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What are classic silhouettes and how to use them

One of the most underrated factors of great personal style is the silhouette of your outfits. Often we get so caught up on which colors or prints go together and we forget that silhouette is the most effective way to emphasize all your best features and take your outfits to the next level. I’ve studied 18 classic silhouettes that are still widely used today so that you can understand how to use them in your own wardrobe.

Classic silhouettes are popular outfit shapes that come from earlier years of the fashion industry and have remained mostly unchanged even today. They are designed to accentuate or enhance different aspects of a woman’s figure, like her waist, height or natural curves.

Women’s fashion has evolved over the years to incorporate much more styles of clothing, cuts, textures and patterns but the basic shapes behind classic silhouettes remain the same because they are so closely linked to the history of design and fashion itself. Below I have listed 18 different classic silhouettes that are still used today.

If you can understand how silhouettes work on you, it will be much easier for you to put your outfits together and be efficient when shopping for quality pieces. Some silhouettes might work better on some body types than others, it’s important to keep that in mind. This is not an exact science and sometimes parts of different silhouettes can be mixed together. It’s all about what speaks to your personal style, what makes you comfortable and feel good.

The silhouettes that I will mention are not set in stone. They can have different necklines, hemlines, sleeve options, back cutouts etc. that can further personalise the look. However, you can always come back to these basic silhouettes as a helpful source of beautiful style.

Related: How to master modern classic fashion style
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Why are silhouettes important for fashion and style

Finding your favourite classic silhouettes is really beneficial when you want to develop your own personal style. They are most often thought about in relation to bridal and other formal gowns but in reality silhouettes play an important role in everyday fashion and style as well.

Silhouettes are mainly used to enhance three things; the length of the body, the definition of the waist and the natural curves and lines of the body. In this way, silhouettes can be used to accentuate or flatter different parts of the body and still play a vital role in the fashion industry today.

So with all that in mind let’s break down some of the most classic silhouettes and see how you can adapt them to your wardrobe. I will organise them in terms of the silhouettes main characteristic and what it is used for but most silhouettes have multiple characteristics so it’s important to keep that in mind as well. So let’s get started.

Waist

A-line

The a-line silhouette can have a very to somewhat fitted top half and then gradually gets wider from the hips down to the hem which should end around the knee. It’s called the A-line because it resembles the shape of the letter A meaning that the line from the waist is kept straight with no curve. This silhouette was coined in 1955 by Christian Dior’s Spring/Summer collection. It later evolved into the similar Trapeze silhouette by Yves Saint. 

To achieve the a-line silhouette, you will usually need a dress or a skirt with some kind of fitted top or blouse. A basic top will help to dress the skirt down and keep it casual but elegant. Belts are also useful to emphasise the shape but not necessary every time. The a-line can be achieved at different lengths as well but to get the maximum effect, try to keep the length around the knee or a little bit above. It’s a feminine and fun look that can be paired with heels or flats too.

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X- line

The X-line is similar to the a-line silhouette but has one key difference. Instead of keeping the top part of the outfit minimal and fitted, the x-line puts emphasis on the shoulders or can just embellish the décolletage with a plunging neckline to mirror the shape of the bottom half of the outfit. 

Unlike the hourglass silhouette which accentuates curves, the x-line keeps the lines more straight and directs the eye toward the focal point of the waist. You can use a belt to anchor the outfit at the waist, but again it is not essential as long as you are creating some kind of symmetry between the shoulders and the hips.

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Trapeze

The trapeze silhouette is an evolution of the a-line silhouette that was popularised by Yves Saint Laurent. One key difference between the two lies in where the drop of the a-line begins and the impression of length that it can give. The a-line usually expands from the hips and ends around the knee, whereas the trapeze silhouette is thought to begin higher up around the small of the waist and can pass the knee down to the shin area therefore merging the leg and the midsection to elongate your figure. The expansion of the A shape is also slightly more subtle and therefore works best with a more minimal, fitted top rather than the embellishments of the x-line.

