Building a Vintage Wardrobe: Dresses


For many vintage gals, the majority of their wardrobes consist of dresses. Dresses are wonderful because you can just slip into one and head out the door! You can also get different looks from one dress by accessorizing with shoes, belts, cardigans and jackets. I can't believe that I'm going to try to tackle the topic of dresses. There are SO many varieties of dresses that I couldn't possibly cover every vintage style but I will make an effort! :)

Getting the Look
There are a lot of dress categories (such as wiggle dress or shirtwaist dress) but some dresses can't be categorized at all! They all have different types of skirts, various bodice shapes, different sleeves and so on. By using the information provided in this post and previous Building a Vintage Wardrobe posts, you will be able to determine if a dress has that typical vintage look. Also, learning about which fabrics, prints and colors were popular at the time will help you to find the perfect vintage or vintage-inspired dress.

Dress for Every Occasion: Day, Evening and Everything In between

Throughout history ladies wore certain garments for every occasion. You may have heard of women getting dressed for dinner, your granny may wear her "Sunday Best" to church. Today, people generally get dressed in the morning and that's the end of the story. In reviving the elegance and glamor of vintage fashions, it is important to always dress for the occasion.

The House Dress
a house dress can be any average dress that you wear around the house while you're cleaning, cooking, gardening or just hanging out. I often wear my nicer house dresses to the grocery store. My house dresses are all cotton so that they can be easily washed. House dresses are usually very simple and don't have a lot of fancy details. House dresses should be comfy and easy to wear.

Housedress by Heartbreaker from

The Day Dress
The term "day dress" is used so loosely with sellers of vintage clothing. To me, a day dress is something you may wear on a weekend when you go out with your friends of family. This is the type of dress you might wear to a park, picnic or BBQ. My favorite day dresses are cotton or other light weight fabrics, usually pretty floral prints and are easy to slip into without much fuss, but my day dresses are a bit prettier and more fancy than my average house dresses.

Day Dress from Vintage Curve on etsy

Day Dress from The Vintage Link on etsy

The Tea Dress
The Tea dress is a step up from the day dress. You may wear a tea dress to a birthday party,brunch, baby shower or luncheon. If Pj and I go out for lunch on the weekends, I like to wear a tea dress. Modern tea dresses are usually floral print, brightly colored, made of very light floaty fabric like chiffon. When I think of a tea dress, the elegant lines of the 1930's pops into mind. Look for tea dresses with elegant details such as tiny buttons, lace trim, flutter sleeves and the like. Even as early as the 1800's, the tea dress (or tea gown) has been a very feminine, delicate garment.

tea style dress from iloveswift on etsy

tea style dress from exquisite bones on etsy

The Cocktail Dress
The cocktail dress is a semi-formal dress which may be worn at early evening events such as cocktail parties, evening weddings, dinner parties and the like. Christian Dior was the first to use the term "cocktail dress" to refer to early evening wear, in the late 1940s. Coco Chanel's famous "Little Black Dress" is a perfect example of a cocktail dress. A simple cocktail dress can be dressed down with a jacket for daytime office attire and dressed up with heels and jewelry for after hours fun. Not all cocktail dresses are strapless, short, black and tight.

Cocktail dress from pinup couture

vintage cocktail dress from

The Evening Dress
A gal should have at least one evening dress in her closet. You may wear an evening dress to a very fancy business dinner, a charity ball, formal dinner party or restaurant, and all upscale dinner events. Evening dresses can range from a shorter cocktail style dress to a floor length ball gown. The style of gown that you choose depends on the formality of the event. Evening gowns are often heavier fabrics such as silk or satin and have fancy beaded or embroidered details. My mom made this vintage simplicity evening dress for me for a play in 8th grade. It was emerald green satin...uh-mazing!

evening dress from

Other Dress Styles

Sheath Dress
The sheath dress has evolved quite a bit over the years. The sheath was a high fashion item in the 1920's as the straight, shapeless "flapper" style dress. By the mid 1950's, some sheath dresses had darts to fit the curves of the body, as can be seen in shows like Mad Men. In the 60's the sheath became the loose fitting "mod" dress worn by Twiggy. Today, the sheath varies from short cocktail style or day dresses to floor length evening gowns. The sheath can be worn with or without a belt.

1920's dress from

Wiggle Dress
The wiggle dress is a very popular style for lovers of 50's and 60's fashions. Just think of Joan Holloway. A proper wiggle dress will have a hem that measures less than the hip measurement so that your legs are kept close together and you "wiggle" when you walk. The wiggle does not mean that you will have "wiggle room"! The blog, Vintage Bulletin covered the details of a wiggle dress very thoroughly in this post Do check it out!

wiggle dress from

sailor wiggle dress from

Tiki Dress

Vintage enthusiasts unite when we come together in the search for the perfect tiki dress. We all have our own ideas of the world's most fabulous tiki dress. Some are "wiggle" style, some have full skirts, some are wrap dresses. What makes a dress a "tiki" dress is the tropical hawaiian flair, which is embodied in the print of the fabric. The "tiki" craze has been around since the 1800's but in 1934 the first tiki bar was opened in Hollywood. When the boys came home from the South Pacific after World War 2, tiki was all the rage! By the 50's and 60's the tiki theme spread to clothing, home decor and of course, entertainment. Tiki dresses can be worn to BBQ or picnics, tiki bars, beach vacations and anytime during the summer.

