From wiggle to A-line, mini to peasant, dresses are perhaps the most endlessly expressive item of women’s clothing. It’s perfectly okay to wear some dresses only once (wedding dresses fall into that exclusive category) while other dresses are intended to be workhorses (some women seem to live in their little black cocktail dresses). As for a good vintage dress, one with classic lines and timeless styling, it can be worn for years, even decades, after its alleged prime.

Let’s start with those workhorses, cocktail dresses. In order to be versatile, they must be able to be paired with almost anything, which is why black cocktail dresses are so popular. Coco Chanel recognized this back in the 1920s, as did Christian Dior when he successfully shook the fashion world by its collective lapels with the 1947 unveiling of his New Look.

Other designers to gain acclaim for their dresses include Hubert de Givenchy, who created a form-fitting dress for actress Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Oleg Cassini designed an ankle-length evening gown in pale silk jersey for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. And Gianni Versace put Elizabeth Hurley in a post-Punk dress featured a dangerously plunging sweetheart neckline and was held together by nothing but outsized safety pins.

Sometimes designers used dresses to make architectural or artistic statements. For example, in the 1950s, Dior answered his own opulent New Look with a collection of pared-down A-line dresses, whose silhouette resembled the letter A. These dresses were quickly embraced by scores of other designers, who saw them as the fashion equivalents of the clean lines found in Mid-century Modern architecture and design.

In the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent proclaimed his fondness for the work of the great geometric abstractionist painter Piet Mondrian by grandly appropriating the artist’s work as bold super graphics on his straight-cut dresses. Embroidered African-inspired Saint Laurent garments followed, as did collections based on another of his passions, the Ballet Russes.

Saint Laurent’s work was often very colorful, but it was dull, dull, dull compared to the silk print dresses and tunics of Emilio Pucci, whose palette ranged from relatively understated combinations of purple, aqua, and white to trippy floral patterns of pink, green, yellow, and orange.

High-school girls in mid-20th-century America often got their first taste of the power of fashion while attending their senior prom. White cocktail or party dresses were widely e...

Just about every department store sold prom dresses; you could even pick one up at Sears. Some of the 1950s and ’60s labels that were best known for excelling at the form included Emma Domb, Christian Dior, Mainbocher, and Will Steinman.

Last but not least were sweater dresses, which could be worn with tights or perhaps Levi’s underneath. For some reason, wide horizontal stripes were deemed okay on these tight-fitting sweater dresses, probably because the women who could pull off this style were slim enough to negate their potential unflattering effects.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Costume Collection, National Museum of American History

Costume Collection, National Museum of American History

Women’s dresses are the most requested objects in the Smithsonian’s 30,000-piece Costume Collection, so the ins… [read review or visit site]

MyVintageVogue

MyVintageVogue

The history of 20th-century women’s fashion largely played out in the pages of magazines such as “Harper’s Ba… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

1960s Fashion and Textiles

1960s Fashion and Textiles

Put on your go-go boots and check out this wavy, groovy tribute to 1960s fashion and textiles, courtesy of the Vict… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Fashion Guild

Vintage Fashion Guild

While primarily designed to steer buyers to online vintage clothing shops, this blog is chock full of interesting, … [read review or visit site]

