Sheath dresses are structured dresses following the contour of the body. Borrowing from the word ‘sheath’ which is defined as a “close-fitting cover” usually associated with a knife or a blade or a sword, this one piece dress gracefully wraps around the body and accentuates all the curves while leaving a bit of space so that the fabric does not completely cling onto the body which provides comfort.
Structure-wise, the dress is constructed by joining together the bodice and bottom half which resembles a pencil skirt by combining the skirt darts into one dart. This is done to align the skirt darts with the bodice waist dart. The dress is designed to emphasize the waist without a waistline as its skirt portion is fitted.
Through time, the sheath dress has changed styles and adapted to modern trends but the classic sheath dress is often worn with short sleeves and knee-length skirt.
The sheath dresses peaked during the 1950s through the 1960s. Christian Dior, a French fashion designer, introduced the “Vertical Line” collection for his Spring-Summer 1950 which catered to a woman’s body and her curves — part of the legacy that redefined the postwar fashion in the 1940s and ushered in the era of ultra-feminine hourglass gowns. The sheath dress was called by Vogue as the “most important single day fashion.”
Who best fits sheath dresses?
While sheath dresses can be worn by any body type as designers have innovated through the use of stretch fabrics to cope up with figure variations, these are best worn by hourglass body shapes. This is because it highlights all the best features (mature and fuller figure) as well as draw attention to a slimmer waist.
These can also be worn by long, lean, and athletic shapes as it adds the appearance of curves. For this body shape (rectangular), it is recommended to get stiffer fabrics to maintain the shape of the dress and the illusion of curves.
The key in sheath dresses is to make sure it is fitted properly especially in these specific parts: neck, shoulder, arm hole, upper chest, bust, under bust, waist, hip, thigh, and back waist length.
Here are some tips to choose the best fit sheath dress for you.
- If you have a bit of a tummy, you can choose a patterned fabric for your sheath dress to redirect attention. You can also try designs with a ruched waist which visually flattens the stomach and also helps define your waist. Lightweight and slinky materials are a no-go as it usually clings to the middle and you don’t want the attention there.
- For the classic hourglass figures, choose waist-enhancing seams and a perfect form-fitting cut to accentuate and balance all the elements. According to Gregg Andrews, the national fashion director of Nordstrom, avoid “stiff or heavy fabrics, like tweed and brocade, that don’t shape easily to the contours of the body.” Additionally, women with large busts (cup D or more) should avoid high necklines which could overemphasize the bust.
- If you have full hips and thighs, go for styles with interesting details or more volume on top to balance out the fullness and proportions of the lower body. According to fashion designer David Meister, “Fabrics with some stretch or softness, such as rayon, silk, and cotton blends, and a straight, not tapered, cut of the skirt to accommodate the hips,” also works for this figure. Make sure to avoid “egged cuts that make hips and thighs look larger. Wrist-length sleeves that line up with the hips direct the eye straight to that area.”
- As mentioned earlier, straight figures should look for sheath dresses with built-in curves and seaming through the torso which creates a “defined, feminine silhouette”.
How to style sheath dresses?
With its crisp lines and casual feel, this clothing piece easily became a favorite and closet staple for its versatility.
For the classic look, you can simply accessorize your sheath dress with a bracelet or a necklace and pair it with your favorite pumps. Style it down with a cropped denim and flat boots for a perfect casual weekend.
You can also upscale the look by layering a blazer and pairing it with neutral-coloured heels for a formal business look. Or you may also layer a floral blouse or peplum shirt over the dress to make it a bit more casual-looking yet still smart enough to walk in confidently through all your meetings.
For a Friday night out, add some fun and vibrancy by mixing in prints and textures (just make sure to don’t go over the top!). You can also try going all black and layering over a moto jacket and some badass booties!
Featured Celebrities in Designer Sheath Dresses
First on the list is Michelle Obama. Michelle is wearing a purple crepe sheath dress designed by Chicago fashion designer, Maria V. Pinto, who has also designed clothing for Oprah Winfrey, Joffrey Ballet, and Marcia Gay Harden. This specific dress has become very popular as it commemorated the legendary fist bump between Michelle and her husband Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic National Convention where the Democratic Party announced its first nonwhite and of African descent presidential nominee.
Michelle accentuated her purple sheath dress with a black belt to define her waist and coupled with a pair of classic black heels. She also accessorized with a white pearl necklace to add flare to the v-shaped neckline.
Second is rapper Cardi B who is wearing a vintage Thierry Mugler Venus Sheath dress from 1995 during the February 2019 Grammy Awards. The dress took months to complete which started in September 2018. Kollin Carter, Cardi B’s stylist, first messaged the brand on instagram which led to an invitation into Cassey Cadwallader’s (Mugler’s creative director) debut runway.
According to WWD, Carter was dead set on the Venus dress for Cardi. She said, “From the moment I saw it, I knew it was going to be a debatable moment, some people would love it and some people would hate it and that’s everything we’re about when it comes to fashion. It’s meant to create a conversation.”
Of course, we also have the classics on the list.
In 1961, British actress Audrey Hepburn wore a Hubert de Givenchy black sheath dress made out of Italian satin in the opening of the romantic comedy film Breakfast at Tiffany’s for her character, Holly Golightly.
The dress was quickly dubbed as “little black dress” and may have been more well-known than the movie itself. Hepburn is recognised as both a fashion and film icon ranked by the American Film Institute as the third-greatest female screen legend in Golden Age Hollywood. She was also inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
It was originally designed shorter but Paramount Pictures thought it was too revealing so costume designer Edith Head was asked to redesign the bottom half which is how we got this elegant full-length dress. This dress is one of the most iconic clothing items of the 20th century and arguably the most famous “little black dress” of all time.
We also have Marilyn Monroe who wore a 1962 Jean Louis sheath dress described as “skin and beads” when she sang happy birthday to then-president John F. Kennedy for his 45th birthday. The dress was nude-toned, backless, and clad with crystals and Monroe was sewn into the dress for a tight fit. In 2016, Jean Louis sold the dress for $4.8 million.