The little shift dress – considering Sixties style

posted in: Inspiration, Style advice | 10

The origins of the 1960s shift dress lie in the 1920s when the short, usually sleeveless, shapeless and simplified dress allowed women to “shift” around, whether in terms of work, sports or dancing. This dress from about 1926 is attributed to Coco Chanel.

metropolitan museum of art
1926/7 shift dress


This simple shift features the key elements of the shift dress as we know it.

  • one piece dress without a waist seam
  • not fitted closely the body (relying on one underarm bust dart)
  • generally an A line shaped skirt
  • a pared-down, simplified silhouette
  • short (knee length or shorter)
  • most suitable for a youthful, slim hopped boyish figure
  • comfortable and unrestricting to wear
  • the shape lends itself to bold, geometric textile prints, or embellishment, as the design is not broken up by seams or darting.

The Shift as we know it came into its own in the 1960s.

Twiggy in Pink shift dress

The 1960s were a revolutionary decade when working class youth began to set new style standards,  and an explosion of design and modernisation was afoot internationally. Paris fashion and couture, as mentioned in Mary Harvey’s post, was challenged by British innovation. The music scene was important and the link between the mod look and the music of groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and the Who, led to the introduction of geometric, bold and simplified shapes and designs into fashion. By the mid-sixties, the simple A line shift dress and the mini skirt came to dominate. These garments suited youthful figures – teenagers  and students who looked sensational in slim fitting, vibrant garments sold relatively cheaply in the boutiques of  ‘Swinging London’. Fashion started to become disposable and standards of workmanship fell in order to produce a much quicker turn around, and lower prices for young spenders. The Italian approach to tailoring, especially for men, was adopted by Mod culture and began to influence the way menswear developed too. New fabrics were used including PVC, synthetics and metal – even paper was used for disposable dresses and underwear.

Dior started experimenting with this shape in the late 1950s, and it was his protégé, Yves Saint Laurent, who introduced modern shapes such as the “trapeze”. Couture was slow to adapt, with its exclusive approach, but soon began (as ever) to appropriate street style. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Cardin understood what was happening and developed it brilliantly. In turn the work of innovative couturiers wasdiffused and simplified to produce a simpler looks, and as they hit the high streets this classic A line dress became shorter, skimpier and cheaper. Mary Quant, who is now Dame Mary (since 1 January 2015), made a very significant contribution to the development of young women’s fashion with her Bazaar boutique in the Kings Road.

Mary Quant, Vidal Sasson
Quant, cut by Vidal Sasson

The shift dress is probably seen as the iconic 20th century dress, thanks to it being worn by Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy and, to the Melbourne races, by Jean Shrimpton.


Who can wear a shift dress?

This simple dress is best on straight, slim figures. It will flatter women with nice arms and legs and looks good with few accessories and flat or low heeled shoes.  Women with more shaped bodies, unless they are very slim, usually look better with waist emphasis. However the A line shape is good for women with larger hips as it will disguise them, and slim the legs. The shift is different from the sheath dress with has much more shaping around the waist and hips and may be better for a more curvy figure.

10 Responses

  1. Stephanie

    I really enjoyed this piece, as I knew the basic lines of the history but not the detail that you have included. This is perhaps not my best shape but I always enjoy wearing this type of dress.

  2. Joyce

    I remember the shift dress well……….I wore them as a teenager, and I remember my mother whipping one up on the sewing machine for the Friday dance the day before.

  3. The sheath dress – what it is and how to fit it | Fit and Flare

    […] 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. […]

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