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Bell

Bell or Ball Gown silhouette is again similar to the a-line silhouette but introduces a curved line which starts high up around the waist or hips. The top half of the outfit is usually fitted and bodice-like. At its most extreme, you can think of it like a Cinderella dress but it doesn’t have to be so Disney-like or whimsical to be effective. 

It can be achieved through structured skirts but it can also be achieved with a certain type of high-waisted pant that flares out generously from a fitted waist over the hips creating a more subtle bell curve around the hips. Try to keep the leg sleek and straight or flared at the bottom like a pair of palazzo trousers. Avoid pants that are tapered at the bottom as this will create more of a tulip or pencil-like silhouette.

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Princess line

The Princess Line is more relevant for dress wearers. It’s a very soft and feminine silhouette that was popularised by Charles Frederick Worth who introduced the silhouette in the 1870s. This type of dress is actually made with long vertical panels fitted around the waist to give a sort of a-line shape without a horizontal separation like seam or  accessory. Instead it sculpts around the top half of the body and the waist and then flows out from the hips adding a soft feminine touch. 

In 1951 Christian Dior presented a collection, called the Line Longue, based on the princess-line. In order to achieve this look, you need to look out for dresses that already have this structure built into them. This silhouette can be used in both formal and casual situations and therefore can be a very versatile dress shape to add to your wardrobe.

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New-look

Christian Dior’s “New Look” debuted in 1947 with his very first collection. It featured rounded shoulders, a cinched waist and a very full skirt that dipped past the knee. This silhouette in particular encompasses all three characteristics including lines that are designed to elongate, a defined waist that creates an anchor in the outfit and soft curves that femininise the overall look. Dior was able to strike a really fine balance between soft and sophisticated femininity that I find super appealing and is still super relevant today. It’s a truly iconic silhouette and has been transformed by all the successive creative directors of the house of Dior ever since.

The key elements to recreate this look for the modern woman is a full straight line high waisted skirt, a relaxed blazer which can vary in length as long as it covers the top of the skirt and a belt to cinch and define the waist. It can work with flat or heeled footwear but I personally think a mid size heel complements this silhouette the most.

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Lines & Curves

Sheath

The Sheath line is a demure and subtle silhouette that is designed to fit closely to the body. Think Jackie Kennedy Onassis or Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffanys”. It’s a look that is often worn with a solid color and minimal accessories but doesn’t only have to be kept for dress looks only. The idea of this silhouette is to showcase the curves of the body as it is a form-fitting silhouette but in a very subtle and sleek way that is uninterrupted by other accessories, seams or cuts. It can come in a variety of cuts, lengths, necklines or sleeve options. Note this silhouette is not a bodycon look that hugs every curve. The lines and curves are defined but soft at the same time, creating a  subtle and sleek silhouette making it perfect for a professional or a formal setting.

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Tulip

The Tulip silhouette is another one of Christian Dior’s favorites. It’s similar to the Sheath silhouette but with more pronounced curves and tapered hems. The bust is accentuated and the skirt is slightly swollen around the hip area to create more of a contrast between the fulness of the hip area in relation to the knee and the bust area in relation to the waist. Unlike the sheath silhouette which is achieved through one piece of clothing (ie. the dress), the tulip silhouette can be created using skirts, tops, dresses, blouses, sweaters, belts and jumpsuits as long as it emphasizes the shape.

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Hourglass

This silhouette is characterized by a fitted waistline. This very popular silhouette emphasizes the curves of the feminine figure. You can design this silhouette with the help of waistbands, belts, darts. Corsets tops and bustiers with a flared skirt can emphasize the waist and create this silhouette.

This is one of the most coveted of all silhouettes but mostly suitable for people with a narrow waist. You need a somewhat slim waistline to do justice to this silhouette. A pear-shaped body suits this silhouette more than an apple body shape or an inverted triangle provided the wearer doesn’t have a very thick waistline.

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Mermaid

The Mermaid Line — as the name suggests — is a slinky silhouette that starts with a form-fitting bodice that continues around the hips and fans out from the knee which is meant to resemble the fins of a mermaid’s ‘tail’. The lower part may or may not be in the same colour or texture as the top and does not have to fan out all the way to the floor. You don’t have to keep this silhouette only for dresses however. The fish tail skirt is a good example of this, despite the different name the silhouette is effectively the same and can be found more easily at different lengths. The mermaid effect can also be achieved with pants provided that they are designed to taper into at least the knee and then fan out again from there. It’s a distinct silhouette and one that you can have fun with in your wardrobe.

