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What is the Difference Between a Dress and a Gown?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 21, 2024
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The difference between a dress and a gown is largely one of semantics and personal preference. The word "gown" tends to refer to more formal garments, like those worn for weddings, proms or balls. A "dress" can be any one-piece garment with a skirt of any length, and can be either formal or informal. While many gowns are referred to as dresses, like those worn to a wedding or prom, people seldom hear less formal garments referred to this way. For example, a sundress is never a sungown.

All gowns are dresses, but not all dresses are gowns. In earlier English examples from the 16th century onward, the word "dress" referred to both men and women’s clothing ensembles. It might be modified by terms like evening, traveling, riding, and people can still see examples of this on invitations to certain events. An invitation might state that a function requires semi-formal dress or attire, for example. When an invitation states that the occasion is formal, women are expected to wear an evening gown.

When the term is used strictly, a gown is fancy and frivolous wear, with a tight fitting bodice and a full floor-length skirt. Certain close-fitting styles, like the form fitting types worn by actresses to award ceremonies, are still often considered to be gowns. Attending the Oscars, for example, tends to require formal eveningwear for both men and women, though notable exceptions have been fashion disasters of the past.

Another related term is frock. A frock may also be a less formal dress, but may also be an evening or formal gown. The word "frock" is more popular in the UK than in the US for referring to any one-piece garment with a skirt.

An exception to these general definitions is a graduation gown, which is worn over clothing. A woman might wear a dress under such a garment if she is planning to attend graduation celebrations after the ceremony. Usually, the outfit is flowing and oversized, and it is worn over other clothes, though a few graduates have tried to get away with wearing only the gown as part of a prank or bet. This may be cause for amusement but is considered inappropriate for the event of graduation from high school or college.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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 anon1003549 — On Jul 22, 2020

What is the difference between “dress” & “gown” if there is any?

By anon930863 — On Feb 06, 2014

What about a night gown? They are not fancy at all.

By EarlyForest — On Aug 03, 2010

@lightning88 -- Like the article said, it's not always such a rigid thing.

Whereas I suppose that most evening dresses would be technically considered gowns, it's not like the fashion police are going to arrest you if you call it a dress instead.

I think a lot of the confusion can come from fashion houses calling their designer dresses "gowns" to make them sound fancier.

Long story short, there are technical differences, but it's not a terribly big deal.

By lightning88 — On Aug 03, 2010

So is it possible for an evening dress to not be a gown? Most of them have the fitted top and long skirt, right?

By rallenwriter — On Aug 03, 2010

The semantics of clothing is always so interesting to me. For example, a shirt dress can never be a shirt gown, but a cocktail dress can be a cocktail gown if it's fancy enough.

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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