract. The straight out florals are just too sweet for me.

  17. I have two dresses: a black Eileen Fisher tank dress with an asymetrical hemline, and a sheer panel at thebottom that makes it look a little dressier. Worn with a variety of jackets, sweaters, wraps, it has served nearly every occasion for which i have needed it, regardless of season or degree of dressiness, for about six years; it has definitely earned its keep. I also have a knee length, short sleeved gray T-shirt, dress, also EF, which fills in for things more casual. I am two sizes bigger in the bust than in my hips, and dresses rarely fit me. But i do wear skirts, especially in the summer when i find them much cooler to wear than pants (including linen). I am waiting for the floral, puffy dress craze to pass.

  18. The dresses you have chosen Susan are lovely but suspect that they suit the duchess of Cambridge more than most women!
    Most of your readers are right, it’s hard to find dresses in flattering, comfortable styles. If you’re tall and thin (like the Duchess of Cambridge,) or small and dainty, then it’s pretty easy to find a nice dress. But for the average woman often the waist is too tight and the sleeves (armholes) too snug: there needs to be a certain amount of stretch in the material.
    Like Susan, I have not worn a dress for years, except on holiday in a hot climate. I think her idea of silk pants and matching top is ideal for any formal occasion.

  19. For summer, I’ve had very good luck buying handmade linen dresses from Etsy; many of the sellers are in Lithuania. There are so many colors to choose from, the prices are reasonable, you can specify the length you prefer, many have pockets, and in the case of one sleeveless dress I loved, I requested short sleeves for a €10 upcharge.

    1. Great suggestion! I purchased a linen nightgown from an Etsy shop in Latvia, and I was very impressed with the quality of the linen as well as the quality of the sewing. They had very specific measurements for the item to make sure I was getting the right size. It’s worth a try and you’re supporting a small business too!

  20. I don’t have any “dress” occasions on my calendar this summer. As far as dress styles, I prefer a simple sheath style in a modern print or pretty solid. Last summer I bought a jumpsuit for a Southern California wedding. Really, bare legs are too much work to get dress ready!

  21. For special occasion I highly suggest https://komarov.com/ Dresses by Shelly Komarov. She is situated in California but her dresses can be found at Nordstrom and some select boutiques. I am 5’1” and find the length is perfect ( mid calf) the dresses are very flattering, machine was with care and can be literally tossed into a suitcase. I bought my first Komarov dress at a Montréal boutique. It didn’t look like much but the assistant insisted I try it on saying…’the dress was not designed to be worn by a hanger!” She was right it looked incredible on and it was the most I had ever paid for a garment!! That was fourteen years ago. It has held up well, I dress it up or down and although longer it does not read ‘ball gown’. I liked it so much I bought another Komarov dress at Nordstrom in 2015 for a black tie wedding in Philadelphia. Again it was not full length( more cocktail length) but looked great without that ‘tried too hard’ look. I have since worn it with sandals, boots, cashmere wrap and a Jean jacket…I like to get my money’s worth as my legs are getting a bit ‘veiny’ and I avoid dresses in the summer preferring them for winter with black tights.

  22. Ruffles, flounces, puffy sleeves, big flowers…ugh.

    I have one simple rule which is:
    are you wearing the dress or is the dress wearing you?
    The way to know is: people compliment the dress(it is wearing you)
    OR people say how great you look in the dress(you are wearing it).

    Best to know the difference before buying, which is sometimes hard
    as we tend to want something our eyes like or something we looked
    good in 30 years ago ( we still like what we should no longer wear).

  23. I’m usually in pants/jeans at least half of the year and in capris and dresses the rest of the year. Summer is very hot here. I’m only 5’2” and I have to wear clothes with simple lines, no ruffles. Several years ago another blogger posted about one of her favorite summer dresses that she bought at Old Navy. At that time I didn’t shop there, nothing fit. I ordered the dress, a black a-line swing dress in jersey. I fell in love with it because it was so comfortable. I bought them in the colors I like and I have 5 or 6 of them. They don’t make them anymore. But now I know to look for that style at other stores/online. I also have two shift dresses with a crochet/lace overly which are a little dressier. Old Navy used to make sleeveless swing tanks and I bought them in every color. They Don’t make those anymore.

  24. The botanical print dress (the third dress in the group) is attractive, but the model’s pose is so awkward, and distracting, it’s difficult to get past that and see the dress!

  25. These dresses are quite pretty but the majority of them, in my opinion look so much better on a figure like Kate’s..Duchess of Cambridge..she wears her clothes well and the same can be said of Mary of Denmark.. the same dress on the Princess Eugenie makes her look rather frumpy, IMO and even Sophie needs to take special care with the length etc. so unless over 5ft 8in I would say no..although some could pull it off..

  26. Meant to add to my previous/original comment that COS usually has simple, more modern looking dresses, and if you find them on sale they can be quite reasonably priced.

    In addition to the recent trend of ruffles and frills, it’s all the tiers that get to me. I have never wanted to look like Holly Hobbie, even when one of my prize possessions was a Holly Hobbie doll!

  27. I would highly recommend Seasalt Cornwall to everyone, especially those of you looking for linen dresses with sleeves. I bought the Painting Class dress in green and it is stunning. Beautiful cut and color. Good prices too.

  28. I appreciate your posting dresses – and I agree with many respondants that many of these dresses look lovely on the Duchess of Cornwall who is tall and extremely slender; on the rest of us they would look ill-fitting and frumpy. These florals look incredibly retro to me – NOT in a good way! I do love a classic cotton or linen shirt dress which is nice for the summer and can easily be dressed up or down, but likely not for very formal occasions – unless they’re in a more sumptuous fabric. And the whole business with all the tiers has me truly stumped – on whom do those look flattering? Laura Ingalls Wilder? I like the combination of a collared wrap shirt in lovely fabric and a skirt – these can be worn with fuller skirts or even those jersey knit ‘tube’ style skirts that are so packable and easy to wear and look lovely with the right shoes, bag and jewelry to suit the occasion. Now I’m remembering back in the day when I actually wore PANTY HOSE to work! So glad to be done with THAT!