The classic shift dress



Shift dresses have always been one of my favorite shapes. Allow me to briefly extoll their numerous virtues:

  1. They are elegant. Pure and simple with minimalist design lines, it’s just easy to look chic in a shift, particularly in black or white.
  2. They are comfortable. I can’t deal with tight waists in the summer. The shift is my throw-it-on-and-look-cute summer staple.
  3. They are flattering. Some of my fellow curvy girls may question this, but they can be extremely flattering, particularly for those of us with thick waists. The trick is to get a good fit at the bust and shoulders and let the dress skim your body rather than look like a big billowy sack.

All of these are wonderful qualities in a dress. But when you actually want to make one, you have even more to love:

  1. They are fast to make. With few seams and less fitting, I can throw a shift together in a matter of hours if I’m in the mood for a quick and satisfying project.
  2. They are a print-lover’s best friend. You can use all the prints that cause trouble in more complicated dresses, from stripes and dots to gigantic florals. Without all the pesky seams in front, prints are really allowed to do their thing.
  3. They are stash busters. You don’t need a ton of fabric to make a shift. And because they can be made in so many fabrics and prints, making a shift is a great way to use up that gorgeous fabric you have no idea what to do with.
  4. They’re a blank canvas. Have a detail or embellishment you want to try? There’s almost no limit to what you can add to a shift.

Here are some examples of shifts I’ve seen around lately that have me longing for summer.


{images: Ted Baker floral shift, Aubin and Willis floral shift, Dolce and Gabana black floral shift, silk floral shift from the blog Kela’s Kloset, vintage 1960s watercolor floral shift from spunsugarvintage, 1960s black and white floral shift from 36colors, floral shift}


{images: coral scallop shift from asos, Shoshanna mint green retro shift, Kate spade black shift, Erin Fetherston color block dress, white shift from blog pinkhorrorshow}


{images: Juicy cotton lace shift, Juicy lace shift in buttermilk, lace wedding dress, photo via Something Borrowed Portland, lace shift from Asos, tan lace shift from Oasis, pink lace shift from Adrianna Papell, lace shift from Asos}


{images: pim & larkin dot mini, baroque print swing dress, paisley shift from asos, Orla Kiely via calivintage}


{images: Stella McCartney striped shift, Tibi Variegated striped dress, Max Mara beige shift from Saks, vertically striped dress from Oasis, striped pocket dress from topshop}

If I’ve whet your appetite for making a wardrobe of these dreamy, easy dresses, check back in a week for more shifty goodness and lots of new ideas.

Sarai Mitnick   —   Founder

Sarai started Colette back in 2009. She believes the primary role of a business should be to help people. She loves good books, sewing with wool, her charming cats, working in her garden, and eating salsa.

Comments 63


Ooh I just love a shift dress, for all those reasons you mentioned!! Easy to wear, easy to make = an A+ design in my book!!

I’m getting excited about next week!

xo ~ Amanda

Jane W.

Does this mean there’s a pattern in the works? Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease….


I second that! Please let the next Colette pattern be a shift dress with all kinds of amazing variations!

Diane @ Vintage Zest

You’re so right that they’re elegant and simple. I’m so used to looking for something super tailored or adding belts to everything, that a simple silhouette can be overlooked easily. Thanks for the inspiration!

And that last line made me laugh. Shifty goodness!


I am very curvy and find these to be sooo flattering, not to mention comfortable, cool in the summer and easy to sew and wear!!


Simply elegant ! When it’s a mater of “chic” less is more, no doubt!
I have a nice waist, so, sometimes, I love to show it a little more.
Your upcomming collette pattern will be a nice chic shift?! Hum… I can’t wait to discover it.

Ally D

I was just wondering if you have any advice for how to make a shift dress look less “tent-y” when you have a full bust? I find they tend to make me look shapeless because of the way the fabric drapes off my bust :(


Shifts don’t have to be A-line, which is what makes it tent-like. You have to find a pattern that has a more fitted waist, or at least one that doesn’t flare a ton. It’s all about adjusting the fit to your figure.


I also have a very full bust, it helps greatly to tuck that dart a little more deeply at the waist, it defines your waist. Or even to wear a thin belt or even a length of silk ribbon around your waist. I also have full hips even tho I am technically quite small. Its a figure thats a little harder to sew for, and that is why I have been so ecstatic to discover Colette patterns. They are made for real bodies.


Darts, or princess lines can make the shift skim your figure perfectly, so that the dress doesn’t just fall off your full bust. Find out how to do a full bust adjustment to your pattern!


Lovely post, thank you!


