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What are the Different Types of Retro Dresses?

By Susan Grindstaff
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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Retro dresses are dresses that date from about the 1940s through 1970s. Each decade of fashion had some very distinctive fashion trends. Some of the more distinctive types of retro dresses include wiggle dresses, Hawaiian print sundresses, shirt dresses, mini dresses and peasant dresses.

During and just following World War II, women began to wear dresses that were much more form fitting and daring. One popular style of dress is now referred to as the “wiggle” dress. This dress style fits very tightly through the bust, waist, and hips. The line of the dress then follows tightly along the thigh and legs, ending just below the knee. These dresses often had slits in back or front so that the wearer could walk.

Some retro dresses from the 1940s were made using Hawaiian printed fabrics. During this period, much of the world felt a great deal of solidarity with Hawaii because of the bombing at Pearl Harbor, and the popularity of these dresses may have been a result of this. These dresses were typically sundresses with fitted busts and waists.

Retro dresses from the 1950s primarily had fitted waists with full skirting. One popular style was called the “shirt” dress. The top portion of the dress style was like a button-up shirt, complete with pointed collar. The skirting was full and gathered, falling just below the knee and attached to a fitted waist. These dresses usually had narrow belts made from the same fabric as the dress.

The 1960s introduced the fashion world to the mini dress, and it is probably the most distinctive style of dress to come from that era. The overall design of these dresses varies. Some had empire waists, puffed sleeves and full skirting, and were usually referred to as “baby doll” dresses. Many others were of the A line style, which refers to a dress that is fitted at the top, then gradually widening as it falls to the hemline. The hem length for mini retro dresses was usually several inches above the knee. Dresses that barely cover the buttocks were called “micro” minis.

Retro dresses from the late 1960s and early 1970s were heavily influenced by the hippie movement. The peasant dress is probably the most characteristic of that era. These dresses typically had necklines that are off the shoulder, usually featuring a wide gathered ruffle. In many cases, these dresses had empire waists and full skirts. Most of the time, the dresses were made of soft cotton.

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Discussion Comments
By wholesale — On Sep 23, 2019

Thank you for writing an amazing blog on different types of retro dresses. The information you have provided for different types of retro dresses are the best but I would like to suggest you can also buy retro dresses from an online store.

By strawCake — On Mar 22, 2012

I think certain types of retro party dresses will never fully go out of style. I know I see mini dresses fairly often still, as well as A line dresses. I'm pretty sure I also see a Hawaiian print sundress or two at the store every single summer!

I think some styles are retro, but also modern, if that makes any sense. They originated in the past, but continue to be popular and updates takes are sold every year!

By Monika — On Mar 21, 2012

@starrynight - I like that style of dress too. I think you definitely have to have a pretty small waist to pull it over though. I imagine if you were looking for plus size retro dresses you might choose a different, most flattering style.

I like dresses that have retro styling but are made now. I find that body types have changed over the years, and it's hard to find a vintage dress that actually fits. Also, a lot of them are really expensive! It might even be better to just make yourself a dress from a vintage pattern if you can sew.

By starrynight — On Mar 20, 2012

I really love those 1950's style dresses with full skirts and a fitted waist. I think this type of retro cocktail dress was also popular in the 1960's. I always see the ladies on that show Mad Men wearing that type of dress, and I really wish they were currently in style.

However, I'm pretty sure if I wait long enough this style of dress will come back. It seems like everything does! My mom was a teenager in the late 60's/early 70's and over the years I've heard her say current style were popular when she was growing up.

By StarJo — On Mar 19, 2012

I love baby doll dresses. Many of them have necklines so wide and elastic that you can either wear the sleeves off the shoulder or on top of it.

I think the shorter baby doll dresses look cute with leggings. If I find a cool retro dress in an antique store that I love but I feel it is too short for me, I will pair it with some matching leggings.

Baby doll dresses usually have extra room up top, since they are gathered and contain elastic. My sister wore these while she was pregnant, and she never had to go up a size!

By orangey03 — On Mar 19, 2012

@OeKc05 – I love loose-fitting retro dresses like those. Many dresses from earlier decades were made to be very fitted at the waist, and I just could not wear them.

I have a straight waist, so the dresses made for women with hourglass figures never fit me. My mother kept one of her old dresses from the 50s, and even though it was my size, I couldn't get into it because the waist was too tight.

If I had been alive back then, I probably would have thought I was fat, because I would have had to wear a big dress size just to accommodate my waist! That's why I prefer the dresses from the 60s and 70s with empire waists. They are very comfortable and hide my figure.

