A Brief History of the Shift Dress

A brief history of the shift dress

What is the shift dress?

A shift dress is a simple, short, above-the-knee dress. The bust is fitted with darts, and the skirt is either cut straight or with a narrow A-line. The dress has no waist definition and hangs from the shoulders.  The neckline is a high scoop neck or boatneck. Shift dress were originally sleeveless.  Short-sleeve and long-sleeve versions have become popular.

In the 1920s designers such as Chanel started to created loose, corsetless dresses.  These new dresses, worn by ‘flappers’ were the antidote to stiff, Edwardian dress.  It was easy for women to shift or move around in a “shift dress,” hence the name.  The term also 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.  Designers such as Mary Quant took up the style for street style and manufacturing.  Couture designers such as Givenchy and Balenciaga designed shift dresses for their couture clients.  The shift dress reached all levels of society, price brackets and age.

The shift dress silhouette experienced a different kind of popular culture revival in the 1960s. Lilly Pulitzer, who operated a juice stand in Palm Beach, Florida, often wore brightly colored, patterned shift dresses when she worked at the stand.

At customers’ requests, Pulitzer began to also sell shift dresses. “Lilly” dresses, as they came to be known, surged in popularity after first lady and friend Jackie Kennedy was photographed wearing one in Life magazine. Pulitzer went on to create her eponymous fashion line, which still features the classic shift dress.

Typically the shift dress is minimalist in its detailing.  This lack of embellishment is key to its 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.WF sign up to list form

Famous women who have made the shift dress their own

The shift dress was glamorized by First Lady and fashion icon Jackie Kennedy.  She wore the Lilly dresses as well.  In addition her style was simple and sleek.

Trendsetting style icon, actress Audrey Hepburn wore shift dresses both onscreen and off.  She sported predominantly black dresses.

Michelle Obama made the shift dress and a cardigan combination her own.  Her polished, contemporary look says, “I look great, and I’m at work”.  She was photographed in a shift dress for her first formal White House portraitWF sign up to list form

Timeless Appeal

The shift dress’s popularity lies on the fact that it crosses all age boundaries.  It has a democratic appeal across age and race boundaries.  The short hemlines and boxy cut may not appeal to all women, but the style has become timeless and classic, continuing to appeal to women regardless of the current fashion trends.  As a style of dress, the shift dress now stands outside of fashion.  It has become ‘a classic’, an “Everywoman” dress.

The dress is a versatile and convenient wardrobe staple that can be worn across a range of different events including both professional and personal. This is one reason why we love it here at Working Frocks.  It is a versatile staple that takes you from day to night, with everything inbetween.

These days our lives are filled with a variety of events and appointments.  Working Frocks dresses are designed to be versatile enough to be appropriate for all your diary appointments.

The shift dress style converts well from day to night.  It travels well and can be worn on 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.  What we have done at Working Frocks is design a dress that can be worn by curvy women too.

The dress is available here if you go to ‘Shop the Frocks’.WF sign up to list form

How to Wear a Shift Dress

The straight, shapeless cut of the traditional shift dress does not suit all body shapes. They are easiest to wear for women with a boyish shape, or for women with a uniform body shape, ie that their bust and hip measurements are similar.

The straightness of the dress fits tightly at the hips but loosely at the waist, making it hard to fit an hourglass shape.

That is why we, at Working Frocks, have slightly re-engineered the shift dress to accommodate all body shapes including those of us who are more curvy.

Each Working Frocks shift dress that you own can have many manifestations.  It can be dressed up with a jacket and pearls for the day, accessorised with heels and diamonds for the evening and dressed down with trainers and chunky jewellery when you are off duty.

Colour plays a part in how you will want to wear your shift dress.  Our newest permutations for spring are navy and corn yellow.  Other colours will follow for summer.

To discover more about how to wear your  clothes well and look amazing every day, download our FREE mini guide, “How to Look Amazing Every Day”.  1o tips to keep you look and feeling your best every day.

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How to accessorise a shift dress

Wear bright jewellery to add interest to a block-coloured shift dress.  This is a great way to make your outfit a little more exciting. Consider wearing bold earrings, a chunky necklace, colourful bracelets, or rings with bright shiny stones. Pair these with a block-coloured shift dress to create a striking contrast and to accentuate both your jewellery and your dress.[6]


Social effects of the shift dress – how it affected women

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.

While remaining a youth staple, it is also timeless.  This is one reason why we love it so much at Working Frocks.  It is a great democratic dress.  And now you don’t have to be androgynous to wear it well.  Try our shift dress for curvy women.  It’s available here at ‘Shop the Frocks‘.  It could revolutionise your relationship with your wardrobe.



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