Oh, I love it! I have the most vibrant teal lawn that I haven’t been able to figure out what to do with, because I really want to let the fabric shine. I love the idea of doing fun things with the neckline, like scallops or using a sheer fabric.

Lise Neely

Agree with all the folks above – I’d love love love to see a shift dress pattern from Collette.

Thanks for a sweet and inspirational post.

Lisa G.

I was going to say that they aren’t so good if you’re pear- shaped, but the ivory lace one with the bell sleeves is a bit a-line – that one might work, and it’s so pretty!


I’ve found the trick with shift dresses and a pear shaped body is a bateau/boat neckline to balance the hips, good fit through the bodice (got to love a few well placed darts), and an a-line bottom. They are one of my favorite dresses when I’ve got the fit correct!

Jeri Sullivan

A shift works well with all of the border eyelet you have been showing lately. Must buy some to have ready for a lovely summer shift dress from Colette :)


I love shift dresses and I love the first photo of Audrey Hepburn. Yes, shift dresses are great for women with thick waist but also ones with tiny waist. I’m tiny and shift dresses can give me a shape if I belt it. If I want a crisp and clean silhouette, I forgo the belt – like you said, if it fits at the bust and shoulders, it does wonders.


Oh my, A Colette Patterns Shift? Be still my beating heart. What a long wait a week is……


Oh what pretty dresses! I love a good shift dress, and always have. They can be the perfect combination of smart and comfortable.

Love, love the scalloped ASOS one and the navy polka dot one. Gorgeous!

Johanna@projects by me

I have several shift dress patterns, but still haven’t made one, but with all those inspirational photos I think I must! I also like shift dresses because I have a thick waist AND wide hips, I find that A-line shift dresses give me a good shape.


I’m intrigued to see what you come up with! I tend to veer towards fitted waists because I think it’s more flattering on me, but it’s also nice to work in some variation to my wardrobe. :) Looser fit in hot and humid summers is also a plus!


Oh, I love a shift dress, and you have some fantastic inspiration there! For some reason I haven’t tried making one yet, even though my couple of RTW shift dresses are worn a lot.


Sigh. I wish I could love shift dresses. They look so chic on other people, but my bust, and particularly my hips are *so* much bigger than my waist (16″ difference between my waist and my hips, y’all!) that I find them impossible to wear without a belt, which seems to defeat the purpose.

Oh well.

Elise @ cheznapier

LOVE these! The only shift dresses I own are RTW and short, like the plain turquoise or lace varieties in your pictures. While very cute pre-baby, they don’t leave much to the imagination now that my lifestyle involves a lot of running around at the park :). Planning to sew up some knee-length beauties for the summer. I hope this post means that your next pattern is up this alley!

Miss Crayola Creepy

I love all of these! Especially the one with the wild green print, wow!


Trembles at the coral scallop shift…Absolutely gorgeous.

Paige @ LPD

I’ve had a hunch the pattern would be a shift, if so AWESOME! I need to make a bunch of dresses for my trips to LA and PR in the next few months, these would be perfect.


I would be so sad if this was a spoiler for the upcoming pattern. I don’t want to know what it is until it gets here. :)

Mary Lou Hart

Really hope this means you’ll be doing a shift dress pattern. I have been looking for a good one recently and would love to see one in you line. :-) Especially since the Portland weather has been tempting me out of my sweaters and turtlenecks lately.


I’ve got a late 60’s shift dress pattern with a big, dramatic collar (Simplicity 8193). A shift is such a great canvas for embellishment. How cute would scallops (from the Meringue) look at the hem? Plus, they truly are SO comfortable. Body shape certainly affects the drape, though; hoping you can address some of the issues there and what to do about them.

And fingers crossed that this is a hint at the upcoming pattern release!

Annie Sharkey

Yup Love a shift, I’m curvy but for those days when you just want to throw something on and run – but still be smart its a winner. Find the right one and you’ve a friend for life!

Blogless Anna

I LOVE shift dresses. I’m wearing a me-made one now! They are the perfect dress for me – I’m of the thick waisted variety!


What a coincidence! Last week I blogged about my floral shift dress. I’d love you to check it out


Hmm. Because I’m very short with big bust-waist-hip differentials, I ALWAYS go for the waist-emphasising designs that flatter me most. But that can get monotonous, and I gotta say you make a very convincing pro-shift case! Perhaps I’ll give it a whirl!

Fresa Handmade

Ooh, I am so intrigued by the end of this post. I love a great shift dress. I’m feeling especially inspired by the one with the scalloped boat neck; it’s both surprising and charming.

