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What is a Sheath Dress?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 21, 2024
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A sheath dress can actually have several definitions. Some define it as a close fitting dress, suitable for cocktail parties or formal events. The sheath may have darts at the breast and curve slightly inward at the waist in order to suggest the form and curve of a woman’s body. Most describe the sheath dress as worn without a belt, but there are now some modern sheath dresses that are belted, and in fact may feature a slightly higher, almost empire waist before providing a bit more generous coverage of the hips, stomach and legs.

The first sheath dresses were likely worn as undergarments, or perhaps under-dresses. You see references to them as far back as the 1900s, and frequently the sheath, perhaps made of silk, had an overdress. As women’s clothing became more fitted and shorter, the sheath dress was worn on its own. Some of the flapper dresses of the 1920s were sheaths, and were considered too “naked” to be appropriate.

By the 1950s, the sheath was considered an acceptable and appropriate style. It might feature sleeves, or not, and many wedding dresses were merely a simple short-sleeved sheath dress. Cocktail party dresses too were frequently sheaths, though the styles migrated back and forth between full-skirted fitted dresses and sheaths.

In the modern sense you’ll see the sheath dress in a number of different incarnations. A simple sheath wedding dress is still a popular choice, many of them sleeveless. The sheath can also be much more casual. A tank top cotton dress for the summer may follow a sheath style with a slight bit of fitting around the bust and waist. The sheath dress can be short, with a waistline above knees or slightly below them. Alternately it can be mid-calf length, possibly featuring side slits, or floor length. You can find the sheath in styles from the extremely casual to the very dressy.

Some fashion experts suggest that the sheath should only be worn by women with perfect figures, but actually the reverse is true. A figure-fitting dress tends to be a great choice for women with a little more curve, since it accentuates the female lines, promoting a very feminine look. Whether you are a size 2 or a size 22, sheath dresses may just be the most flattering look, provided they fit properly.

The slight curves and darting in the sheath tend to emphasize an hourglass shape, even if your shape is not exactly perfect. On bigger women, the sheath dress can be very stylish. If women feel a little concerned about tummy size, control top panties or Spanx®, can provide a little extra support. Further, the dress can be cut so that the curve in the waist opens to a more generously sized skirt, offering ease of movement and a little less hugging of the figure.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By TunaLine — On Aug 03, 2010

Another style of sheath dress that can be really flattering for people with a larger figure is the ruffle sheath dress.

A lot of times those that have ruffles or lace coming out of the bottom can create a kind of "mermaid" effect, which can really play up the hourglass shape.

So remember -- curvy ladies, a ruffled or lace sheath dress can be your best friend!

Though of course don't discount the other styles too -- it that satin sheath dress fits you just right, then by all means, buy it! Just get what suits you and your style.

By pharmchick78 — On Aug 03, 2010

I am a huge fan of the sheath dress -- however, it is really, really important to make sure that you get one that fits right.

As the article says, some are cut more generously, whereas others are a lot tighter -- silk sheath dresses tend to be the tightest.

One of the worst things you can do with a sheath dress is wear one that's too tight -- it is so unflattering, it just hugs you in all the wrong places.

So don't get stuck on a number with sheath dresses -- even if the size is bigger than you normally wear, it if looks good, go for it!

By EarlyForest — On Aug 03, 2010

I love sheath dresses -- I think they look so timeless, and I love all the variations they have.

My favorite is a black sleeveless sheath dress. It is my all-time go to dress for cocktail parties and fancy dinners.

By behaviourism — On Aug 02, 2010

Sheath dresses are definitely still in style, both more modern styles and even vintage-inspired throwbacks, thanks to popular television shows like Mad Men. They’re also available at all prices from discount to designer labels, making them available whatever your budget, and they can transfer to any season with the right accessories.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia...
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