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]

The Antique Corset Gallery

The Antique Corset Gallery

Take a deep breath, and check out this sparse, simple, and beautifully designed site showcasing 250 years of corset… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Outstanding Late 1930s Embroidered Floral Net Tea Dress - Uk 8 / 10Vintage 1900's Antique Dress Rare Light Blue Edwardian Embroidered Gown CrochetVintage 1980s Romantica By Victor Costa Stunning Metallic Dress Sz L Original Vintage Chanel Boutique 1920s Style Flapper Pink Dress 10Exceptional Victorian Silk Dress Circa 1850 - Fabulous Condition Uk 8Vintage 50s Elegant Natlynn Floral Silk Cocktail Party Dress Xs/sPaganne Designer Signed Mod Geometric Print Brown Ivory Dot Stripe Dress L XlRegal 1880's Burgundy Velvet & Beaded Bustle Antique Vintage DressGlittering Original 1920s Embroidered Net Evening Dress - Uk 10 /12Gorgeous Original 1950s Floral Chiffon Cocktail Dress - Uk 8Vintage 50s Elegant Novelty Garden Party Dress Top Set MElegant Original 1930s Jacquard Weave Afternoon Dress With Shawl Collar - Uk 8Stunning Original Vintage 1950s Yellow Tulle Prom Ball Evening Dress NetNearly Mint Antique Victorian Edwardian Embroidered Eyelet Pinafore Tea Dress60s Black White Collar & Cuffs Dolly Mod Mini Scooter Dress 12-14 Modette TwiggyVtg 30s Amethyst + Rose Pleated Open Back Drape Full Sweep Maxi Party Dress GownChou Chou 80s Vintage Black Velvet Bronze Devore Prom Party Cocktail Dress 12-14Vintage 1940's 1950's Beaded Satin Pin-up Evening Party Ball Gown Dress W- 27"Vintage 1900s Antique Titanic Dress Amazing Cut Velvet Battenburg Lace EdwardianStunning Vintage 20's Flapper Silk Layered Cocktail Dinner Party DressVtg 70s White Oaxacan Rainbow Embroidery Floral Boho Mexican Long Slv Mini DressVintage 1970's Carnegie Of London Purple Cape Maxi Long Evening Dress Uk14 - G01Glamorous 1950s Tulle And Velvet Cocktail Dress By Jonathan Logan - Uk 10Antique Victorian Civil War Era Cotton Day Casual Dress For Study Or RestorationVintage 50s Gay Gibson Pink Pinup Rockabilly Retro Cotton Summer Sundress DressVtg 70s Sheer Ethnic Boho Hippie Festival India Gauze Midi DressChic Vintage 50s 60s Red Plaid Shirtwaist Day Dress Swing Classic M LAunthentic Vintage 1940's Wwii Era Black Silk Velvet Dress Sheer Design Arms MVtg 80s Sea Green Sheer Gauze Oversized Minimalist Hand Dyed Draped Shirt Dress1920 Stunning Beaded Metallic Lace Flapper Dress W/celedon Lame LinerVtg 50s Red Pinup Fuzzy 60% French Angora Pullover Dress Sweater Wool Soft S/mVintage Laura Ashley English Violet Polka Dot Beauty 50s Style Special Dress 10Monroe Chic 1950s Vintage Orange Waffle Weave Wiggle Hourglass Dress 12 MadmenNavy White Vintage 50s Cotton Houndstooth Gingham Cap Sleeve Mod Swing Dress SAntique Victorian Handmade Cotton Two Piece Calico Dress Glass Buttons PeplumVintage 50s 60s Novelty Hunting Horses Fox Wiggle DressStunning 1940s 50s Vintage Curvy Fitted Rosey Red Cranberry Glamour Dress Suit1910 Extravagant Silver Lame*silk Illusion*sequin Layered Party Confection DressVintage 1940s 1950s Black Tulle Swiss Dot Dress By Rappi Sz XsVintage Style 60s 70s Dress W/ Huge Flared Bell Sleeves Psychedelic Boho Angel Vintage 1950s/1960s Novelty Spanish Dancer Matador Wrap Dress Like Swirl Vintage Lingerie- Peach Girdle, Thermals, Cami, 2 Prs Stockings + A/f Silk DressGray Silver Metal Button Wool Knit Drop Waist Mod Vintage 50s Fishtail Dress MNew Ladies Vtg 1950s Style Butterfly Rockabilly Party Swing Dress" Uk 14Amazing Turquoise Brown Psychedelic Abstract Strip Mad Mod Men Scooter Dress LOriginal 1940s Vintage Black Wartime Ww2 Landgirl Wren Shirtwaister Dress 14 MWw2 Original 40s Vintage Blue & White Flower Paint Print Landgirl Tea Dress14Edwardian Tea Dress Blue Silk Flowers Display Or FabricGenuine Vtg 50s 40s Rockabilly Ww2 Landgirl Green Floral Tea Prom Dress Uk10 Us6Striking Navy Mod White Crochet Mandarin Collar Tweed Vintage 60s Shift Dress MVintage 1960s Retro Navy Blue Green Pop Print Pussy Bow Mod Dress Uk 14-161940s - 1950s Cotton Day Dress With Tulip - Maternity ?Vintage 1920s 1930s Dress Drop Waist Blue Cream Flapper Art Deco Sold As Is !!!!New H&r Vtg 1940’s 50's Style Plum Pansy Floral Rockabilly Party Prom Dress Uk10Fab Vtg 30s Art Deco Noir Silk Velvet Iconic Bias Gatsby Evening Maxi Dress GownAntique 1900s Edwardian White Lace Wide Collar Wrap Dress-bust 44/ M-lTara Jarmon 60s Navy/red Chequered Drop Waist Dolly Mod Mini Gogo Dress 10Vtg 80s Brick Red Liberty Floral Mixed Prints Babdydoll Grunge Draped Mini DressBeautiful Antique Victorian Dotted Lace Tea DressRepro 40s/50s Wartime Style Floral Shirt Tea Dress Ww2 Homefront