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?
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.
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 party 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.
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
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 are comprised of panels made to hang with a vertical line, whereas sheath dresses follow the curves of the hips, waist, and bust.
Up next, read on for some of our favorite ways to style a shift dress.