What Is a Sheath Dress and How to Wear It

Jessica Alba in a sheath dress
  Daniel Zuchnik / Contributor / Getty Images 

A sheath dress features a silhouette that fits close to the body and can have a hemline that hits anywhere from mid-thigh to mid-calf. A sheath by definition (think about the sheath of a sword, for example) is meant to hold close to that which it encases. The neckline can vary, but a fitted waist is the focal point of this type of dress. Sheaths are also often sleeveless, and when they are longer than mid-thigh, a slit up the back makes it easier to walk in.

Because of its rather broad definition, the sheath dress can take on many forms and can also be dressy or casual, depending on the fabric and cut. Shorter sheath dresses are great for parties and cocktail events, while a longer dress in a more conservative cut is a staple for the office.

Sheath dresses were popularized by American designers like Narciso Rodriguez, Donna Karan, and Ralph Lauren, who favored minimal, uncomplicated designs in the 1990s, but the style has roots as an undergarment going as far back as the early 1900s.

Pronunciation: sheeth

How to Wear a Sheath Dress

As we mentioned above, sheath dresses come in a variety of lengths, cuts, and fabrications, which means the occasions and places to which you can wear one are many and varied. The most important thing is to find one that shapes and flatters your figure. Those with legs for days may opt for an above-the-knee style, and don't forget that shapewear is a great way to create a smooth silhouette under a fitted dress.

  • For a Cocktail Party: A sleek little black dress in a sheath cut will be your go-to party staple. A dress like this can be worn over and over, just change your shoes and accessories and try some layering tricks. A long strand of pearls and some black pumps will give you that glam Breakfast at Tiffany's look, while colorful tassel earrings and block heel sandals will give you a trendy twist.
  • For the Office: Wearing a fitted blazer over your sheath dress is an easy way to make this wardrobe staple office appropriate all year long. In the summer you can skip the jacket and accessorize with a structured work tote and simple stud earrings. Pull your hair into a low bun and add some red lipstick for a finishing touch.
  • For the Weekend: A sheath doesn't always have to be dressed up. For brunch with friends or some errands around town, pair your sheath with a cool pair of white sneakers and your favorite tote bag. For a little extra style, complete your outfit with a pair of oversized sunglasses.

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