Read the exhaustive guide to dresses of the world to find the design for your event and body type. From shifts to tent dresses, wedding gowns to cocktail dresses, you can find it in this guide to the types of dresses.
Introduced to the world of fashion modeling at the age of 17, the array of types of dresses surprised me. From full-length formal gowns to micro mini dresses, dresses run the gamut from teeny tiny to flowy toe skimmers.
Dress sales generate $41 billion in sales each year in the US alone. The worldwide dress market seems unfathomable. Women in every country wear dresses. Since fashions vary by culture and climate, a multitude of types of dresses exists.
If you want to learn the different types of dresses names with pictures, you have come to the right place. Fashionable dresses come in a multitude of shapes, styles, fabrics, materials, and colors.
The Dress Defined
So, what makes a dress, a dress?
The term dress refers to a one-piece garment that covers the torso and a portion of or all of the legs without dividing the material that covers the legs into pant legs. The lower portion of a dress forms a skirt. As you can imagine, clothing designers seize upon the versatility of this garment. In present-day fashions, nearly one hundred types of modern dress exist.
Types of Dresses
From that basic design of one piece of material comes many variations. Hemlines vary from micro-mini to maxi dresses, including minis, midis, semi-formals, tea length, and full length. The cut of the skirts includes the A-line, the bell, the pencil, the slip, and the cigar. The sleeves can vary from none at all as on a halter or tube style to full-length sleeves. Between that are off-the-shoulder, shoulder, Bardot, short sleeves, pouf or bell sleeves, three-quarter length, and thumb or fingerless mitten sleeves.
Various cultures contribute their own designs, crossing not just borders, but oceans to reach foreign shores with their looks. Designs from Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Indian, and various Caribbean cultures have become popular the world over and currently crowd American garment racks.
Just when you think designers have exhausted every possible idea, they debut something like the meat dress, styled from actual cuts of meat. Feather dresses have been a thing, too. In the 1960s and early 70s, newsprint dresses became all the rage. Made of newspaper material they did not last long, but they proved entertaining if you were stuck for something to read while on the subway. Tissue dresses also may as well be for disposable wear, but every designer attempts to create something new and different. Gaultier created the conical bra shape for his bodices while Nicole Moan uses ceramics for the corsets of her designs and their matching purses.
Typical materials include silk, satin, cotton, polyester, muslin, Lycra, lace, leather, and pleather. Embellishments may include mesh, eyelet, beads, sequins, embroidery, or ribbon.
- A-Line Dress
- Apron Dress
- Asymmetrical Dress
- Ball Gown
- Bardot Dress
- Blazer Dress
- Cocktail Dress
- Dirndl Dress
- Halter Dress
- Midi Dress
- Off-the-Shoulder Dress
- Bodycon Dress
- Empire Waist Dress
- Mini Dress
- Maxi Dress
- Pencil Dress
- High Low Dress
- Kimono Dress
- Peplum Dress
- Sheath Dress
- Sweater Dress
- Shirt Dress
- Slip Dress
- Smock Dress
- Mermaid Silhouette Dress
- T-shirt Dress
- Tea Length Dress
- Pinafore Dress
- Denim Dress
- Tube Dress
- Qipao Dress
- Long Sleeve Dress
- Bell-Sleeve Dress
- Shift Dress
- Strapless Dress
- Sun Dress
- Low or Drop Waist Dress
- One Shoulder Dress
- Handkerchief-Hem Dress
- Bandage Dress
- Pouf Dress
- Silhouette Dress
- Tunic Dress
- Tent Dress
- Wrap Dress
- Yoke Dress
- Princess Seam Dress
- Blouson Dress
- Peasant Dress
- Baby Doll Dress
- Debutante Dress
- Skater Dress
- Camisole Dress
- Granny Dress
- Harem Dress
- Swing Dress
- Tutu Dress
- Little Black Dress (LBD)
- Coat Dress
- Corset Dress
- Balloon Dress
- Bouffant Dress
- Kaftan Dress
- Pillowcase Dress
- Party Dress
- Draped Dress
- X-ray Dress
The term asymmetrical dress provides an ideal option for semi-formal or formal events since it works for both. One length of the hem hits a formal length while the shorter one typically reaches a semi-formal length. It may have an asymmetric sleeve length, too, such as the one-shoulder dress. Due to the vast variations, most body types can typically find an asymmetric design that suits their frame.
