Get to Know the Empire Waist Dress

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What Is an Empire Waist Dress?

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What is the definition of an empire waist dress? 

An empire waist dress is one that has a fitted bodice, and waistline is placed above the natural waist, sometimes right below the bust. The skirt is typically long with a loose fit that skims the body and elongates the figure. This silhouette is especially flattering on women who are pear-shaped, bottom-heavy figure or might want to disguise a thick waist.

Today, empire waist dresses are still a popular choice for formal occasions and weddings, and can still be seen on the runway and red carpet because of their flattering-yet-comfortable fit.

Pronunciation: om-peer or em-pire

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The History of the Empire Waist Dress

1. Fashionable Morning and Evening Dress as Worn in Portrait of Mademoiselle Caroline Riviere by Jean-Auguste-Dominique IngresOctober, 1807 Illustration, 2. Getty Images

The empire waist dress dates back to the late 18th century, and "here the word "empire" refers to the period of the First French Empire; Napoleon's first Empress Josephine de Beauharnais was influential in popularizing the style around Europe." 

The look was adopted from a Greco-Roman style tunic, and soon the dresses were accompanied by Grecian-style hair ribbons. In high society, women wore these less constricting, flowing empire waist dresses in shades of white, which denoted their high social status since they were so easily dirtied.

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The Empire Waist Dress Can Be Romantic

Getty Images / Venturelli, Andrew Toth

Perhaps because of its roots in the 18th century, one of the first words we think of when we picture empire waist dresses is romantic. They often have sweeping, long skirts and plenty of details like jewels or embroidery that only add to the feminine vibe.

Floral elements take on a particularly romantic air when they cascade down a gauzy, layered empire waist dress. This kind of dress is great for spring and summer weddings, and can be transitioned into the fall simply by throwing on a velvet blazer or a faux fur stole around your shoulders.

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The Halter Neck Empire Waist Dress is Ultra-Flattering

Viola Davis and Blake Lively. Getty Images / Dimitrious Kambouris, Stephen Lovekin

One of the most flattering ways to wear an empire waist dress? Find one with a halter neck. There are many different styles of halter necks—from the covered, round-neck style like Viola Davis is rocking above on the left, to the more daring, plunging neck as seen on Blake Lively on the right.

Halter neck empire waist dresses are great for formal events and weddings, especially in bold, pretty colors. These dresses will immediately highlight your best features—so why not double down on the wow factor?

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The Empire Waist is Flattering at Any Age

Diane Von Furstenberg and Helen Mirren. Getty Images / Frederick M. Brown and Jason Kempin

Since the long, loose skirt skims the body rather than hugging every curve, the empire waist dress can be a great option for women of all ages who want to draw attention upwards—to your hair, arms, shoulders, face and cleavage—rather than your waist and lower half.

If you want to hide your upper arms, a dress with long sleeves (or a layered cropped jacket) can allow you to really zero-in on what you want people to see. Take a note from Helen Mirren and try a monochromatic look that is as dressy as it is sophisticated.

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Channel Your Inner Grecian Goddess in a Flowing Empire Waist Dress

Jennifer Lopez and Rachel Zoe. Getty Images / Frazer Harrison, Jeffrey Mayer

Just like the high society women of the late 18th century, you can still channel the regal elegance of a Greek goddess in your empire waist dress. Here, both Jennifer Lopez and Rachel Zoe show off how delicate pleating, beading and chest-flattering seams make for a completely feminine and glamorous silhouette.

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The Empire Waist Dress is Perfect For Pregnant Women

Bryce Dallas Howard, Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd and Reese Witherspoon all rocked empire waist dresses on the red carpet while pregnant. Getty Images / Mark Von Holden, Alberto E. Rodriguez, Tony Barson, Jeffrey Mayer

Because of the way it frames your chest and drapes loosely over your torso and lower body, an empire waist dress is a great choice for dressing up your baby bump. As exemplified by Bryce Dallas Howard (in the yellow), Natalie Portman (in black and white), Ashley Judd (in ruby red) and Reese Witherspoon (in royal blue)—an empire waist frames your bump and allows you to be comfortable in the same time. Glam moms-to-be should also keep in mind that many empire waist dresses are so generously sized that you may not even have to shop in the maternity section.