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How to Update the Look of a Simple Shift Dress

by Christine Bartsch

Ever since Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy made the style popular in the 1950s and ’60s, the simple shift has been a wardrobe staple. The shift, often sleeveless and wide-necked, often also has darting at the chest and skims the figure like a sheath or hangs loosely in an A-line cut, with its hem at the knees. Build an outfit around this classic foundation to update its look or break out the needle and thread to add embellishments directly on the dress.

Top-Notch Toppers

Given the fact that the typical shift is sleeveless, summer seems like the best and only time to wear the dress. Adding layers over top of the dress not only updates the look, it also extends wearability into cool springs and autumns. Give shift dresses a business look with a blazer or keep things casual with a soft knit cardigan. Shawls and pashminas dress up shift dresses, making them appropriate for formal occasions. Vests work best with shift dresses that have sleeves since this avoids the issue of the armholes not matching up.

Underneath It All

When it comes to dresses, layers are typically worn on top, but that doesn’t always have to be the case with shift dresses. Tank tops and camisoles worn underneath shifts with low-cut necklines add a dollop of color or the hint of another textile, such as silk or lace. Turtlenecks and button-down shirts work under loose-fitting A-line shifts, giving them a studious look when paired with ballerina flats or Mary Janes. Add layers to the bottom of the dress, too, with slips or petticoats that add fullness or simply a hint of lace at the hem. Wear pants or leggings underneath shorter, looser shift dresses to transform them into tunic tops. But beware of pairing shifts with bulky tops or underskirts that ruin the silhouette of the dress.

From One (Dress), Many (Outfits)

Shift dresses are simple and chic by design, so it could feel wrong to embellish your ensemble with a bunch of accessories. But it’s often right to accessorize – with the right accessories. Tastefully assembled accent pieces allow you to create dozens of different looks with the same dress. For example, with a basic black shift as the foundation, the look can go modern with go-go boots and a bold red patent leather purse or classic with a strand of pearls and kitten heels. Use belts and long scarves to alter the silhouette of the dress at the waist. Pin the waist with an attractive broach fastened at the back, the front or even the side. Alter the neckline with colorful scarves draped, tied or tucked into the collar, ascot style.

Total Renovation

Updating the dress itself is another option for those handy with a sewing machine or needle and thread. Add lace, ribbon or another trim to the collar, armholes and hem to transform the dress. Embellishing the skirt or bodice with embroidery, beadwork or lace appliques gives simple dresses an expensive, upscale look when done well. Create an overlay for the entire dress out of lace, tulle, organza or another sheer fabric that allows the original dress to show through. Additional fabric may also be added at the hem to lengthen the dress with a color-blocking effect.

References

  • Fashion 101: A Crash Course in Clothing; Erika Stalder; 2008
  • What Not to Wear; Trinny Woodall, et al.; 2003

About the Author

A former art instructor, high school counselor and party planner, Christine Bartsch writes fashion, travel, interior design, education and entertainment content. Bartsch earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in communications/psychology/fine arts from Wisconsin Lutheran College and a creative writing Master of Fine Arts from Spalding University. She's written scripts for film/television productions and worked as the senior writer at a video game company.

Photo Credits

  • Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images