What’s the Difference? Shift Dress vs. Sheath Dress

As a follow-up to last week's "Dress for Your Body Shape Series," I thought it would be appropriate to shed some light on a question that frequently befuddles even the most conscious fashionista: What's the difference between a "shift dress" and a "sheath dress"? A feature article published by the Washington Post a few years back offered a great explanation:
"A shift is commonly confused with a sheath, and the two words have more in common than the way they sound. Both refer to uncomplicated-looking dresses that end somewhere around the knee. The difference is that a shift tends to be less fitted around the waist and hips. Its straight lines are sweet and waifish in a way that the sheath, with all of its body-clinging tenacity, never will be."
According to Fashion 101: A Crash Course in Clothing, the sheath was so named because it straight lines resembled a knife sheath. Huh. For me, the best way to remember the difference is that a shift dress actually shifts - with the bottom having a wider skirt than the top; meanwhile, a sheath dress is narrower, with pretty much identical measurements at the bust and the knees. Here is a visual tool to help illustrate the difference:
Shift Dress vs. Sheath Dress

As the ultimate Triangle, I was so grateful to finally learn the difference. These days I skip trying on the sheath dresses altogether (as they never fit me quite right) and to make the shift dress a staple of my business wardrobe.
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2 comments for “What’s the Difference? Shift Dress vs. Sheath Dress

  1. EleanorSews
    February 11, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Your definition of shift is spot on. The primary difference from what I have learned over many years is that a sheath, while being a streamlined simple design, also has a waist seam. A shift does not, allowing it to “shift”.

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