How to buy a cocktail dress in 20 minutes

You will need:

  • One department store
  • One friend wearing flat shoes (ideally someone with better dress sense than you)
  • The underwear you will be wearing under the dress


  • The shoes you will be wearing. Cocktail dresses are short, so any height of heel will be OK. If you are adapting this method for a full-length dress, the shoes are essential.


  1. Enter department store.
  2. Find ladies clothing section.
  3. Pick up one of every half-way suitable dress in your size. All colours, all fabrics. Do not judge the clothes yet. Think of it as brainstorming.
  4. Take everything into the changing room. Department stores have changing rooms in various corners that look like they belong to just that concession. They don’t. You can try on anyone’s dress in anyone’s changing room.
  5. Try all the dresses on with correct underwear/shoes. Dispatch friend to get next size up or down as appropriate.
  6. Hand anything unsuitable to friend to give back to attendant.
  7. If the store has a limit on the number of items you can take into the changing room repeat steps 4 –6 until all items have been tried on and you are left with a selection of possible dresses. Do not be too fussy; if it fits and doesn’t make you look too much older/younger than you really are then it’s fine. You’ll be likely wearing it in a darkened room with drunk people anyway.
  8. Review selection criteria appropriate for event:  does it show too much arm/leg/cleavage? Is it something you could wear to multiple events? Do not reject anything on the basis of how it needs to be cleaned. It is a cocktail dress, not a pair of jeans. You’ll only wear it a few times a year for a few hours at a time. You can afford to get it dry cleaned that often and if you get invited to more events than that you obviously move in different circles to me.
  9. Consider how to redress failings of your selection i.e. a shrug, scarf, jacket, petticoat. You can’t do much with a dress that is too short – reject. For everything else, dispatch friend to get said items.
  10. Try on again with accessories.
  11. Narrow shortlist to one.
  12. Take dress and accessories as appropriate to the till.
  13. Pay. Go home and do not shop for party frocks again until next year.

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