What is the difference between a shift dress and a sheath dress? Both are one piece dresses, made in woven rather than stretch fabrics, often knee length or shorter, often sleeveless, and are often confused. Both styles are classics and have been in and out of fashion during the 20th and 21st centuries.
The shift was a phenomenon in the 1960s and is essentially a short, A line dress. In is semi-fitted or loose fitted. A sheath dress is fitted much more closely to the body. The bottom half of the dress resembles a straight pencil skirt rather than the A line of the shift. In essence the shift is better on straight body shapes, and the sheath flatters more curved figures.
A sheath dress is
- a one piece dress with no waist line join
- closely fitted through the body so that it follows its curves
- it skims the body and doesn’t cling
- fit is achieved through darting – usually at the underarm, underbust, back shoulder and under shoulder
- the vertical darts are diamond-shaped with more fabric being suppressed in the waistline area
- back zip
In essence a sheath dress is all about showing off the curves of a woman’s figure, whereas the shift falls from the shoulders, to some extent disguising bust, waist and hips. While the shift is the best look for skinny (boyish) girls with long legs, the sheath dress flatters a more mature, fuller figure.
The sheath dress has enjoyed popularity especially in the 1950s and more recently, although it owes its close-fitting silhouette to the 1930s bias cut evening gown. In my view it is a classic that can be worn by many women with two provisos. It looks best on shaped and semi shaped bodies, and it really must be fitted properly. As it is a close-fitting garment it has a number of points where it needs to fit the body. Therefore unless it is tailored made you need to be quite lucky to find one that fits in a shop. For this reason a number of manufacturers produce a “sheath” style of dress in a stretch fabric so that it can cope with figure variations. And many women will buy and wear a sheath dress that does not fit everywhere but they feel it is good enough. In my view it needs to fit in the following areas:
- arm hole
- upper chest
- under bust
- back waist length
Apart from all these fitting points you may want a style variation (eg a pleated neckline or cap sleeves), or a specific colour or fabric (wool or linen, for example). If you enjoy fitting, and want to look really good in a tailor-made dress, I would suggest this is a great dress to make for yourself or a client.
I had fun fitting my friend Lyn. She has a great, shaped figure and wanted to create a dress that fits her well and form the basis of a new, hand-made wardrobe.
I drafted a torso block, based on her bust, waist and hip measurements. I included an underarm dart and a back shoulder dart, but I left off the vertical darts deciding to add them by pinning out at the first fitting.
When I met her we talked about her precise body shape and she mentioned that she had a relatively “high bust”. In other words the bust point is less than 2″ from the under arm. On the average woman this would be around two and a half inches. On Lyn it was only one and a half inches. Therefore before I even started cutting out I did two alterations to the basic bodice block – I altered the dart position bringing it up much higher on the side seam, and also angling it to come upwards slightly as I felt this would be more flattering. I also did a full bust adjustment as I noticed that on Lyn’s RTW garments there was some wrinkling and pulling in the bust area. Having done these alterations to the pattern I made up a the torso block in calico and asked her to try it on. She laughed as she emerged from my bathroom in what she called a “straight jacket”. I tied a piece of string around her waist to make it look even more fetching, but in order that I could determine the widest part of the darts and where I needed to take in the side seam. The places where the fullness is folded over is the place where I will create the vertical darts, basically under the bust.
Turning to the back, first we had a look at the upper back to check the fit. This led me to spot another slight issue. You can see the shoulders look slightly tight, like the shoulders want a little bit of extra room. This is because Lyn has a bit of a bony shoulders and they could just do with maybe one-quarter to one-half inch of extra fabric at the bony bit just to the outside of the back dart. Otherwise we have a nice fit here, and I think this photograph makes the case for the back dart.
In the back the darts “wanted” to be placed around 3″ from the CB zip. Lyn has a very pronounced curve at her lower back with quite broad shoulders and round hips. I think it may be advisable to create two vertical darts at the back.
In the top picture you can also see that I took in a wedge at the front, upper chest. This is to suppress excess fabric that made the top look baggy above the bust, and is caused by Lyn’s relatively full, high bust. This is a pattern alteration she may have to do with patterns she purchases in future. The little cuts at the neck line and shoulder are made in the seam allowance to check the pattern, which was actually a good fit in these areas, despite a high round neck, not being the best neckline for Lyn.
When fitting the torso block I considered how to remove the upper chest fullness and this solution of pinning out a wedge may not be the very best way to do it. I mentioned to Lyn that due to her having a very shaped body we would get an even better fit if we created a princess line block for her. This would allow the extra fabric in the upper chest to be done away with in the princess lines and would allow us to create a very nice smooth line through the bust, waist and hips. If Lyn wants to make a tailored dress (to wear for an occasion or as a smart business dress, perhaps with a jacket) I create a princess line pattern for her.
Just a point on the string. Many people do not have an evenly balanced waist. In Lyn’s case her waist at the front is higher than at the back; in my case it is the opposite. Most RTW garments assumes the waist is the same all round. If you make your own patterns you can put this right, and it avoids the feeling of a belt slipping up or down at the back. By using the string I found Lyn’s natural waist (slimmest point), marked where it fell on the toile and I will make sure the darts have their greatest width at these points giving a Lyn a better fit.
Now I will make changes to the toile (slimming the upper chest, the side seams and letting out the shoulders) and then create the most flattering darts in the correct position to give a nice shape to the torso block. By fitting the torso we have married up bust, waist and hip. Lyn can now lengthen (or shorten) the block to meet her own design requirements – a dress of any length (if below knee it may need a split), a tunic, or shorter shell top. The most obvious item to make is a nice sheath dress, so I will make the pattern, mail it to her with some fabric suggestions – a firmer or structured fabric, not too heavy but certainly not a light weight fabric (unless underlined). I would suggest a medium to firm linen, medium weight wool, twill cotton with elastane, Linton tweed or similar, or perhaps a silk brocade.
I hope to share a picture of Lyn in her dress or tunic when she has made it up. Lyn is just getting back to sewing. If you want to read of her adventure, then head over to her blog.