In fashion, a sheath dress is a fitted, straight cut dress, often nipped at the waistline with no waist seam. When constructing the dress, the bodice and skirt are joined together by combining the skirt darts into one dart: this aligns the skirt darts with the bodice waist dart. The dress emphasizes the waist as its skirt portion is fitted. While the sheath dress can come in many patterns and lengths, it often is worn with short sleeves and reaches knee length.
Originating in the ancient world, the sheath dress is commonly seen in Egyptian art. Presented as slender and youthful, artistic renditions of the women in the garment were common prior to the New Kingdom. Although there was no archeological evidence of a sheath dress among the elite, women and deities are shown wearing the garment in tomb drawings. The garment was often presented with a seam under the breast and with beads. Ancient depictions of elite women showed the dress paired with the tripartite wig and vulture headdress. With archaeologists finding nearly twenty dresses of the ancient Egyptian world, there is no record of the dress ever existing in reality. Instead, scholars have hypothesized that the sheath dress as we know it were wrap dresses with straps, skirts, or a V neck dress.
The Princess Sheath dress was popular between 1878 and 1880. It was associated with the Princess of Wales, later known as Queen Alexandra. The Princess sheath is constructed with the bodice and skirt cut in one with a gored skirt. The dress was worn without a bustle but with a small pad. To tighten the front of the dress, ribbons were attached in the back's interior.
During the early 1900s, Americans were still looking to Paris for the latest trends. American socialites traveled to Europe to view collections and receive custom outfits. Paul Poiret is credited as the first designer of the modern sheath dress. In doing so, he also created a rubber girdle as an alternative to the boned corset to wear under the dress. In great contrast to the emphasized curves of Victorian era and earlier dress, the sheath dress offered a sleek look that revealed the legs and lower torso with a slit. The style of the sheath dress reached the United States in 1908. That fall, the musical Bandanna Land included the song "Sheath Gown in Darktown", whose chorus mentions a "sheath gown":
Oh there's trouble down in Old Darktown,
Since Bella came with that sheath gown,
Imported walk and smile, and all that foreign style,
And all the girls are badly hurt as they watch her flirt that see-more skirt.
The sheath gown it's got Darktown, and will hold it for a while.
By the 1950s, the sheath dress became the modern look for American women. In 1950, Christian Dior introduced the "Vertical Line". The line catered to a woman's body and her curves in comparison to previous years. From the line, Vogue called the sheath dress the "most important single day fashion". In 1956, a girdle sales manager remarked “The sheath paid for my house in Westport.” Pattern companies sold sheath cuts up to size 22 ½ and 41 inch bust size. The dress was referred to as “the slim look for five o’clock on”. For a casual look, the sheath dress was matched with a short sleeve print bolero. As a business attire, a box jacket when over the bolero as well as the dress. As the cut of the dress became easier to construct, textures were added to the dress such as beads.
One of the most notable sheath dresses of all time is the black Givenchy dress of Audrey Hepburn. In 1961, Hepburn wore a Hubert de Givenchy black sheath dress in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's. By this time, her dress became known as the little black dress. On May 19, 1962, Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday to then president John F. Kennedy for his 45th birthday. At the event, Monroe wore a Jean Louis sheath dress that is described as "skin and beads". The dress was made nude toned, backless, and clad with crystals. Monroe was sewn into the dress for a tight fit. In 2016, the Jean Louis design sold for $4.8 million.
In recent years, the sheath dress is worn as a cocktail dress. The pattern can also be seen worn on brides as sheath dresses are popular as wedding dresses; the style is recommended for slim brides who are either tall or petite.
1959 Sheath Dress by James Galanos
Portrait of an Egyptian dancer
This article presents a primarily Eurocentric view of this fashion. Excluding the dress in Ancient Egyptian art, missing from this article is the sheath dress in Eastern, Latin, and African cultures.