By OeKc05 — On Mar 18, 2012

I really love the sheath dresses from the 1960s. These were short dresses that basically were sleeveless and straight.

I was able to find a lot of these in stores in the 1990s, too. I think that the trend came back for a few years.

Most sheath dresses came to a few inches above the knee. They are great for wearing out with heels or boots.

They are awesome at hiding any belly fat you might have. This is probably the main reason I was drawn to them!

By cloudel — On Mar 17, 2012

I always associate shirt dresses with school teachers. It's funny how some teachers today still wear dresses that were popular in the 50s.

I saw a lot of my teachers in elementary school wearing denim shirt dresses. They were usually short sleeved and had either a sash or belt loops at the waist. They looked very generic to me, almost like a sort of uniform.

Some of my teachers wore bright orange or green shirt dresses, which were slightly more interesting. I couldn't stop thinking that the denim ones looked like a prison guard's uniform, though!

By LisaLou — On Mar 17, 2012

When my niece got married she wore a retro wedding dress. She wanted something that was different, and this was the perfect style for her.

Most of the wedding dresses today are form fitting and don't have a lot of frill on them. While this dress was looser and had some ruffles and lace, it was not over the top.

It really looked a lot more comfortable than some of the wedding dresses I have seen recently. My niece has a very distinct fashion sense, and she can pull just about anything off.

It really comes down to what you love and feel most comfortable in. I remember wearing many sundresses when I was teenager because they were not only feminine, but very comfortable.

By julies — On Mar 16, 2012

I was surprised at how many retro prom dresses I saw when my daughter recently went to prom. There were several girls who went to a vintage store to find their perfect prom dress.

This definitely was not the style that was most popular, but there were more being worn than I would have imagined.

What I found most interesting was all the different styles of dresses that were worn. When I went to prom, it seemed like there weren't nearly as many choices.

At this prom, I got the feeling that pretty much everything was OK or in style. I have no idea how much these retro dresses cost. At first I thought they might have been quite a bit cheaper than the new dresses in the store, but maybe not.

By andee — On Mar 15, 2012

One style of dress that wasn't mentioned in this article was the maxi dress. This was popular in the late 1970's and I loved them. These long dresses went to your feet, and usually had a lot of lace and/or ruffles on them.

I found them very comfortable and wore them often. They always say if you wait long enough, the styles will come back around.

Last spring when I was looking at some of the retail flyers in the paper, I saw some maxi dresses. This must have been short lived because I haven't seen very many of them.

I did see a few women wearing them last season, and wonder if there will be more of them or if this style will quickly fade away again.

I think some retro inspired dresses look very classy and can be worn today and fit right in. There are other styles like the "shirt" dress that I think look too sloppy and out of fashion to wear.

By Mykol — On Mar 14, 2012

I was in high school at the end of this era, and remember many of these dresses. The one I am most familiar with is the mini dress. Before then, a dress or skirt was considered conservative if it fell somewhere below the knee.

The mini dresses we wore went about halfway up the knee. Of course, some girls wore them much shorter than that, but I was never allowed to.

While I have fond memories of this time, I really don't want to buy or wear any retro vintage dresses. My mom probably still has some of them tucked away in the attic somewhere.

I know I would just feel out of place wearing something like this today, and will stick with the new dresses I find in the stores.

By jonrss — On Mar 14, 2012

One important tip to keep in mind when buying vintage retoro dresses is to try anything on before you buy it. A lot of the sizing that they used back then do not correspond very closely to modern cuts and sizes. You might think that a dress will fit, buy it, and then get home only to find that it is too big or small or fits you awkwardly in the hips, etc.

By Ivan83 — On Mar 13, 2012

I never know what to get when I am shopping for vintage retro dresses. You just never know if you will look amazing and forward thinking or hopelessly silly wearing retro style dresses.

I always think about it like this. Not all of those vintage dresses were considered cool even when they were new. In fact, a lot of them were probably designed to be worn by housewives and were considered ugly even in their own time. I guess you could chalk it up to irony that people would wear them today but that is not a good enough reason for me. I'm not going to dress like a 45 year old housewife and pretend that I am some kind of trend setter.

By nextcorrea — On Mar 12, 2012

There is an awesome vintage store close to my house that sells a beautiful variety of retro dresses. But they sell them for a premium price and not all of them are in great condition.

You really have to inspect the dress for signs of wear and tear before you buy it. I remember that I bought this amazing orange dress that I was so excited abut. But after I washed it only twice some of the stitching started to come loose and before I knew it the dress was in tatters. This is a risk you always take when buying used clothing, but the high prices of retro dresses make it more important than ever to carefully inspect any garment before buying.

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