Fashion-Era

Fashion-Era

Bursting at the seams with content, this site contains hundreds of pages of fashion and costume history, including … [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage 50s Original Christian Dior London Red Velvet Dress And Bolero 8 10 SStunning Late 1940s Couture Evening Dress In Beaded Burgundy Velvet - Uk 10Original Vintage 40`s 50`s Ww2 Ditsy Blue Swing Dress Metal Zip 36-38b RepairVintage 50s Original Christian Dior London Black Velvet Cocktail Dress 8 10 SRare Early Victorian Evening Dress In Spitalfields Silk, Circa 1840 - Uk 10Vintage 50s Original Rappi Black Cream Statement Cocktail Dress Full 8 10 SExquisite Vtg 30s Silk Velvet Hourglass Evening Gown Long Formal Dress Open BackOriginal 1930s Black Lace And Chiffon Evening Dress With Slip - Uk 12 /14Antique Civil War Era Baby Dress Calico's Mustard, Red & BlueVintage 50s Original Beau Catcher N.z. Black Velvet Wiggle Dress Fur Cuffs 8 10Vintage 50s Green Cotton Short Sleeve Striped Tea Dress Rockabilly Size 4 6True Vintage 1930s 1940s Christmas Red Crepe Dress, Fashion Originators GuildVintage 50s 60s Original Hot Pink Lace Crepe Bow Cocktail Dress 8 10 S 28 WaistVintage 20s Original Yellow Beaded Floral Rose Flapper DressExquisite Vintage 20's Flapper Beaded Evening Cocktail Dress GownVintage 40s 50s Original Millroy Black Ballgown Dress Pink Sequins 10 12 S M1930's Beaded Dress Colorful Flowers In Nice ConditionVtg Marks & Spencer Sheer Silky Poly Exquisite Lace Slip Dress Petticoat Uk20Vintage 40s 50s Original Marjon Couture Green Sequin Ballgown Dress 6 8 Xs SVintage 1920's Silk And Lace Dress Size Small1940s Dress Asymmetrical Styling Contrast Fabrics Silver Studs New LookVintage 50s Original Black Gold Floral Cocktail Dress Blanche & Joyce Ltd 8 10Belle Epoch 1890's Stripe Silk Chiffon Dress W/provenanceVintage 60s/70s Mini Mod Lace Detail Dress - Burgundy Dress - Vtg Lace Uk 8/10Vintage 50s 60s Original Blanes Richard Shops Coffee Lace Wiggle Dress 8 10Vintage 50s Pink Black Dress Full Circle Skirt Leopard Rockabilly Velvet PartyVintage 1980s Does 20s Drop Waist Beaded Silk Ivory Dress Sz SVintage 50s Original Fred Perlberg Flocked Floral White Party Dress 6 8 Xs SVintage 50s Original Black Crepe Column Dress Flying Panel 12 30in WaistOriginal Wartime Ww2 1940s Vintage Navy Blue Big Lace Collar Landgirl Dress 14 MVtg 80s Draped Avant Garde Indigo + Ivory Batwing Poet Sleeve Pleated Midi DressVintage 1950's Slate Gray Color White Piping Wide Skirt DressVtg 60s Boho Psychedelic Floral Print Empire Lolita Hippie Micro Mini Dress Xs/sVintage Laura Ashley Green Red Holly X Mas Fine Needlecord Tea Dress 18uk *rare*Madmen 1960s Vintage Green Paisley Lace Mos Scooter Twiggy Shift Dress 14 MTrue Vintage 1950s Red, Evening Dress, Full Skirt , Christmas, Bonwit Teller Rare Vtg 1950s Designer Tiana Pittelle Cotton Dress Hawaii Honolulu Full Circle50s Green Blue Paisley Polished Cotton Fitted Bodice Full Skirt Day DressVtg 80s Oscar De La Renta Black Velvet Pink Satin Ruffle Flamenco Party DressVintage 40s Original Mandell Couture Gold Pink Brocade Dress Velvet 10 12 S MVintage Laura Ashley Blue Ditsy Flower Wool Cotton Lace Tie Back Day Dress 14ukOriginal Ww2 Wartime 1940s Vintage Burgundy Flower Embroidered Landgirl Dress 12Vintage 50s Yellow Sheer White Lace Trim Tea Dress Rockabilly Size 4 6Rare Vtg Missoni Wool Knit Sweater Dress Jumper Couture Designer Dresses LVintage 1960s Poppy Dress - 1960s Black Floral Poppy Print Mod Dress - Uk 12/14Vintage 50s 60s Original Green Satin Cocktail Dress Bow Detail 6 8 Xs 24 WaistNew White Stuff Emerald Bay Blue Green Purple Bird Print Tunic Dress Top Sz16 4287 Vtg 50s Floral Polished Cotton Full Skirt Flower Cocktail Party Dress XsVtg 60s Holiday Iridescent Gold Sequin British Colony Wiggle Cocktail Dress Xs-s1980s Bob Mackie Boutique Beaded Silk Dress Draped Back Fleur De Lis Pale PeachVintage 1980s St John Evening By Marie Gray Keyhole Sweater Dress Sz LPaisley Print 70s Vintage Green & Purple Chevron Stripe Jersy Maxi Dress 18 LVtg 60s 70s Open Back Goddess Maxi Scarf Dress Psychadelic Huge Sweep Nye SVintage 30s 40s Silk Floral Drape Bow Dress By Amelia Gray Small Repairs NeededArt Deco Geometric Print 1970s Vintage Black Slinky Jersey Maxi Dress 14 MVtg 1950s Pink Lucy Pinup Full Circle Skirt Short Sleeve Bow Sundress Dress SBnwt 100% Silk Retro Art Deco Flapper Beaded Evening Dress Christmas Party Sz 8Original Vintage 60`s Fab Gold Brocade Shimmer Sparkle Dress Mod Scooter PartyVtg 50s/60s Vanity Fair Sheer Nylon Breathtaking Lace Slip Dress Petticoat 36"Vintage 30s Bias Cut Pink Satin Full Sweep Harlow Evening Gown Dress 34" Bust