The term empire waist dress refers to a design created in the 18th century that gathers the dress material under the bust to accentuate the slimmest part of the torso. This works well for petite women since it creates the illusion of height. Since it focuses on the area just beneath the breasts, it can also work to make a heavier woman appear slenderer since the material beneath the bust line flares out and swirls around the hips without fitting snugly.
The term high low dress is a form of asymmetrical dress. They are typically longer at the back, and shorter at the front. This shape works with casual dresses as well as ball gowns. It is the perfect style for anyone who wants to show off their sexy pins, and they’re best paired with high heels or platforms, so the back of the dress doesn’t drag on the floor.
The term kimono dress refers to a traditional Japanese gown popularized more than one thousand years ago. Talk about a fashion look that stands the test of time! The kimono features long, loose sleeves and a wraparound closure. Typically belted at the waist, the modernized design features a slit skirt.
The term sheath dress is form-fitting, it has a straight cut and is nipped at the waistline, with no visible seam. It sits at the knee or just above and is ideal for a business event or a night out. This dress style is perfect for those who want to put their gorgeous curves in the spotlight, as it flatters those with an hourglass figure.
The term mermaid silhouette dress refers to ball gown style with a long, straight line from the top to mid-calf or thigh. At this point, the fabric flares out into a wide skirt that evokes a mermaid’s tail. This dress type works well for an hourglass or pear-shaped body type.
The term tea-length dress refers to a length of semi-formal gown. Designed for wear in the late afternoon or early evening events, it features a full circle skirt with a mid-calf hemline. This length proves suitable for late afternoon or early evening wedding, a formal tea also called high tea, or for a semi-formal event such as a typical sorority function. You may choose it as an option for a high school prom as well.
The term Qipao dress refers to traditional Chinese garb first worn in the 17th century’s Manchu rule. This high-necked silk dress features a high slit on one or both legs on a straight skirt. The sleeve type varies, but the Qipao always showcases a delicate embroidery on its front.
The term strapless dress refers to a fitted bodice and bust dress that has no sleeves or straps. Its tight fit across the bust holds it in place. Designer Mainbocher debuted this style in the 1930s. You can wear a leotard or skivvy or T-shirt beneath it to avoid showing skin or to remain warm on a chilly day.
The term princess silhouette dress refers to a type of ball gown with a tight-fitting bust/bodice and waist with a flowy skirt such as a princess might wear. Many Disney cartoon characters wear this design. In real life, it works well for a woman with lovely shoulders and toned arms.
The term tent dress refers to a shapeless full dress popular in summer. It loosely hangs from the shoulders and provides a comfortable, baggy fit that lets airflow. Its length varies. This look works well for those with a heavier build since it skims over the body. You cannot see fat deposits when wearing a tent dress.
Frequently Asked Questions
Some common questions come up when considering dresses to make or buy. This FAQ addresses those questions, including a brief history of dresses covering when designers developed each of the types of dresses. Designers still make every one of these necklines and hemlines.
What are the different types of dress necklines?
There are many different necklines. The most common of these, the scoop or round neckline, takes on a C or U shape depending on how deep the neckline plunges. The other necklines include the crew, jewel, square, V, Boat/Bateau, scoop, collared, gathered, strapless, cowl, diamond, keyhole, sweetheart, off-the-shoulder, halter, ruffled, wide-square/Florentine, halter neckline with straps, strap, décolleté, one shoulder, paper bag, Queen Elizabeth, court, horseshoe, racerback, Queen Ann, wide square, mitered square, scallop, slash/slit, asymmetrical, illusion, cardigan, yoke, banded, bib, and high.
What is the lower part of a dress called?
The area of the dress from the waistband to the hem gets called a skirt. Depending on the hemline, a skirt may be micro-mini, mini, midi, or maxi. Other terms exist for these lengths. For example, a tea-length skirt is a length of midi skirt.
What types of wedding dresses are there?
Wedding dresses take many forms. You could have a wedding dress that reaches the floor such as a ball gown or one that takes on a cocktail length. A traditional American or Western European wedding dress is white in color.
The bride typically wears the dress with matching accessories designed to work with the dress. These include a train, a long piece of material, typically satin (taffeta), that trails behind the bride, and a veil that covers the face and neck but allows the bride to see through it. Usually of mesh or lace, it matches the lace used on the dress.
