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Sheath or Shift Part Deux

2011 June 29
by elizabeth_admin

Last August I wrote a post discussing the differences between a sheath dress (fitted) and a shift dress (less or not fitted).  Since I have been working on shift dresses these last few weeks, I thought it interesting enough to bring up the topic again.

My initial thoughts on the topic were that a shift dress might be kinder to my now post-baby, almost middle-aged body and it’s accompanying weight fluctuations.  But I think I may be reconsidering that notion.  And here’s why:  today as I walked the halls of my office, I stopped in my tracks when I saw a PYT (pretty young thing to quote Lindsay T) wearing a dress that I wanted to make.  It was a beautiful shift dress of black cotton eyelet over a black cotton lining.  It fit her gorgeously, skimming her PYT body to perfection.  I found myself craning to see how it was fitted (or not fitted as it were).  Were there darts?  Which kind, french or otherwise?  Was there side seam shaping?  Did she have a CB seam?  I was totally snoop shopping someone else’s wardrobe.

And then it hit me — I realized why this silhouette looked so good on her body and not as great on mine.  She had a much smaller bust, probably inbetween an A to B cup.  A shift dress hangs from the shoulders or bust.  If your bust is on the large side, then you will, inevitably, have a ton of fabric falling from your bust down over your midsection.  Check out my NL 6022 side view from the muslin stage.  See what I’m talking about?



See how wide the side view is from the bust down?  Thank you C cup!  Here are some pictures I’ve found around the interwebs on PYT’s and another on a C or D cup gal.

image from





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See all that fabric under the more well endowed woman?  Yep, me too.  See how much closer the body the shift dress fits when on a much smaller busted woman?  I’m starting to wonder if the shift dress really is my friend now.

A sheath dress silhouette hugs the figure.  Here is one of my B5147 iterations.


See how it comes in under the bust and follows every curve?  The more fitted look has it’s pros and cons too though.


  • It shows off your figure
  • Flattering to curvy figure, especially a c cup or above
  • Classic silhouette


  • It shows off your figure
  • Nowhere to hide
  • Sucking in your stomach 24/7 is de rigueur

In conclusion, I think there’s a place for both dresses in my wardrobe, but I think the sheath dress has a little bit of an edge over the shift dress for my body type.

Which do you think works better for you?

25 Responses leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011

    I find that the sheath dress is more attractive for me while I’m standing, but when I SIT … oh dear. No amount of sucking hides that front bulge. Then I wish for a tent.

  2. June 29, 2011

    You look fantastic in the sheaths you’ve shown us. But a shift is also a terrific alternative for a day-off casual look – it lends itself to lots of sleeveless variations, and can be amenable to various fabrics – especially very light floaty ones.

  3. June 29, 2011

    I have come around to thinking that I actually look so much better in a fitted dress ( sheath) rather than a shift. I only came to realise this after making various dresses and studying pics on my blog . I have an E cup and I feel semi naked in a fitted sheath but I look so much slimmer in one. The problem is I seem to have lots of empire and shift dress patterns . I just like them but I am learning to stay away from . I am trying to choose patterns that show I have a waist these days.

  4. June 29, 2011

    I don’t think a shift dress is that flattering on me, for the reasons you mentioned (I’m between a b and c.) I love the sheath dress on you – it really looks fantastic! I hear you though… they do make me self-conscious. That’s probably why I make so many full skirts!

  5. Meg permalink
    June 29, 2011

    Ack! This is why I tend to eschew dresses and stick with pants. Easier to flatter a burgeoning midsection with pants.

  6. June 29, 2011

    If it’s shift vs. sheath, definitely the sheath dress! It’s the C-cup, and also my waist isn’t very pronounced as it is, I don’t need my clothing to make me even boxier… I vastly prefer dresses with a fitted bodice and a more flowing skirt though!

