Gown vs. Dress

Learn everything you need to know about gowns and dresses showcasing their rich history, various types, silhouettes, forms and the knowledge of when to wear them.

These are women wearing colorful gowns at an event.

Anyone else misses dressing up? Parties have become smaller, weddings rarer. Opportunities to dress up, red carpet style, scarce.

To get my ‘dressing up’ fix, I may just throw on a gown next time I need to pop out to the grocery store. This led me to wonder, what is the difference between a gown and a dress?

A gown is a long, lined, formal dress that flows to the ground. Gowns are made from luxurious materials and worn on extraordinary occasions, like a wedding gown or ball gown. A dress can be made to suit any occasion; it can be formal or casual, long or short, and is less expensive than a gown.

Opportunities to don a gown are rare. These days you are more likely to come across a gown in a hospital; think PPE gowns or surgical gowns.  Dresses, on the other hand, are gaining in popularity.

Table of Contents

Difference Between a Gown and an Evening Dress

This is a woman wearing a blue flowing evening dress.

Many people use the term gown and evening dress interchangeably. The two, however, are not the same. Both dresses are formal and worn at special occasions or fancy events.

Gowns always have a fitted bodice and floor-length skirt.

Evening dresses can be any silhouette with the length ranging from mid-calf to floor-length.

A Gown is to a Woman what a Tux is to a Man

This is a man wearing a black tuxedo.

Fashion trends come and go, and while you see this in evening dresses, gowns have pretty much stayed the same for the past century. Regal and elegant, gowns are made from the most delicate fabrics like silk and satin and are painstakingly trimmed with embroidery, beading, and pearls.

The gown’s skirt always touches the floor while the bodice is often, but not always off the shoulder with a decollete neckline. A stole or shawl is worn with a gown, and the outfit is completed with elbow-length gloves and jewelry.

Difference Between a Gown and an Evening Dress?

This is a woman wearing a luxurious gown.

Many people use the term gown and evening dress interchangeably. The two, however, are not the same. Both dresses are formal and worn at special occasions or fancy events.

Gowns always have a fitted bodice and floor-length skirt.

Evening dresses can be any silhouette with the length ranging from mid-calf to floor-length.

Difference Between a Gown and a Maxi Dress

This is a woman wearing a long floral maxi dress.

Maxi dresses and gowns both have hemlines that cascade to the floor. However, the maxi dress, a term coined in the late 1960s, is a casual dress style.

The maxi dress channels a laid-back style with a flowy, billowy skirt made from lightweight fabric like silk, cotton, or crepe.

Maxi dresses are versatile and can transition through seasons. They can also be dressed up or down.

PPE Gown vs. Surgical Gown

These are healthcare providers wearing PPE gowns at the triage tent.

A PPE gown stands for Personal Protective Equipment. Also called medical gowns, they create a barrier between a medical professional and a patient.

These gowns are worn to protect medical professionals from illness or infection that can be transmitted via infectious liquid or solid material through contact with a patient.

Surgical gowns are worn by health care professionals when there is a medium to high risk of contamination and a need for larger critical zones of protection, typically during surgery.

Five Most Common Dress Silhouettes

While gowns have one silhouette, a full skirt, and a fitted bodice, dresses come in an array of silhouettes. The silhouette is basically the shape of the dress.

Although there is a different silhouette at the forefront of fashion each season, certain silhouettes are eternally popular. It is essential to know your body shape to choose a silhouette that is most flattering for you.

A-Line

A woman wearing a long A-line dress.

A-Line silhouettes feature a fitted bodice with a skirt that flares from the waist, making it flattering on almost every body shape. They come in various lengths, from above the knee to floor length.

Empire Waist

This is a woman wearing a floral empire waist dress.

Empire waist dresses are popular because they create a slimming effect. The bodice is fitted over the bust, with the fabric flaring out just under the bustline into a flowy A-Line skirt.

Bodycon

This is a woman wearing a red bodycon dress.

A bodycon dress is made from a stretch, figure-hugging fabric. It is tightfitting and designed to show off a woman’s curves.

Shift

This is a woman wearing a black shift dress.

Made popular in the sixties, a shift dress features simple, clean lines. The fabric falls straight down from the shoulders into a short hemline. Shift dresses are typically sleeveless, although short sleeves or off-the-shoulder styles are available.

Sheath

This is a woman wearing a lilac sheath dress.

Like the shift dress, the sheath dress has a short to mid-calf length hemline and clean lines. However, while the shift dress is loose-fitting, the sheath dress is formfitting and has a slit in the skirts. It follows the contours of the hips, waist, and bust, making it flattering on more curvy or hourglass body shapes.

Slipdress

This is a woman wearing a purple slipdress.

Slip dresses have become a classic and wardrobe staple because they are versatile and can be worn season after season.

With spaghetti straps and silky material, they look a bit like a petticoat or a slip you would wear under a dress (does anyone actually wear these anymore?).

The shift dress is a great piece to wear on its own or layer with other pieces when transitioning through seasons.

The History of the Dress

This is a woman wearing an Egyptian style costume dress.

The Tarkhan Dress is believed to be the world’s first dress. It was discovered in a tomb in Egypt 5000 years ago. In 51 BC, Cleopatra was known to wear dresses adorned with semi-precious stones and gold.

The evolution of the dress over the past few centuries does not merely change in fashion. It is a reflection of a change in lifestyle, as well as social and political factors.

History of the Gown

This is a woman wearing a red long medieval gown.

The earliest gowns are believed to have been worn in the sixteenth century by upper-class women in Europe. These gowns were made from the most luxurious of materials like velvet silk, and lace and adorned with intricate embroidery, pearls, and jewels.

Gowns are exquisite. Wearing a gown is an experience in itself. But if I had to choose between buying a gown or a dress, I would choose a dress.

Beautiful as they are, gowns are just not practical and opportunities to wear a gown are rare.

On the other hand, with the array of styles of dresses available, you are certain to find a dress that suits your lifestyle and will make you feel like a million bucks.

References:

Vix Paulahermanny: What Is A Maxi Dress?

Fibre2Fashion: The Standards of Formal Wear

Master Class: Essential Guide to Dress Silhouettes

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