A shift dress is a short, sleeveless dress that hangs from the shoulders. It is suitable for all body types and sizes — anyone can wear the solid design. The dress is usually worn alone or with stockings and has been popular since the 1960s. Though it is easy to shift or move around in a "shift dress," the term signifies a shift in culture. When the dress became popular in the late 1950s, American youth culture was at its height. The dress represented the youthful, free and revolutionary attitudes of the time.
The shift dress is short and straight with a simple line. It hangs loose on the body from the shoulders and is held together by side panels. The neckline is high, typically with a boat-neck collar, but lots of new style have emerged in recent years. Additional features may include collars, an A-line skirt (where the dress is widest at its base), or an empire waist.
The dress has almost no detailing, and is meant to be a very simple look. The waist is de-emphasized, which allows women to move around freely without constraints. This style tends to downplay and sometimes conceals those awesome curves, but is definitely a comfortable choice.
The shift dress is particularly popular with young to middle-aged women, but really it's appropriate for any age. The short hemlines and boxy cut may not appeal to older women, but the style is timeless and flattering. As an "Everywoman" dress, the shift holds a democratic appeal in fashion.
The dress is a versatile and convenient wardrobe staple that can be worn for so many different events including both professional and personal. The shift converts well from day to night, travels easily and can be worn for almost any occasion. Its universally appealing cut and style take the guesswork out of outfit planning. It's just one of those dresses that will never go out of style.
The shift dress can be traced back to the 1920s flapper trends. Dresses of that era, particularly those of Coco Chanel, featured exposed legs and arms, simple cuts, loose shapes and little waist definition. This was a move away from corsets and offered women both style and ease of movement.
According to fashion expert and costume historian Pauline Weston Thomas, the shift dress was derived from the "sack dress" (resembling a food sack) — designed by Hubert Givenchy in Paris — and the fitted sheath dress designs of the 1950s. The shift dress became popular by 1958.
Other historians argue that the shift dress was introduced into popular culture by Lilly Pulitzer, who sold the dresses at her lemonade stand. The Lilly Dress was noted for its bright colors and playful fabrics. The dress was then glamorized by First Lady and fashion icon Jackie Kennedy as well as trendsetting actress Audrey Hepburn.
Shift dresses of the 1960s signified a new trend in women's clothing. They promoted independence, modernity and a redefinition of the female shape. The design was at once feminine and androgynous, youthful and ageless. Its popularity spanned form the First Lady to the high school student. The shift dress was a hallmark of the Sexual Revolution. It allowed women to dance, move and work at liberty. It united style and comfort, but was sensationally short and revealing.
In many respects, the shift is a symbol of youth culture. The cut is all about mobility, exposure and casual ease. Fans like its trendiness, loose fit and understated style, and although its a flattering cut on all body types, historically it favored women with small busts, slim frames and long legs, reinforcing the adolescent Twiggy or pixie look of the 1960s. It remains a youth staple.
The shift dress has many manifestations. It can be worn in all seasons with sandals in the summer, with boots and coats in fall, tights and sweaters in winter and scarves and heels in spring. It can be dressed up with a jacket and pearls, glamorized with gloves and diamonds, dressed down with comfy flats or sneakers and thrown on over a bathing suit for a day at the beach.
Depending on the fabric, color and texture, a shift dress can create a variety of looks. A plain white or black shift is chic and seductive and a brightly colored shift in bold patterns is fun and flirtatious, while a pastel shift with bows is innocent and girlish.
Sarah York has been a freelance writer and editor for five years. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Danforth Review, Pisgah Review and The Renaissance of Teaching and Learning and in various online sources. She holds both a B.A. in English and M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto, as well as an M.A. in Literature from Western Carolina University.