So What Is a Shift Dress Exactly?

What Is a Shift Dress?

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Matthew Sperzel/Getty Images

Summer is looming, and that means revisiting (and hopefully mastering) some wardrobe staples. With that in mind, let's turn our attention to the shift dress, a versatile, flattering style of dress. With new iterations coming out this season, from textured patterns to classic solids, it’s important to get back to the basics. So what's a shift dress exactly? And how is it different from a sheath dress? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Is a Shift Dress?

What is a shift dress?

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Szymon Brzoska / The Style Stalker

Simply put, a shift dress refers to a short dress that hangs straight down from the shoulders with clean, simple lines. Typically, a shift dress is sleeveless, though some styles have short sleeves or off-the-shoulder variations. Above all, a shift dress should hang loosely from the body without a fitted cut. Shift dresses typically feature little to no embellishment—again, minimalism is key with the shift dress.

Shift Dress

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Szymon Brzoska / The Style Stalker

Visually, the shift dress calls to mind the aesthetics of the early 1960s, which makes it a natural fit for everything from festival wear to spring and summer attire. But while the shift dress may conjure up the mid-20th century, its origins are actually much older. In the 1920s, several designers (most notably Coco Chanel) were designing loose, anti-corset dresses in the flapper style, with bare arms and legs, a simple boat neckline, and a straight, boxy waist. These elements eventually gave rise to the shift dress.

Best Shift Dresses

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Szymon Brzoska / The Style Stalker

The loose, short form of the shift dress was a marked change from corset-laden styles that predated the '20s, making the shift dress a style associated with youth culture. The shift dress then is an apt term for a style of dress that symbolized a shift in thought around womenswear.

Shift Dress vs. Sheath Dress

Shift vs Sheath Dress

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Szymon Brzoska / The Style Stalker

A common question about the shift dress is how it differs from a sheath dress. Both dresses convey clean simplicity and tend to land short to mid-length. But while a shift dress is loose and comfy, sheath dresses are formfitting. Shift dresses have panels made to hang with a vertical line, whereas sheath dresses follow the curves of the hips, waist, and bust.

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