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Common Dress Terms and Definitions

by Andrea Sparks

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Woman wearing a ruffled turquoise dress

Dresses are some of the oldest fashions in the world. Because of this, endless styles have developed, each with its own set of vocabulary. Understanding dress terminology can be helpful when you're shopping for dresses, particularly if you're shopping online. Here is a collection of the most common terms to know when you're shopping for new dresses.

Dress Terminology:

  1. Length:


    • Maxi: This term is used for long dresses that fall anywhere from the lower calf to the floor. The term "maxi" is typically used to describe casual dresses, and "floor-length" describes formal dresses of the same length.

      • Mini: Miniskirts and dresses are very short, falling anywhere from a few inches above the knee to even shorter. Mini dresses can be found in formal or casual dress styles.

        • Tea-length: This length of dress can reach from just below the knee to mid-calf. Tea-length dresses are typically designed with a fuller party skirt.

          • Knee-length: To be considered knee-length, a dress should reach within an inch or two above or below the knee. Many styles fall to the middle of the knee.

        • Cuts:


          • Sheath: Cut to fit tightly through the body, a sheath dress is highly tailored through the waist and hips and fitted through the full length.

            • Shift: This style of dress is cut straight with no waistline. Sheath dresses can be found in nearly any length, but are typically knee-length or shorter.

              • A-line: An A-line dress has a silhouette resembling the letter A, cut tighter through the top and gradually flaring out to the hem. A-line can refer to the full dress or the skirt only.

                • Party: Defined primarily by a full skirt, party dresses will typically also have a tight-fitting bodice and a natural waist to emphasize the fullness of the skirt.

              • Waistlines:


                • Empire: An empire waist sits just below the bust of the dress. This is the highest waistline found in dresses.

                  • Drop: Sitting at the top of the hips or lower on the body, a drop waist is defined as a waistline that falls below the natural waistline.

                    • Natural: A natural waistline sits at your natural waist. This is typically just above your hips, at the same level as your navel.

                      • V and U shaped: These types of waistline are not straight, instead forming a V or U shape either in the front or back of the dress or, oftentimes, in both places.

                        • Princess seam: This style has no waist seam. Instead, the pieces for the bodice and skirt are cut from continual swaths of fabric and sewn together in vertical seams, known as princess seams.

                      • Hems:


                        • Flounce: A flounce hem has a large ruffle at the hem. The ruffle is most commonly created by a separate piece of fabric sewn at the hem.

                          • Bubble: A bubble hem is created by adding a tight hem to a full skirt that is folded underneath, creating a round, bubble-like hem.

                            • Asymmetrical: Rather than being cut straight across, an asymmetrical hem is cut longer on one side than the other. A high-low hem is another type of asymmetrical hem, which is cut higher in the front than the back.

                              • Handkerchief: This type of hemline has a jagged appearance, created by several pieces of fabric. Most handkerchief hems have several layers to create a full effect at the hemline of the dress.

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