  7. June 29, 2011

    As a grown-up (41… when did THAT happen?!!), I definitely prefer a sheath dress over a shift, for the reasons you mentioned. They’re comfortable, but if you have a bust the shift tends to look like a sack and makes most busty women look heavier than they are. The sheath dress feels like the figure is more exposed, but that’s much better than a dress that is tent-like and makes us look like we’ve gained 10 lbs. And please, don’t get me started on empire-waist dresses that are supposedly flattering to all figures. They are not my friend! LOL

  8. June 29, 2011

    Since there is no way I’m fitting a dress to showcase my very large abdomen…*hehe* it’s a shift dress with some definition and interesting necklines and/or fabric for me. However, learning your preference is the important thing and then sewing what you want…the most important thing!

  9. SusieR permalink*
    June 29, 2011

    I agree – there’s room for both these fits in your wardrobe so you can pick and choose.

    But – DAMN, girl, you look hot in that dress!!!!!

  10. June 29, 2011

    I’ve been thinking about this alot this year too, as I had sewn several empire waisted styles and wanted to sew something simpler, that could become a TNT and quick and simple dress. I found a pattern at Value Village for a shift dress, with I think French darts (they come up from the side waist towards the bust). I started pin fitting the tissue, and I realized how big it made me look from the bust down 🙁 I just recently bought a sheath dress from Value Village as well, and although I was scared to try it on, I was quite pleased! It had a high waist, but not “empire” waist looking.
    I do think perhaps there is a middle ground…that recent orange and white dress you sewed is an example…some shaping that shows you have a shape, but you don’t have to suck it in 24/7. A slightly fuller skirt can also help. I LOVE the blue dress you’re wearing!!!!

  11. June 29, 2011

    Interesting observations, but sucking it in or not, you look FAB in that sheath. It would be interesting to see side views of you wearing the shift and sheath side by side to make a true observation.

  12. June 29, 2011

    It’s a sheath dress for me too for all the same reasons you pointed out. However if I want to be more relaxed – and lets face it who can even remember to hold in their tummy for very long – then a shift dress with a belt is my alternative.

  13. June 29, 2011

    You have such a lovely waistline, why hide it? 🙂

  14. June 29, 2011

    I too made several shift dresses and realized my Ds created an air balloon effect below my bust. With that observation knew I needed to stick to sheath and wrap dresses.

  15. June 30, 2011

    I was going to say “sheath, always” but I was looking through a magazine just now on the train and saw an article on “shifts that won’t break the bank” (that were a mere 400 or 500$. – this was the snooty Amex departures magazine) and so anyway they showed the shifts on a table not on a model. There was one that was a knit fabric slightly a-line shift that I want to try to duplicate soon – I think if it was still fairly fitted and gracefully skimmed over the waist and hips it would be flattering especially in a drapey knit.

  16. June 30, 2011

    You look absolutely gorgeous in that last dress. Go with more of those.

  17. June 30, 2011

    I have the small bust, but I also have a belly that sticks out more than said small bust, so I cannot wear a shift. Ugh. The idea of it gives me shivers. Fitted dresses for me!

  18. June 30, 2011

    I am firmly in the sheath dress camp. I’m a C/D, with a small-ish waist and full hips. Shifts are monumentally unflattering on me. I need a defined waist.

    On a side note, my high school gym teacher always said that sucking in actually used your ab muscles. And if you did suck in 24/7, you actually would develop great abs. I don’t have actual proof of this, but I like the concept.

  19. June 30, 2011

    hmm. I used to prefer fitted sheaths but I’m coming around to the shift. It all depends on the fabric and where you plan to wear it. It seems like a stiffer fabric with more body makes a nice sheath but a drapier fabric that shows all the lumps might work better as a shift. I think you look great in both!

  20. habace permalink
    July 2, 2011

    I think the key to the shift dress for those of us with larger cup size, is to make a shift dress with princess seams. You can then work the princess seams to take out just enough of that excess fabric below the bust to make you look slender without emphasizing any tummy you might have., and the dress still remains swingy. With empire lines, the key is to put a back tie in below the empire seam at about waist height. Then again you can pull it in lightly to show your waist without having to display every bump and lump.

  21. July 3, 2011

    The figure hugger is a winner. The muslin drops straight down and makes your bustline look like your waistline. Not showing your wonderful curves. The blue and black dress is absolutely stunning on you.

  22. July 5, 2011

    Love this dress. You look great in it! I think I may need to make another dress too. Lol

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