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What is an Empire Waist?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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In women's fashion, an empire waist is a waistline which falls far above the natural waistline. Generally, the dress or shirt is cut so that the waistline is directly below the bust, allowing the rest of the garment to float over the bottom half of the body. The style has waxed and waned in fashion for hundreds of years, and it is suitable for a wide range of figures. Many department stores sell an assortment of empire waisted garments, and women can also sew their own from patterns.

Both Greek and Roman women wore gowns with a recognizable empire waist. In addition to being flattering to many body types, a garment with this type of waist also feels cooler and less restrictive. The fashion was picked up in the late 1700s in many parts of Europe, and it has been present in clothing design ever since. Many summer dresses and gowns incorporate an empire waist, as does some formal wear. Women often find a dress with this kind of waist much more comfortable than a dress with a lower waistline, especially in hot weather.

For women with minimal curves, an empire waist can create the illusion of a fuller body. The clothing can also be draped to maximize the bust, as slender women tend to have smaller busts. Lightweight fabrics are typically used to create a flowing effect. A ribbon, sash, or other decorative feature may be used to highlight the waistline.

Women with heavier and pear shaped figures can also look excellent in an empire waist dress or shirt. Since the waistline is located above the midsection, the dress can skim over larger stomachs and thighs. The garment can also be cut to emphasize the bust, with sleeves in varying lengths to expose or cover the arms, as desired. A shirt with an empire waist can be worn over slimming jeans or skirts, for women who want to highlight their legs.

A lot of maternity clothing is also designed with an empire waist, since the waistline below the bust feels more comfortable and natural. The flowing fabric over the stomach allows a woman's growing belly to expand without discomfort, and the top may have reinforcement to protect the new mother's tender chest area. Maternity clothing often has tie-backs, so that the garment can be loosened as a woman grows larger.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a BeautyAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By panda2006 — On Feb 02, 2011

Most empire waist dresses do look better on people who need to accentuate their hips and generally give themselves more defined curves. I usually prefer things like halter dresses, which help define the bust without moving the waist up. They also make your shoulders look well-defined as well.

By hyrax53 — On Feb 01, 2011

For a long time, I thought empire waists were flattering on me because they gave me a defined waist. However, I have more of an hourglass shape, so empire waists are in the wrong place. I have had to change my wardrobe, but I feel better now about the clothing I have.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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