Shows three elderly women and man, full length, wearing dark coloured dresses and suit, standing on a verandah in front of a door, with pot plants on either side of them.
Three elderly women and man at front door c. 1930. Photo by Charles Edward Boyles via State Library of Victoria

I am obsessed with the deliciousness of dresses at the moment. I mentioned in my January review that I bought some dresses and that I particularly adore my “house dress”. I have been trying to work out when and why I stopped wearing them.

Yesterday I went into town for lunch with Katy, and I couldn’t help noticing that so few women wear dresses. The most common outfit was pants with a top, then skirt with a top, and about one in a gazillion dresses. When I mentioned it, Katy said she had a couple of dresses, but for her, they feel like winter things. She speculates it’s a practicality thing.

So I got to thinking about it in terms of my shopping process (read more in my book Build Your Signature Wardrobe), and I did a quick run through of a few shops to see what’s out there at the moment.

Budget

Dresses seem comparatively expensive. While some of them cost less than a bottom and a top, a lot of them cost more. If it’s something you are going to wear a lot, that’s reasonable, but if it’s something you wear once or twice a year, then I wouldn’t advise it.

I mentioned in my summer wardrobe post that I only saw one dress anywhere near my hope for a boldly patterned white linen fit and flare party dress ($150). That was a $219 navy and white gingham sundress with a fitted bodice and a gathered skirt in 100% cotton – 146% of the then budget. As a summer dress, this would be worn for six to nine months of the year, and as a “good” dress, once a week maximum but more likely once a month at a cost of $36.50 – $24.33 per wear.

By comparison, a skirt might be $159 and a top $139. But both could potentially be worn all year round with sweaters and tights because they aren’t so obviously summer things. Additionally, you can split them up and if the top is sufficiently plain, wear it to work. And maybe dress the skirt up (or down) with a different top. So while you could potentially wear each garment once a week, the monthly cost per wear for the skirt is $13.25 and $11.58 for the top giving a total of $24.83 and seemingly a more responsible choice.

Appropriateness

Dresses, like all out other clothes, need a base level of practicality; for walking, sitting, getting in and out of cars, bending, stretching and so on. You also need to have the right seasonal fabrics that are appropriate for the level of activity you are undertaking (I was very glad not to be wearing polyester as I walked up the hill in the 90º F (32° C) heat). Most of us would want professional for work, casual to meet with friends, or something in the formal spectrum for events.

At a rough guess, I would say about two-thirds of the dresses I saw were formal, the bulk of the remaining were short, tight partying kind of dresses and an infinitesimally small fraction professional. Admittedly not a comprehensive survey of all that is available in all stores, but enough for me to get annoyed, give up, and find a cafe for an iced chocolate drink in compensation.

So even without taking into account your particular style needs, it’s going to be hard to find something that meets your requirements

Style

Clothing colours and shapes are heavily dependent on fashion, so it’s entirely possible that some years you won’t find anything in a store, and if you really want a dress will have to learn to sew or have something made. And if you do find something, you will need to have it altered to fit well.

As dresses consist of skirts permanently attached to tops, there is tremendous scope for the fit to be wrong in all the wrong places. As someone who is shorter than “petite” fit, I need to get arms, legs and hems shortened. And as I am short-waisted, my darts are usually in the wrong places and the dress waist lands somewhere around my hips which looks and feels unattractive. The cost of all these alterations can add up significantly.

As I hinted above, the range of professional dresses is more or less limited to fitted sheath dresses in black or navy. While these are practical colours for a professional look, they aren’t very interesting to look at and that’s unfortunate if you don’t want to be a corporate clone. And if you are not a young and thin lady you won’t find much casual clothing. And very few of us are going to be looking for something formal to wear to weddings, mitzvahs, balls or formal dinners.

Other Confounding Variables

And on top of that, there are social and cultural issues:

  • Some women feel like a little girl in a dress though this could be combatted by wearing a correctly proportioned dress (probably the dreaded professional one), low heels and neutral makeup as well as pinning long hair up à la Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Maybe a string of pearls.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, some women feel that only old ladies wear dresses, and if you sit still long enough, that seems to be the case. However, I did notice a few younger women in patterned sheaths or fit and flares paired with flat shoes.
  • The fear that people will see them as less competent in a dress than pants. And I suppose given that televised damsels in distress are generally in dresses and kick arse zombie killers in pants there could be something to this. But, if you want to take people by surprise, lulling them into a false sense of security with a dress would be just the ticket wouldn’t it?
  • They are afraid of the Marilyn Monroe flying skirt effect as seen in The Seven Year Itch. Um, well. You might find it as “delicious” as she did, but if it worries you, wear short leggings or can-can bloomers which will work for chafing as well as modesty.
  • That dresses are only for occasions, not for everyday and that you have to wear heels and jewellery with them. Not a surprising view given what you see in stores. Try looking in vintage stores for something that feels more casual.
  • They are too fancy. And your problem is?

And my solution is?

Well, I would say buy ine and give it a try.

In case you are wondering, I bought my adorable dress from an Etsy shop. It’s a navy blue fit and flare dress in a cotton/linen blend that was made to fit my body measurements (it’s the right length, and the darts are in the right places). It’s looser than I would prefer, it’s cooler that way and is immensely practical for things like hanging out washing, emptying dishwashers and vacuuming. And it is has a red chrysanthemum painted on it, so it’s pretty which makes hanging out washing, emptying dishwashers and vacuuming feel less dreary.

How do you feel about dresses? Would you try one?

women in dresses

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