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A dress silhouette refers to the overall shape that a dress creates when it hangs on your body—it’s the dress outline. Different silhouettes aim to emphasize or flatter different body types; one silhouette meant to slim and lengthen your figure, especially popular in wedding and evening dresses, is the empire waist silhouette.

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What Is an Empire Waist Dress?

An empire waist dress is a dress with a fitted bodice that drapes out under the bustline, rather than at the natural waistline. This shape’s effect is slimming and lengthening; the cinch at the bustline creates a high, thin waist and a longer line of billowy fabric from bust to hem than if you were to cinch the dress at your (lower) natural waist. Since empire waist dresses elongate the wearer’s frame, they’re especially great for petite women or plus-size women who want to redirect attention from their waist or hips to their bust.

Empire waist dresses are extraordinarily versatile. The silhouette’s necklines can range from V-neck to turtleneck to halter top; The sleeves can range from long sleeves to short sleeves to sleeveless, and the hem length can range from above the knee length (often called babydoll or minidress) to floor-length.

Common Types of Empire Waist Dresses

The empire silhouette is commonly used in party dresses, cocktail dresses, casual dresses, sundresses, wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, or anything in between (they’re especially popular as maternity dresses because they don’t have any cinching around the natural waist).

What Is the History of the Empire Waist?

The empire waist silhouette began its rise in late eighteenth-century Europe, during the Neoclassical era when Greek and Roman culture became popular in the public eye. Women began copying the flowy outfits often front and center in Greco-Roman art, which featured thin ribbons cinched just below the bust line of long, drapey dresses.

Just after the dresses came into fashion, Napoleon Bonaparte established French rule over much of Europe. His first empress, Joséphine de Beauharnais, popularized the silhouette, which became known as an “empire-style waist.” As the dresses became more widespread, embellishments like ruffles, sequins, floral print, pleated or ruched details, chiffon, and shawls and cover-ups became common.

Since the nineteenth century, empire waists have come in and out of fashion—becoming especially popular in the 1960s. Now, empire waists are a popular silhouette most often used for wedding dresses but still common in everyday dresses.

What Is the Difference Between A-Line and Empire Waist Dresses?

While A-line dresses and empire waist dresses are both popular dress styles, they have several big differences:

  • The waistline emphasis. Both A-line dresses and empire waist dresses aim to make the wearer look thinner—but they do it differently. A-line dresses aim to draw attention to your natural waist (often the slimmer part of a woman’s torso) with a fitted bodice. In contrast, empire waist dresses aim to draw attention to a line above your natural waist, just below your bust (which will look visually slimmer compared to the width of your bust). Empire waist dresses are particularly flattering on women with thicker waists, since the empire waist dress doesn’t rely on a thin waist to give it its shape.
  • The lengthening effect. Empire waist dresses cinch above your natural waist, creating a long line of fabric from the “waist” to the hem. This hemline creates a lengthening effect that can make you look taller and slimmer. This lengthening effect is why the empire waist silhouette pairs best with maxi dresses; the line from your bust to the floor elongates your frame. A-line dresses cinch at your natural waist, so they can’t elongate your frame like an empire waist dress.
  • The drape. A-line dresses (also known as flare dresses) are all about the flare. An A-line dress cinches at the waist, then tents out around your body to create the look of a capital letter A. Empire waist dresses, on the other hand, don’t usually flare out around your body—they drape straight down from your bust line to elongate your frame.

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