Basic Dress Silhouettes

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I’ll admit it: Even though there are, at last count, 4,386 reality shows that share the premise that fashion is the most important thing in the whole universe, I hadn’t really been paying careful attention.

So when it came to starting the dress shopping process, I had some catching up to do. My saleswoman started throwing terms at me that in my mind could maybe have been for bridal gowns, yes, but if I’d simply picked one of the terms at random and the saleswoman had then presented me with a samurai sword, that would also have somehow seemed appropriate.

So I started in with “I want it to sort of… go here… And then maybe like this…?” Sure that seems irritatingly imprecise, but please remember that I was helping her out with accompanying vague hand gestures, alternately swoopy and choppy.

The saleswoman cocked her head at me like the RCA dog and took a moment to consider pressing the silent alarm, then suggested I look through the racks a bit.

So just to save you from that particular slice of pre-wedding embarrassment, here’s a quick primer on the basic wedding dress silhouettes.

A-line
You’ve probably worn an A-line dress at some point. (If you haven’t, give one a try! They’re flattering on just about any figure.) Some flare out gently from the shoulder, creating kind of an overall letter A shape, and other versions flare out from the waist with a more fitted bodice. Either way, you’ll look terrific.

Ball gown
If you’re planning a fairy tale–themed wedding, a ball gown is what you’re most likely gunning for. You’ve seen them on plenty of animated princesses. A ball gown has a closely fitted bodice, then poofs out into a very full, bell-shaped skirt that is usually floor-length. The waistline may dip down into a V, and may sit higher or lower on the hips, depending on your preference.

Ballerina
This is a less common wedding dress style, and you’ve probably already guessed how it looks. Like the ball gown, a ballerina dress has a fitted bodice and a skirt that poofs out from the waistline, but in this case there’s more of a tutu effect, with the skirt hitting about mid-calf. You’ll be working with very light, floaty fabrics in lots and lots of layers, and there may be some petticoat action.

Bustle back
When seen from the side, this dress has an S-shaped silhouette that was popular from the 1890s through the 1910s or so, when folks liked to demurely emphasize the fact that Baby had back. You’ll see either a big bow-style decoration or maybe even an extra bunch of fabric in back. Some women automatically freak at the idea of emphasizing the badonk, but I think bustles are classic and fun.

Empire
“Empire waist” is code for “really high waist.” The confusingly named waistline actually starts just below the bust, and the dress drops straight down, or close to it. You’ve seen these in Jane Austen adaptations like Emma and Sense and Sensibility. I’ve read alleged experts who say that empire dresses look best on slender women and others say they look best on full-figured women. Me, I think they give all women a little-girl look, which may or may not be your bag. So forget me and the experts and just go by whether or not you like them. (But definitely do some “research” on empire waists by watching the Pride and Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth in it.)

Mermaid
A mermaid dress will give you a shapely silhouette without being inappropriately sexy. The dress hugs your curves from your bust to your hips, then flares out at the knee to create a fishtail effect. Mermaid dresses can be strikingly beautiful, but because they are fitted so closely, they may not be good for ceremonies in which you have to kneel. You may even have some trouble sitting if your dress is very form-fitting, so consider changing into another outfit for your reception.

Princess
Oddly enough, the princess gown usually isn’t associated with fairy tale–themed weddings. In this case, you’re going for a grown-up princess instead of a Grimm. Think Grace Kelly. This dress is less close-fitting than a mermaid or sheath, but still follows your natural curves. The bodice has vertical panels of fabric and then the skirt flares out gently. This is an elegant style that looks good on most women.

Sheath
Like mermaid dresses, sheath dresses are very form-fitting. But in this case, though, your guests get to see your feet as well as your curves. A sheath dress will be clingy from shoulder (or bust, if you’re going strapless) to hem, with no flaring out. It looks like an evening gown – one that really hugs your body, so make sure you’re feeling bold. And, as with the mermaid, make sure you’re not feeling like sitting down or kneeling.

Slip
This is an elegant style that is usually kept very simple. It’s a slinky fall of satin (or satiny material) that clings to your body. Slip dresses are often cut on a bias, with shoestring shoulder straps.

A final word on fashion mavens
I’ve been watching and reading a lot of expert commentary on how women should dress to look their best lately, and I’ll just say this: Many of these people are well-intentioned men and women who love, love, love women and their bodies. But many of them aren’t. Some love clothes but don’t like women, and some only like very tall skinny women, and some sincerely mean to love women but are carrying around great big laundry baskets full of issues, and some of them like to lash out at anyone who might be an easy target because they secretly don’t like themselves and being snarky reassures them that they’re superior to somebody. And some people just can’t stand it when not everyone conforms to their idea of what looks good.

My point is that you may want to take their advice with a grain of salt, and maybe the whole shaker. Some fashion experts can be positive and wonderful, and some can really mess with your head, whether they mean to or not. By all means, read or watch them, but if you’re starting to feel worse about yourself as you do, pull out. The most useful fashion experts are the ones who start with the premise that you’re absolutely beautiful and then work to help you become the most fabulous version of yourself.

And, in the end, your instincts trump them too. If a dress breaks all the rules but makes you feel absofreakinglutely amazing, that’s The One.

Good luck, Gorgeous. Happy shopping!