Tiki Twist Dress from Stop Staring

All Day Long Sarong at

Shirtwaist Dress
The shirtwaist dress has been called the "uniform of the housewife". The shirtwaist was not invented in the 50's, however. Women of the 1900's wore a similar dress, which had a full skirt and bodice resembling a man's shirt. In the 1940's, women embraced the utilitarian shirtwaist dress with a more simple skirt, reducing fabric use. After the war, the full skirted 1950's shirtwaist dress that we all know came back into popularity. A shirtwaist dress features a man's turned down collar shape and button down front. Shirtwaist dresses can have any type of sleeve or skirt.

Shirtwaist from

shirtwaist from

Shirtwaist dress from lyndatracyallen on etsy

Swing Dress-
A swing dress is a dress worn while swing dancing. Vintage reproduction clothing companies offer tons of different swing dresses. A swing dress often has a halter, strapless or shirt-sleeve top with a very full skirt. Swing dresses can be worn with colorful crinolines so the colors show while you're dancing.

sparrow swing dress from Pin Up Couture available at

Swing dress from

The Pinafore/Jumper Dress/Apron Dress

In the UK, this dress is often called a "pinafore" and in the US, many call it a "jumper" A pinafore traditionally began as an apron style garment. Today's Pinafore/Jumper dress is a sleeveless, collarless dress which can be worn over a blouse or worn on its own! There are also variations of this style dress, which consists of a skirt with suspenders.

and if you think for a minute that the pinafore is too girly and cute, check out Fleur de Guerre, smoldering in her vintage pinafore.

Wrap Dress
Ah, my favorite style of dress, the wrap dress! The wrap dress is elegant, classic, flattering and a great choice for us curvy ladies. In the land of vintage clothing, wrap dresses come in all sorts of styles. You may find dresses that wrap at the bust like modern wrap styles or ones that cross over in the back like the popular Swirl Wrap and Tie dress. Some vintage dresses have a "faux" wrap where the fabric overlaps but doesn't actually need to be wrapped and fastened. The above tiki wrap dress is one of my favorites! The best selling pattern in the 1950's was the walkaway wrap dress pictured below, which they said could be started after breakfast and finished before lunch. I wouldn't go that far, but it is very easy to sew. I had to work out a few kinks to get mine to fit the way I like it but it's a great, easy little summer dress. I like mine best with a crinoline under it.

Wrap Dress from Bettes Bargains on etsy

1950's walkaway dress

40's inspired wrap dress from

my 50's Swirl wrap dress:

Like I said, I am sure that I didn't cover every variety of dress but this should be a good guide for dress shopping while you build your vintage wardrobe! :)


  1. I love these dresses! For back to work (I'm a teacher) I decided to go the route of some vintage 40's and 50's day dresses/house dresses and shirtwaist dresses. I love the way they look - so comfy too! Still on the hunt for a swirl wrap dress (yours is lovely!)
    thanks for the great post!


  2. What a great post! I can tell a lot of time went into it, and it really paid off! I have that pattern for the wrap dress. It was easy, but still took a whole day. ha ha.

    Keep up the great posts!


  3. by far my favorite of your posts, bc I adore dresses. your wrap dress is so adorable, I love that color scheme.
    I like how you categorized them by formality, I hadn't really pondered the nuances before, like tea dresses versus day dresses. this makes me want to go out and buy more dresses, like asap. they're like potato chips...

  4. Thanks, what a great post - very thorough!

  5. Impressive- well done you.
    I'll have one of each thanks!

  6. Thank you! I've learned a lot from this post.

  7. I love these build a wardrobe posts of yours .They are so informative ,well thought out & easy to read.Thanks for clarifying a number of things for me:)I love wrap dresses too ,house dresses are also high on my favourites list.I love your swirl:)

  8. ~ * ♥ * ~

    Fantastic and informative post. I sometimes am confused about the differnt terms used to describe vintage clothes, so it's great to read a post like yours. Thank you so much!

    Your swirl dress looks fabulous on you ~ ^__^

    bonita of Depict This!

    Posted about ~ How to crochet your own strawberry charm
    ~ * ♥ * ~

  9. What a brilliant and inspiring post! Thank you!

  10. thanks, ladies! Dollie- I know, mine took all day too! Just pinning all of that trim on the dress took a good 45 minutes or so! Hehe!

  11. So informative, I always feel a little bit more educated after reading your posts!

  12. way to tackle such a vast section of vintage, Brittany! Are you thinking about doing a Men's Vintage Wardrobe?

    loves loves loves

  13. Thank you darling for such a lovely post! Love the history and the styles! AWESOME!

  14. I was conteplating to leave a comment on nearly all your posts but I guess I settle for the really great ones - like this one! Just brilliant!

    My favourite style are also wrap dresses and shirt dresses - by far the most flattering for a curvy shape. And I just like the look of them!
    Pinafore dresses are indeed very cutsey which I don't mind but with big boobs I can imagine the frill a bit too much.

  15. This is a wonderful post, so informative and helpful. I just discovered your site today, it is fabulous!

  16. Hello Ms. Brittany,

    This link isn't working . . . "Read more about the history of the shirtwaist dress (with LOTS of lovely images) here"

    Hopefully you can fix it as I want to read the post.


  17. Is the pattern you discussed here . . .. "The best selling pattern in the 1950's was the walkaway wrap dress pictured below, which they said could be started after breakfast and finished before lunch. I wouldn't go that far, but it is very easy to sew. I had to work out a few kinks to get mine to fit the way I like it but it's a great, easy little summer dress. I like mine best with a crinoline under it."

    still available?


  18. The yellow/white one on the dress form, that is? Thanks, Ms. Brittany.

  19. i had the same dark blue color and shirtwaist style dress shown above i got it free but being a curvy girl as well it didn’t really fit and i didn’t know what to do with it, so i gave it away. i wish i found your blog sooner it really is a great site :)

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