The sheath dress – what it is and how to fit it

posted in: Inspiration, Style advice | 14

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.

woman in black sheath dress
sheath dress

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
  • knee-length
  • 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:

  • neck
  • shoulder
  • arm hole
  • upper chest
  • bust
  • under bust
  • waist
  • hip
  • thigh
  • back waist length
  • 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.

Lyn in the toile
Lyn in the toile

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.

Upper back toile fitting
Upper back

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.

vertical back darts toile fititng
Back dart placement

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.

fitting a sheath dress toile
fullness at CF

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.

14 Responses

  1. Jaclyn

    Now I know the difference between a sheath and shift, thank you! Looking fwd to seeing Lyn in her final garment. Love that Camilla is still glamorously and luxuriously draped in the blue animal print fabric, I can’t wait to see the dress it becomes…

  2. Juliet

    Did your comment of “two vertical back darts” mean two on each side? I think there is enough fabric there to make this the unobtrusive solution. Maybe I’m swayed by the Butterick 2137 design too as I think it is beautiful. I’m looking forward to seeing the first dress from this!

  3. fabrickated

    Yes Juliet I meant two back darts on each side, as I too was swayed by the Butterick pattern, and also I noted that Lyn had more fabric to take up at the back than the front. Most skirt blocks have got “two at the back and one at the front” due to the shape of the bottom compared to the shape of the tummy.

  4. mrsmole

    I’d love to see the finished altered paper pattern! Great start on making such a nice custom pattern that can be used over and over and even overlayed on new patterns to get the right markers like bust points and dart points. It is so nice to have a willing model! Thank you for mentioning that waistlines go up and down but pattern companies and RTW seem to think we are like mannequins…straight across and parallel with the floor. Age and weight and posture can change everything.

    • Corinne

      I would not make a paper pattern once a muslin is made. Pick the muslin apart and use it for the pattern pieces if you have fashion fabric ready to cut. When you have time later you can trace out the muslin onto oak tag or whatever, but really that’s going backwards. I just don’t like wasting energy doing stuff that isn’t necessary when I sew. I like lapped zippers or invisible zips on sheath dresses, it’s a bit more “classy” of a look with this style of dress. I generally don’t line even linen but will wear a slip for opacity. I prefer underlining sheaths. Great post! I live in sheath dresses, they are so comfortable and can be worn almost anywhere! Once you find a style you like and fit yourself, you can make these dresses in a few hours, which means you can throw a dress together for almost any occasion. Your model looks great! I’ve been using the same 3-4 sheath dress patterns for years.

  5. Stephanie

    There is so much useful information here, some of it completely new to me (the string tip!), so thanks for writing this. A very nice and informative post – lucky Lyn to have a block made for her by you!

  6. Sewniptuck

    So thats where I went wrong with my not so chic shift! My best silhouette is a sheath not a shift! I’m wondering what you might suggest for Lyn’s sloping shoulders? I think the sheath will look lovely when the neckline is adjusted, but some height at the shoulder point would also be a bonus?

  7. Aurora1917

    I come across you post while looking for the solution for the excess fabric in the upper chest. I am working with Vogue 8146 dress pattern. I also pinned the wedge and it dramatically changed the fit ( for the better ;). But I still don’t know to incorporate this wedge on the front that is cut on the fold. Any help will be much appreciated.

    • fabrickated

      Hello Aurora – Thank you for your question. The alteration you wish to make is a common one and I do it myself as I am fairly narrow across the upper chest. You can alter your pattern exactly as you describe although it easier with a dress with a waist seam. If you were just doing the top you could take the wedge out, tapering towards the waist without affecting the skirt part of the dress.

      So my suggestion for a quick fix on a sheath dress like the lovely V8146 is that you slice the dress across at the waist, do the alteration to the upper part (ie remove the wedge). Now when you rejoin the top to the skirt on the grain you will find you have opened a dart at the waist – ie the side seam will now be slightly longer than the CF fold line (measured from the under arm). I propose you toile the dress again, blending the long front darts, and fix the length by measuring the hem up from the floor. I hope this helps. Do let me know.

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