Kéla Walker

Awe Sweet!!! Thanks for the inclusion


You look so beautiful in that dress, Kéla!


I love a good shift dress! Can’t wait to see what more you have next week!


It’s so funny-I am finishing my polka dot shift dress right now! Another good point, it is so easy to make.


Such perfect timing! I just finished a plaid wool shift. It skims, and it looks so great! I loved your photos in this post–they really showed the variations of neckline, shoulder, sleeve, cut and length that make shifts so interesting. Very inspiring! I have never seen that photo of AH, and wish I could know more about it….People are hoping that the next pattern is a shift, but I’m hoping against hope that you’ll knock off the cool plaid Sears dress you posted about last week–such great techniques to teach, plus bias top/straight grain skirt–that is cool.

Betty Jordan Wester

I love a structured shift dress. I always add darts in the back to give just a little bit of curve.


I’ve been dying to make a mod-ish shift dress for a while, but haven’t been able to muslin up any that are even remotely flattering on my body. I’d love it if the upcoming pattern was a shift, since then you guys would be doing a whole series on alterations to make it work for your body.


Gorgeous dresses! I love the look of a shiftdress, but like Elle above I don’t think it’s my bust that’s the problem (although I have E-cups) but my hips (which are 12″ or 44% bigger than my waist). A few months ago I did for the first time ever try on a no-waist 20s dress that looked great on me, but then it hugged my hips very nicely. If I can sport a late 20s look, then maybe there is a way to make a shift work on me. But I’m still rather doubtful =) Looking forward to seeing the new pattern soon!

Betty Jordan Wester

my waist/hip difference is 13″. I make sure the sheath is straight, not a-line, I add darts to the back (if there are non), and I curve the waist in very, very slightly. I also make sure there’s not a lot of ease. Just enough to walk and sit comfortably.


Can’t wait…..


But I thought Colette already has a shift dress? (of course I would love another) Am I not thinking straight? Is the Licorice dress not a shift dress? And if it isn’t what about it makes it not so? I am not well versed in patterns yet.


Shift dresses look so great on other people, but I’ve never found them to be flattering on me. My bust is 40″, waist 34″, and hips 48″. I just look like a blob if I put one on. Sigh.


The shift is one of my favorite styles to make. Those photos make me want to make one up right now! I love working with stretch wovens, and that’s going to work well to make the shift fit well in the bust and hips and skim over my not so skinney waist. Woo Hoo!


I love a good shift dress, but as someone top-heavy with a thick waist, I find them pretty tricky to wear. If the shape and fit are just right, they’re everything you say: easy, cute and flattering. Unfortunately, anything less than perfect, and combined with my thin legs the result is (to quote my husband after one particularly unfortunate red dress) reminiscent of a tomato on stilts. So I haven’t had the gumption to try to make one for myself yet – instead I go to a store and try on about a hundred for every one that works.

Linda Kennedy

You’ve posted some really gorgeous examples of shift dresses. Funny, when I think of shift dresses I think of Jackie Kennedy. That was one lady who knew how to wear a shift dress!

I have a few patterns in my stash for shift dresses and the new spring fabrics are starting to hit the shops – no choice in the matter, I am just going to have to put the two together and make a dress! Can’t wait to see your new design.

Linda xx


I looooove these inspiration photos! You might have convinced me – a pear-shaped lady – that a shift dress might actually work for me! I’m doing a pattern giveaway on my blog right now, which includes a couple of shift dresses … if anyone’s interested, click here!


I never found one that flatters an hourglass figure, but if you can do that, I’m in…


This post makes me incredibly pleased with the fact that I just bought two yards of a cotton lace at Mood, just because I fancied it! I had a vague notion to use New Look 6968 but I think I’ll wait to see the new Colette pattern :)


Ah I LOVE a shift dress!! ESPECIALLY a lace one! So many inspirational pics! Thank you :)


yes yes yes yes yes. with peter pan collar. please and thank you. yes!


I sew one recently and I’m hooked! Can’t wait for your article, I really want to improve my skills.

Kate Nakano

It’s wonderful Sarai! I was even thinking the shift dress would make a great top but you thought of that too! I love it!


My search for the perfect shift dress may have ended! I have some Marimekko fabric that would be perfect for this

Charm Kindred Spirit

I absolutely love everything lace and vintage! And all the designs you posted were absolutely gorgeous, makes me want to go on a shopping spree.

Peggy Fainelli

Hurry with an easy classic pattern! I can’t find one and just love shifts!!!!!!!

We’re sorry, comments for this post have been closed.