Where to Buy Dresses
Shopping for dresses can take some time. If you find it tough to find a dress that fits you properly, you might want to shop in person. Sometimes, that cannot happen though. You can use one of the many personal shopper services available to have someone else shop according to your style likes and ship you a certain number of options in your size. ThredUp offers this service as does Stitch Fix, and Gwynnie Bee. If you swear by shopping on Amazon and dearly want your Amazon smile charity to receive your donation from shopping, you can use the Amazon personal shopper service.
Perhaps you get a kick out of shopping. You do not mind hitting the local mall or visiting your local stores to peruse the garment racks and try on the outfits. Remember to take the shoes with you that you want to wear with the dress. If you shoe shop at the same time, select a pair of heels or flats suitable for the type of dress you will purchase and take them with you into the fitting room. If the fitting room only has a single mirror, step outside it to use the three-way mirror to examine each outfit from multiple angles.
Many department stores and women’s clothing stores have e-commerce options now. You can shop at Macy’s, Nordstrom, Foley’s, Belk’s, Kohl’s, JC Penney, and Sears online. Regardless of your budget, your style, or the size you wear, you can find a dress online. J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, and Land’s End also host online shops. You can easily have your favorite items shipped directly to your door.
You might also consider using a designer for a bespoke dress. This option makes sense if you have a hard to fit body. Many female athletes run into this problem since most designers do not cut clothing for those of very athletic builds or for those of short stature or the extremely tall. This makes purchasing a dress a tough proposition for female athletes whether gymnasts or basketball players. The bespoke everything craze has made purchasing made-to-order items much easier and more affordable. Purchasing a bespoke design can also provide you with a more versatile option. You can have multiple sashes, belts, or scarves designed as a part of the dress, allowing you to switch out the accessories and make the dress seem like a different outfit. Purchasing a matching blazer or suit jacket can also add to the versatility. A designer can create a skirt with zippers on the inside, hidden by a seam on the outer side. When unzipped, you can break away one length of the skirt, providing a maxi, midi, and mini choice all in one skirt. Zip out liners let you wear a dress during all four seasons. These options make the investment in a bespoke dress much more affordable since the resulting dress provides three different length options and a business office look when paired with the blazer.
A Brief History of Dresses
The history of dresses dates back to ancient Egypt when women like Queen Cleopatra adorned themselves in full-length gowns of light fabrics such as linen or other sheer fabrics. These breathable fabrics kept them cool and dry in the busy times of 51 BC. Although the style of the dresses remained plain, women in that culture adorned them with gold or semi-precious stones.
A couple of decades later, the Greeks improved upon the Egyptian design, using linen as well, but adding silk as a fabric of choice. Their method of draping or wrapping the fabric toga style required no sewing.
Light fabrics and simple designs requiring little to no sewing remained popular for centuries. Women simply wanted to throw something on and go. The times changed though and by about 1450 royal courts in Europe began commissioning fashion designers to create ornate outfits for them. With a vastly different climate than Egypt or Greece, women of Europe dressed for warmth. Layering became popular, as did heavier fabrics. This period added ribbon and other embellishments to the dresses, sewing them to the garment as opposed to cuffing them over it as the Egyptians had.
As medieval times developed, so did court fashion, the original haute couture. Anne Boleyn, one of Henry the VIII’s many wives, favored velvet dresses. Women during this period wore square necklines and piled on the necklaces to exhibit family wealth. Gaudy ruled. Long scarves as a loose belt or accessory also proved popular.
By 1650, two trends became popular that would remain in fashion forever. The true waist design used neither the empire waist which actually hit just below the breast nor the high waist of the early medieval times. With this waistband where a woman’s waist actually falls, designers paired the first hoop skirts. Rather than the round shape they eventually took on, the earliest hoops were oval. They caused the dress to flare out to either side and that fashion trend caused women to have to sidle through doors sideways for decades since their skirts became wider than the doorways they needed to pass through.
After another hundred years passed, in the time of Marie Antoinette, court fashions reached the height of their opulence. The design reigned in the dress width though, improving a woman’s ease of movement. Of course, women of means remained the only ones for whom fashion mattered. Those who worked for a living, such as parlor maids, housekeepers, etc. wore uniforms and unlike today, fashion did not yet reach those whose work required uniforms.
