What Do You Mean I Look Like A Cupcake?: Dress Silhouettes

When you’re reading about dresses, writers like to use industry lingo despite the fact that most people outside of the industry (also known as your average bride) don’t know the difference between a trumpet and a mermaid or a sweeping train and a chapel train.  In the next couple sections I’m going to attempt to write a mini-guide to the shapes you may see and what they mean.  If there’s something else you come across that you’d like to see a definition to, let me know!

Overall Silhouettes

Ball Gown

A ball gown is your typical “fairy-tale princess” gown.  This is the most traditional of the dress types and is considered formal.  It is characterized by its fitted bodice and full skirt.  Some dresses maintain this full skirt with layers upon layers of material, while others rely on a crinoline slip (essentially a secondary, poofy skirt you wear under the dress) to give it its intended shape.  To achieve the shape, the skirt is usually gathered and/or pleated into the bodice.  The shape of the skirt is good for hiding hips if you’re worried about those, and the fit of the bodice can slim down your midsection.  Because of the size of the dress, this is usually bad for petite frames (the large amount of fabric can overwhelm you and make it look like the dress is wearing you instead) and those who are well endowed in the bust region (large on top and large on bottom can give you an overall round shape).


The A-line is the ball gown’s little sister.  This bodice is also usually very fitted, though sometimes less-so than the ball gown bodice (since it doesn’t need to be “held up” quite so much).  The dress is cut close to the ribcage and extends down in an A shape from the waist.  Think a ball gown without the poof.  Because of the way it comes off the hips and fits snuggly on top, it is the most flattering of the dress shapes to the largest variety of body types.  I highly recommend everyone at least try on an A-line dress.  Just like the ball gown, the bodice does a good job of sucking in the mid-section, and the skirt hides hips but does it without covering them with layers upon layers of material and instead gives a slimmer appearance.  This is a very classic look that pretty much anyone can pull off.  This style can go for either formal or casual weddings depending on the other characteristics present.


The sheath dress is also known as a column dress, and as the name implies it is a slim profile that hugs close the body from top to bottom.  It’s a sexier shape, but can be hard to pull off because of how it clings to everything.  If you are conscious about any part of your body, this is NOT  the shape you want.  Be careful when choosing a dress in this shape and pay close attention to the fabric.  Thinner satins can give it almost a nightgown type look.  This is typically a less formal shape and not generally appropriate for church weddings.  This is, however, a favorite for destination and other outdoor weddings.  Despite being relatively causal, the overall look and feel of the dress can vary wildly depending on your choice of neckline, sleeve, and bodice cut.

Skirt Shapes


Think of the trumpet as the flared leg jean of wedding dresses.  It starts out coming in close through the bodice and drifting out at the waist, but then flares out at the hem, giving it a shape resembling the horn of a trumpet (hence the name).  This type of skirt falls away from the body the same way a traditional A-line does, which is the big difference between it and the mermaid skirt.  This is a great shape if you like the feel of the A-line but want a little extra drama (or a lot of extra drama, you really have a wide range of drama options with this).  This is a good option if you like the idea of the mermaid but don’t have the range of motion you’d like when you’re wearing one.


The mermaid skirt follows the same idea as the trumpet, but comes off of a sheath or column type dress as opposed to the A-line.  It hugs close to the legs until about the knee, then flares out dramatically.  This is a very modern shape and has a cool/funky vibe to it.  The degree of fit before the flare can vary, so be careful when trying this type of dress on.  If the fit part hits perfectly at your knees, walking can be a challenge.  This one takes the most skill to wear because of the range of motion issues it can present, but can be a great choice for a bride who wants to be different.


A bias-cut skirt is one cut at an angle.  This can vary from being a side-to-side angle or a front-to-back angle.  The idea of the cut is to give the dress movement, so it is typically done on dresses made of more fluid materials as opposed to stiffer, shape holding fabrics.  This is a great shape if you like the idea of showing a little leg but still looking classy.  If you like the look but still want a floor length gown all around, keep an eye out for what I like to call the fake-out bias which has 2 layers of fabric, where the top layer is cut on a bias to give the dress some motion, but there is a second layer that still goes down to the floor (if there are more than 2 layers or the layers aren’t cut on a bias, it falls in the category of being a tiered skirt).  Because of the cut, these dresses (in either a “real” or “fake” bias) typically do not have a train, although you can find one on the front-to-back cut skirts from time-to-time.


The bubble skirt can be applied to a variety of the previously mentioned shapes.  The term simply applies to the lack of a defined hemline at the bottom of the skirt.  As opposed to an edge of fabric constituting the bottom of the dress, the fabric is looped under the dress and sewn to the lining, giving the bottom of the dress a rounded edge.  Because of the way this is executed, it can lead to a bowed out skirt shape like the one pictured, though some can be done on a very slight scale so that a shape such as an A-line can be maintained.



The overskirt is just as the name sounds: a skirt over a skirt (insert Inception joke here).  The overskirt is typically a translucent material on a solid dress, however you can find combinations of translucent/translucent, lace/solid/ translucent/lace, etc.  The overskirt is only connected at the waist line and has a slit up the middle (or a gap, though the slit option is more common), allowing it to flow with your steps (or killer dance moves) and any breeze that comes your way.  If you are doing an outdoor wedding, I recommend against this solely because you can’t control what wind you will come in contact with, and in addition to having a dress that seems to be acting of its own accord, I have read a couple of accounts of overskirts being blown into nearby candles.  I’m not saying you will catch on fire, but it’s something to consider.


This one sounds pretty unappealing, but it’s one of my personal favorites.  For a fishtail skirt, an extra panel of fabric is stitched into the back, which trails out and flares a bit behind you as you walk (usually not very far though).  It adds an element of interest to the back of the dress and easily creates movement without being too in-your-face.  This is an element of understated elegance, and can easily be applied to either formal or casual dresses.  Keep in mind that this kind of skirt is by default a type of train, and if you’re looking for a long train you might want to stay away from this shape since the panel originates at the back of the knee.


The fan-back is similar to the fishtail in that an extra panel of fabric is sewn into the back.  Here the panel is pleated in an accordion style and opens up as you walk, but returns to a “closed” position when you are standing still.  This style of dress will not come with a “regular” train (I’ll talk about trains in another post too; there’s actually enough of them that I have to make a whole post for it!) and is usually for the bride who wants the visual interest of movement in the dress while she is moving, but doesn’t want to deal with the extra material that usually involves.

There are several more nuances to dress silhouettes and skirt shapes, but this covers your basic mainstays.  In future posts I’ll talk about trains, fabrics, necklines, and other general terms that seem to pop up (although not necessarily in that order).  If you find yourself waiting on a particular piece of the coming puzzle, let me know and I’ll push that section to the front of my to-do list.

On a side note, Tim and I are heading to Grand Rapids on Saturday to have our engagement pictures taken 🙂  I’ll let you all know how it goes!


Posted on October 6, 2011, in Attire, Wedding Planning Isn't For Sissies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I got my dress 4 years ago (crazy story…look for it on my blog) and it is a trumpet. I love that shape. Great descriptions! What are you leaning towards for your dress??

    • Thanks! I tried to make it easy to follow, especially given how little I knew about the different dress shapes before I started looking for my own.

      I actually found your story about that last week while I was snooping through your old posts That is kind of awesome. I ended up falling in love with a drop-waist A-line. It hit in all the right places and kind of looks fabulous. I’m getting anxious waiting for it to come in so I can see it again!

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