Classic clothes are the backbone of your wardrobe. Here’s what to look for in dresses.
Not every woman needs a dress. While trousers, skirts, tops, jackets and coats are all very useful, some women can go all year without reaching for a dress, especially if they don’t wear one for work. However, a dress can be a great no-fuss option in a wardrobe. It enables you to immediately have a co-ordinated outfit, it’s always appropriate for evening, and it lends instant femininity.
Dress designs are among the most changeable items in fashion – they go from long to short, wide to narrow, change colour, acquire embellishments, lend themselves readily to asymmetry, etc. However, when you look more closely you realise that most dresses are effectively two garments in one – the top half being a standard shape such as shirt/blouse/t-shirt, and the bottom half being a standard skirt shape such as pencil/A-line/circle. This is handy, because it means that any style of top or skirt that suits you will also suit you in a dress. If, for instance, you’re a t-shirt wearer, look out for tank and t-shirt dresses, while if you’re a shirt and pleated-skirt type, look out for shirtdresses.
Here are the classic dresses that keep their place in fashion while others come and go.
Shirtwaist. Basically a long shirt with a belt, usually with some shaping at the waist. The skirt may be narrow or full, as in this version from Wealth of Nations (no longer available). Also called a shirt dress and a coatdress, this probably the best dress to wear for business as it echoes the classic skirt and blouse shape, but it is rarely out of place anywhere. In short-sleeved linen it’s a great summer option that protects your skin from sunburn and works for most occasions, from shopping, to the office, to a restaurant, while in long-sleeved wool it’s as smart as a suit.
The shirtwaist used to be considered a safe and mumsy option, which has rather tarnished its image – in fact at its best it can also be sexy – but it does require that your body is basically symmetrical, with a defined waist or it makes the wearer look blocky. If you have a thick waist, or a notably smaller top or bottom half, use separates to colour-balance your silhouette rather than a shirtwaist.
Shift dress. The classic shift dress has a sleeveless ‘shell’ top and a narrow skirt and usually ends at about knee length. In black it’s the classic ‘little black dress’ that can take you from office to dinner party to cocktails, and in bright satins like this one from Littlewoods, is a useful evening option. Most women can wear a shift dress, but it’s crucial to find the right fit – especially the shape and depth of the neckline – and to have the dress tailored exactly to your frame. Get it right, with a skimming fit, and it can take pounds off you, but nevertheless many women over 40 still prefer to team it with a jacket, wrap or cardigan that covers the arms.
Wrap dress (right). The great style statement of the last couple of seasons, especially in retro prints, the wrap dress is a perennial favourite because it flatters most figures. A real wrap is more useful than a faux wrap because you can pull it as loose or as tight as you like – for extra coverage wear it over a vest or t-shirt (a necessity with some modern styles, as the wrap is cut very low on the body). Current versions are usually viscose and lycra, but the style also works in woven fabrics such as silk shantung or cotton. A black version works well as a little black dress that can take you from work to a restaurant for the evening.
T-shirt dress. A stretch dress cut like a long t-shirt, and possibly with shaping at the waist. If you live in tees, a t-shirt dress might suit your lifestyle pretty well, especially as a summer option. Choose the neckline and sleeve length you’re most comfortable with in a tee, and a length from mid-thigh (useful over trousers) to mid-calf.
Tank. A tank dress is sleevelss, goes on over the head and is shaped like a vest at the neckline, then drops either straight or with a degree of flare, to any length of hem. Although vests when worn as tops are usually stretch, a tank dress may be in either stretch fabric or a woven, but is usually distinguished by not having bust darts. In an embellished fabric like this one from Littlewoods, it works well in a short length for evening, while in long, it’s best left somewhat plainer. A tank is an enormously useful style for wearing under an interesting top layer, but can also be a top layer in itself as the most usual shape for a pinafore or ‘jumper’ dress.
Empire line. The defining attribute of an empire line dress is that it has a raised waistline, but it may be sleeved or sleeveless, have a straight or full skirt and can be worn for either day or night. It’s a great choice if you have small breasts: large breasts, however, can look like they’ve been served up on a plate, so check that the waistline is not too high – a slightly raised waist sitting at the bottom of your ribcage catches most women at their narrowest and can be very flattering. An empire-line dress is very comfortable if you need a dress to wear at a desk all day, or for an evening function where you’re eating, because there’s no constriction on the waist.
Bustier dress. A dress that teams a bustier-style top with any length or style of skirt. A strapless dress is always a sexy choice and needs some confidence to carry it off, and it helps to have a toned upper body. Always choose one with boning, or have a long-line bra sewn into the bodice – constantly worrying about whether you’ll pop out can really ruin an evening. Teamed with a chiffon or sparkly top, a bustier dress is a good choice for dinner-dance type affairs where you’re not sure exactly what you’ll be doing during the course of the evening. If you’re over 40 and prefer a full skirt, keep it at knee length or longer – a short, full skirt with a bustier top is a very teenage look.
Halter neck. This denotes any dress with a halter top (see Classic Clothes part 5 – tops) and often, by default, it has an empire-line waist. The exposure that a halter neck lends effectively makes it a casual summer style, or evening only. This evening version in a sexy ‘nude’ colour is from Littlewoods. It’s quite difficult to team a halterneck dress with any kind of jacket or cardigan because of the neckline – the easiest kind of cover-up is a shawl or stole, so team it with a light shoulderbag rather than a clutch or you’ll have two things to hang on to all evening. A very flattering option for most bustlines, and inherently sexy – the halterneck is a style that never appears in male clothing.
Cocktail dress. ‘Cocktail’ isn’t a style of dress so much as a length, and it can either be narrow or full. Cocktail dresses are generally sleeveless and the skirt ends somewhere between the knee and the calf. They are now considered suitable for pretty much any evening event, including black-tie. A simple style in a glossy fabric always works and although black is the classic colour, a jewel-toned red, blue or green can also be a standout. It can be hard to find a toning jacket for a cocktail dress because of the length, so if you want to cover your upper arms, look out for versions with a matching jacket, or wear an evening wrap instead.
Sweater dress. Basically a long sweater, it’s a slightly moot point where a sweater ends and a dress begins, but the term basically denotes a knitted dress. One at mid-thigh length is useful over jeans or trousers for a casual look, while a dressier knee-length one such as this shaped, flared green version (Littlewoods) will work for around the house or even the office as long as you keep it simple – here it’s teamed with heavy-denier tights, but boots also work well. A sweater dress is a very comfortable dress option that you can wear all day. By the way, in England a sweater dress is also called a ‘jumper’ dress, but in the US a ‘jumper’ denotes an overdress such as a pinafore, which is worn over a vest, t-shirt or sweater.
Slip dress. A revealing little number (basically, a long camisole) that looks great on a great body but leaves any woman without a toned figure with nowhere to hide. Sadly, most evening dresses, even those with more constructed bodices and skirts, still have slip necklines with tiny shoestring straps that you can’t get a bra under. An option for the young, the thin and the beautiful, the slip dress proper is best teamed with a chiffon jacket or other light cover-up for evening, at least for getting from place to place.