A tiny upstart country of only a few colonies at the time began to influence fashion though. Although it only had 13 colonies, the nation that would become known as the United States of America melded citizens from France, England, Spain, and Scotland, and Ireland. While in other areas of the world – the Old World, as it became known – remained separated by borders, cultures, and customs, they all blended in the new world. With each country’s fashion influence combined with the constant work it took to forge a new nation, women’s fashions simplified. Even affluent debutantes of the time, like future First Lady Martha Washington, wore an open-fronted dress covered with a contrasting-colored petticoat. In the colonies, women young and old chose a simpler fashion with less opulence and greater fluidity and movement.
By 1790, the upstart USA influenced fashion, helping bring back the empire waist. A high, draped neckline finally did away with the need for pounds of jewelry, and that increased freedom of movement. Hemlines still had a while to drag the floor though.
The Egyptian and Grecian influence resurged in the 1800s. Muslin became the “it” fabric. Cap sleeves became all the rage as did ruffles on an empire-waist gown for formal attire. By 1820, full skirts regained popularity although designers made them less full than the hoop skirts popular during the mid-1600s. One fashion statement caused quite a stir – the off-the-shoulder dress.
By the 1850s though, the hoop skirt made its comeback. This time, the hoop began small and broadened as it reached the floor providing a bell shape. This meant the woman could lift the skirt and hoop, and squish it into themselves, making them able to pass through most doorways in a normal manner. The dresses became adorned with embellishments such as large flowers or beadwork. In the following decade, the skirts remained full, but a bustle in the back poked it out over the woman’s buttocks while the front remained nearly flush with her legs. Sitting down became far from an easy task.
Toward the end of the 1800s and the dawn of the Victorian era, dresses became straight up and down designs with high necks and long sleeves. Hide the shoulders and everything else. Most women wore either black or white. Fashion became serious as women modernized. Although known for prudery, the Victorian age gave rise to another important era that would forever influence fashion – women’s rights.
During the mid-1800s in the US, some vital notions and ideas took shape. They influenced the future of fashion and life. Women should have equality to men, most importantly, they should have suffrage, or the right to vote. As the Victorian era ended and evolved into the Edwardian era, women convinced more people of their societal importance. As hemlines finally rose above the ankle in 1910, women readied themselves for a new era.
It all happened in 1920. Women in the USA received suffrage. The fashions changed to suit this modern woman and hemlines rose remarkably. The flapper girl became all the rage. She frequented night clubs. She drank and smoked. She worked. She voted. The flapper with her short midi skirt and sleeveless dress, not a gown, became the talk of the town. This intellectual in a drop-waist dress could Charleston with you one minute, then discuss politics over a drink. Satin and silk dresses became popular again, but the stock market crash in 1929 radically changed fashion in the USA and the world over.
The crash ruined many businesses. The wealthy suddenly had nothing and those they had employed had less. Fashion became less about parties and opulence and more about work clothes. The 1930s brought about new patterns for clothing based on the now large range of necklines, sleeve lengths, and hemlines. The dress also received new competition since the 1930s introduced pants for women.
War in the 1940s brought rationing but influenced women’s wear again since women now comprised most of the workforce. With most First World countries at war, the males of adult age fought. Women took over the efforts at home, running munitions plants, businesses, hospitals, schools, and much more. The women’s business suit came into vogue and never really went out of it. A-line skirts with a belt and blazers atop their dress suited the 1940s businesswoman. Once the war ended, ruche fabric and other playful touches joined the business suit and other dresses.
The 1950s introduced the popularity of tea-length dresses, especially for formal or semi-formal events. The House of Dior exerted the greatest influence and established itself as a lasting fashion icon brand.
The 1960s brought the sheath dress, made famous by then First Lady Jackie Kennedy. While the wealthy followed her lead, teens and 20-somethings chose the mod look with its mini-skirt lengths paired with chunky heels.
Short remained the length for decades. The 1970s through the 1990s used the mini length as their model for ideal fashion. The 80s added shoulder pads to virtually everything except bathing suits. Women began taking over boardrooms and felt the need to dress like a linebacker. The 1990s went minimalist in dress looks and length. The micro mini length became so popular Drew Barrymore wore it on the red carpet. The only place to find a full-length gown was a Cher concert or a fundraiser formal.
The backlash to that came in the early 2000s with the maxi dress. The schleppy look paired BoHo fabrics with an ankle-skimming skirt. Some women just said no and by 2015, the mini made it back. The new century also brought a fun vintage period in which designers brought back in some variation veritably every look imaginable. It’s your dress, so it’s your choice.