Skirt and dress

A skirt is a tube- or cone-shaped women's garment which hangs from the waist and covers the legs. Unlike pants, a skirt is not divided. A dress (also frock, gown) is a garment consisting of a skirt with an attached bodice or with a matching bodice giving the effect of a one-piece garment.

Missing image
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres depicts the Countesse d'Haussonville, wearing a dress.

At its simplest, a skirt can be a draped garment made out of a single piece of material (sarongs, pareos), but most skirts are fitted to the body at the waist and fuller below, with the fullness introduced by means of darts, gores, pleats, or panels. Modern skirts and dresses are usually made of light to mid-weight fabrics, such as denim, jersey, worsted, or poplin. Skirts and dresses of thin or clingy fabrics are worn with slips to make the material of the skirt drape better.

The hemline of skirts and dresses can be as high as the upper thigh or as low as the ground, depending on the the whims of fashion and the modesty or personal taste of the wearer.

Some medieval upper-class women wore skirts over 3 metres in diameter at the bottom. At the other extreme, the miniskirts of the 1960s were minimal garments that may barely cover the underwear when seated.


Dresses and skirts in the 19th century

During the nineteenth century, the cut of women's dresses in western culture varied more widely than in any other century. Waistlines started just below the bust and gradually sank to the natural waist. Skirts started fairly narrow and increased dramatically to the hoopskirt and crinoline-supported styles of the 1860s; then fullness was draped and drawn to the back by means of bustles. Dresses were generally one-piece garments from 1800 through the 1840s; after that it became common for a dress to be made as a separate skirt and bodice, and many dresses had a "day" bodice with a high neckline and long sleeves, and an "evening" bodice with a low neckline and very short sleeves. See also Victorian fashion, Artistic dress, Victorian dress reform.

Throughout this period, the length of fashionable dresses varied only slightly, between ankle-length and floor-sweeping.

Dresses and skirts in the 20th and 21st centuries

Beginning around 1915, hemlines for daytime dresses left the floor for good. For the next fifty years, fashionable skirts became short (1920s), then long (1930s), then shorter (the War Years with their restrictions on fabric), then long (the New Look), then shortest of all during the 1960s, when skirts became as short as possible while avoiding exposure of underwear, which was still considered taboo.

Since the 1970s and the rise of pants as an option for all but the most formal of occasions, no one skirt length has dominated fashion for long, with short and ankle-length styles often appearing side-by-side in fashion magazines and catalogs.

Styles of dresses and skirts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries include:


Basic shapes:

  • Shirtwaist, a dress with a bodice (waist) like a tailored shirt and an attached straight or full skirt
  • Sheath, a fitted, often sleeveless dress, sometimes without a waistseam (1960s)
  • Shift, a straight dress with no waist shaping or seam (1960s)
  • Sundress, a sleeveless dress of any shape, with a low neckline in a lightweight fabric, for summer wear
  • Tent, a dress flared from above the bust, sometimes with a yoke (1960s)

Fads and fashions:

  • Chanel's Little Black Dress (1920s and on)
  • Tea gown, a frothy, feminine semiformal dress
  • Dinner dress, a semiformal dress worn when fashionable people "dressed for dinner" (men in tuxedos or dinner jackets, even at home)
  • Evening gown or formal, a long dress for formal occasions
  • Ball gown, a long dress with a full, sweeping, or trained skirt for dancing
  • Kitty Foyle, a dark-colored dress with contrasting (usually white) collar and cuffs (1940s, after a dress worn by Ginger Rogers in the movie of the same name)
  • Cocktail dress, a semiformal party dress of the current street length (1950s and sporadically popular since)
  • Granny gown, an ankle-length, often ruffled, day dress of printed calico, cut like a Victorian nightgown, popularized by designer Laura Ashley (late 1960s-1970s)


Basic shapes:

  • Straight skirt, a tailored skirt hanging straight from the hips and fitted from the waist to the hips by means of darts or a yoke; may have a kick-pleat for ease of walking
  • Full skirt, a skirt with fullness gathered into the waistband
  • A-line skirt, a skirt with a slight flare, roughly in the shape of a capital letter A
  • Pleated skirt, a skirt with fullness reduced to fit the waist by means of regular pleats ('plaits') or folds, which can be stitched flat to hip-level or free-hanging
  • Circle skirt, a skirt cut in sections to make one or more circles with a hole for the waist, so the skirt is very full but hangs smoothly from the waist without darts, pleats, or gathers

Fads and fashions:

  • Hobble skirt, a fashion of the early 20th century, with fullness at the hips narrowing to the ankles
  • Poodle skirt, a circle or near-circle skirt with an appliqued poodle or other decoration (1950s)
  • Dirndl, a skirt made of a straight length of fabric gathered at the waist
  • Prairie skirt, a flared skirt with one or more flounces or tiers (1970s and on)
  • Kilt skirt, a skirt fashioned like a men's kilt, usually made of tartan fabric and often fastened with a decorative pin (also, especailly when short, kiltie)
  • Miniskirt, a thigh-length skirt, and micromini, an extrememly short version (1960s)
  • Maxiskirt, a midcalf-length skirt (1970s)
  • Broomstick skirt, a skirt with many crumpled pleats formed by compressing and twisting the garment while wet (1980s and on)
  • Pareo, a square of fabric wrapped around the body and tied on one hip to make a skirt; often worn as a cover-up over a bathing suit in tropical climates
  • Trouser skirt, a straight skirt with the part above the hips tailored like men's trousers, with belt loops, pockets, and fly front

How skirts and dresses are worn today

In Europe and America skirts and dresses can be worn by females of all ages when they are not wearing pants. A skirt may be worn as part of a suit. Skirts or dresses are the garments of choice for many women in formal situations, such as weddings and geopolitical summits. In cold climates, girls and women may wear trousers for warmth, with dresses on top to mark their femininity. In traditional societies, such as in many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central and South America, it is considered inappropriate for girls and women to wear trousers rather than a skirt or dress.

A disadvantage of skirts and dresses that contributes to many girls and women preferring trousers is that they may be either too long and therefore limit freedom of movement such as when climbing ladders, or too short, in which case one, because of modesty will need to take the trouble when sitting down, such as crossing legs, to avoid exposure of the underwear. Dresses however can be cooler and less confining than many trouser styles, and they are still very popular for special occasions such as proms or weddings.

The taboo against the wearing of skirts and dresses by men in the Western world is one of the strongest clothing gender roles and is virtually never violated. In some places men may wear what are de facto skirts or dresses, though they are not usually so defined. Examples of this include the kilt in Scotland (now usually worn only in ceremonial of formal occasions), and skirts for men as part of 1990s fashion design and of some counter-cultures or youth style fashions (e.g. gay culture, techno music, Gothic_fashion). Also the sarong is worn commonly by men and women in some parts of the tropics.

See also


Oxford English Dictionary

Brockmamn, Helen L.: The Theory of Fashion Design, Wiley, 1965.

Picken, Mary Brooks: The Fashion Dictionary, Funk and Wagnalls, 1957.

Tozer, Jane, and Sarah Levitt: Fabric of Society: A Century of People and Their Clothes 1770-1870, Laura Ashely Ltd., 1983; ISBN:0-9508913-0-4

External references

Stylopedia -- an online dictionary of fashion details (

ApparelSeach glossary of textile and apparel terms ( (Kleidung) es:Falda gd:Lineag is sgiort ja:スカート (衣類) fi:Hame sv:Kjol


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