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What is a Shift Dress?

By G. Melanson
Updated May 21, 2024
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A shift dress is a garment that features straight lines and doesn’t hug the body’s curves or cinch the waist. Although these dresses can come in various sleeve lengths and hemlines, the classic version is sleeveless, knee-length, and features a high collar or boat neck. While the shift dress has shown up in fashion periodically throughout the decades, its silhouette is most iconic of the 1960s “mod” look, when it was worn by such public figures as Audrey Hepburn, Mia Farrow, and Twiggy. Some people say that these dresses flatter any body type, while others argue that their angular cut best suits a thin frame. As they are characterized by a non-tapered waist, they leave little room for the hips when fashioned from polyester or other fabrics without elasticity.

The versatility of the shift dress stems from the fact that it is fairly plain, yet sophisticated, and can be layered over or under different garments. During the 1920s, flappers wore them adorned with fringe and beads, giving the otherwise simple design an embellished element that was still comfortable to dance in. In the 1960s, these dresses were updated with psychedelic flowers and big, bold prints. During this decade, designer Lilly Pulitzer began selling her own style, which became known as the “Lilly.” Today, the Lilly line still sells its signature dresses in 1960s-style patterns.

In the 1980s, the style was combined with Jersey material and worn over a shirt, creating a “jumper.” Shift dresses made a comeback in the mid-1990s when business wear became popular, and at this time, they were most often layered over a turtleneck or t-shirt and worn with knee socks. During the mid-2000s, vintage 1960s fashions returned to the mainstream and the dresses were once again worn in their original form without a shirt underneath. The shift is still associated with timeless style and sophistication, and one was worn by First Lady Michelle Obama in the family’s first official portrait in the White House. The style was previously associated with US presidency when former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy adopted it as her own signature style, paired with pearls, gloves, and a pillbox hat.

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Discussion Comments
By closerfan12 — On Aug 03, 2010

@StreamFinder -- A backless shift dress can look really good, or really, really bad depending on whether you get a good one or not.

My best tip is to choose one that is made of a little looser fabric, unless you are very fit indeed.

For instance, a chiffon shift dress can look just as good as a silk shift dress, but there's a lot more give, and it is often more flattering.

So unless you are extremely fit, then I would go with a looser fabric -- then you'll be ready to go out with your fabulous backless shift dress.

By StreamFinder — On Aug 03, 2010

Does anybody have good tips for choosing a backless shift dress?

I think they are so pretty, but am not sure how to choose a good one.

Does anybody have any experience with choosing women's shift dresses, particularly backless ones?

By CopperPipe — On Aug 03, 2010

One good tip for women with a curvier frame wearing shift dresses is to look for a belted shift dress.

That gives the dress a little more definition, and keeps you away from the potato-sack look.

Even if you have a regular shift dress, you can pair it with a belt that you already have -- but go with either super-skinny or really chunky belts for the best effect.

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