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Design & Style

From A-Line to Mermaid: Essential Guide to Dress Silhouettes

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 3 min read

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In fashion, your silhouette is the shape that your clothes make when they hang on your body. Silhouettes are a vital part of your personal style—and you don’t have to live in New York City or wear Chanel to make deliberate fashion silhouette choices. One of the simplest ways to choose an outfit silhouette in womenswear is by wearing a one-piece outfit, such as a dress.

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What Is a Dress Silhouette?

A dress silhouette is the overall shape that a dress creates when it hangs on your body—in other words, it’s the outline of the dress rather than all the little details. From gowns to evening dresses, different silhouettes aim to emphasize or flatter different body types or parts. For instance, certain silhouettes (like A-line dresses or ball gowns) emphasize a small waist, while others (like shift or empire) draw attention away from the waist.

If you’re looking for the best silhouette to flatter your frame, simply decide your best features (whether you’re an apple shape, an inverted triangle, or an hourglass), and choose dresses that emphasize those features.

6 Dress Silhouettes

Whether your wedding day is coming up, you want to start sewing your own clothes, or you’re just trying to experiment with new dress styles for your body shape, here are a few of the most popular types of dresses, plus a few fashion tips, to help you find (or make) the perfect dress:

  1. A-line. First coined by fashion designer and stylist Christian Dior, A-line silhouettes are among the most popular dress types because they look great on almost every body shape. The A-line silhouette features a fitted bodice and flares out at the waist to form a triangle shape like a capital A. A-line silhouettes emphasize a defined waist and broader hips. A-line dresses can range in length from above-the-knee to full skirts (maxi). Occasionally, the term A-line may describe any dress that has a hem much wider than its shoulders, regardless of a fitted upper body, cinched waist, or corset-style top.
  2. Ball gown. Ball gown silhouettes are similar to A-line dresses in that they have a fitted top and flared skirt, but they feature a much more dramatic flare. While A-line dresses usually rely on your hips to create the “A” shape, ball gowns include additional embellishments to accentuate the shape further and create a much more dramatic fairytale silhouette. These embellishments include layers of fabric (like tulle) or even structural pieces (like hoops, ruffles, petticoats, or other undergarments).
  3. Empire waist. Empire waist dresses are fitted through the bust but flare out immediately under the bustline, rather than at your natural waistline. This shape’s effect is slimming; the cinch creates a high waist and a longer silhouette than if the dress cinched at your natural waist, elongates the wearer’s frame—great for petite women or women who want to draw attention away from their waist.
  4. Sheath. Sheath dresses are form-fitting at every point—from your neckline to your armholes to your hem. The sheath silhouette emphasizes your curves (especially useful for curvy or hourglass figures) and will often feature slits for freedom of movement.
  5. Shift. Shift dresses flow from your shoulders, straight down along your body, with only slight differences between the measurements for bust, midsection, hips, and hem. Also known as column dresses, this silhouette is especially popular in the summertime because its boxy shape hangs off your body, giving your skin ample room to breathe in hot weather.
  6. Mermaid. Mermaid dresses—most common as wedding dress silhouettes—are form-fitting for most of the dress, then flare out at the knees to create a dramatic hourglass shape in the lower half, similar to a mermaid tail. The mermaid dress will typically feature a long zipper to help you get in and out of the dress. Also known as the trumpet dress, this silhouette emphasizes your curves and creates a dramatic statement. The exaggerated lower body can help balance out broad shoulders.
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