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Peplum

The Peplum silhouette is definitely a classic and has its roots in ancient Greece which is also where the word peplum originates from so you can rest assured that this look is not a trend and will be in style for many more years to come. The fact is, it’s timeless for a reason because it is a very flattering silhouette on many different body shapes. In short it consists of an almost skirt-like frill or pleated fabric that’s attached to the waist of a woman’s jacket, dress or blouse and hangs out over the bottom half of the outfit in a structured manner. 

The peplum is also featured in Dior’s New Look silhouette and can be combined with other silhouettes as it is so flattering. Contrary to popular belief the peplum is not designed to accentuate the hip area but rather to disguise the natural line of the hips while being flattering and feminine at the same time so it’s perfect for those who want to wear form-fitting outfits but also want to minimise their hip area for whatever reason.

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Slip

The Slip silhouette is a simple one as it is based on the shape of a traditional loose-fitting slip dress that follows the curve of the body without being fitted at all. It’s a very seductive and romantic silhouette and is ultra feminine too. I also like that it is forgiving as it doesn’t hug the body too closely and can suit different body shapes. 

However, it’s important to get the right fit for you to make this silhouette work effectively. Too tight and the dress could become inappropriate in certain situations very quickly, too loose it can look unintentional and baggy. Look for a dress that has some soft curves built into the shape itself and then opt for maybe one size bigger depending on the dress to make sure that it’s loose enough to be comfortable but still a good fit.

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Length

Y-line

The Y-line is an inverted version of the a-line: a slender and elongated silhouette on the bottom with emphasis around the bust and the shoulders. It’s a silhouette that was introduced by Christian Dior in 1954 and became more widely worn in the 1980’s. It originally consisted of a broad neckline with a deep V shape that hung from the shoulders and funnelled down into a long and form fitting skirt. 

This silhouette can be evoked with many different garments, not only dresses and skirts. For example, shoulder pads or puffy sleeves can help to broaden the neckline and can work well with a pair of skinny jeans or tapered straight leg trousers to create a similar effect. It’s a beautiful look that highlights the décolletage area and can look very elegant and classy when combined with a good pair of heels for that extra lengthening effect.

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H-line

The H-Line is another straight-forward silhouette introduced by Christian Dior. As the ‘H’ implies, is a straight shape with a slight horizontal accent at the waist to make the bar of the ‘H’. The silhouette is designed to emphasise the length of the leg, making it a sophisticated and feminine shape without being overly defined at the waist. If you like chic outfits for an urban lifestyle then this is the silhouette to master. 

Tops, skirts and trousers with straight vertical lines are essential for this structured yet effortless look, so focus on straight wide and narrow leg trousers that do not taper in at the bottom (like skinny jeans). Shirts, basics, and sweaters can work with this silhouette and the horizontal bar of the H can begin at the waist or lower down at the hips. However, in order to nail this look, I would recommend you to focus on quality garments that are made with good material to ensure a perfect and precise fall.

Related: How to dress feminine and not girly – 10 tips to timeless and sophisticated femininity
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Empire 

The Empire line has Neo-classical inspirations and takes its name from Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais, who was married to Napoleon, leader of the First French Empire, in the 18th century. This silhouette is fitted through the bust and then flares out immediately from under the bustline and can continue to the floor like a maxi dress would. 

The effect is slimming and elongating as the lines start from the bust and do not accentuate the waist. It’s a fantastic silhouette for pregnant women as it’s very flattering while being super comfortable at the same time. With the right dress this can also be a very floaty and breathable outfit that’s perfect for the summer heat. You can also get away with wearing flats with this one as heels are not essential as it gets enough length from the lines of the sillhouette.

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Straight column

This silhouette is similar to the Empire line but instead of having a skirt that flares out from a fitted bust it creates a straight rectangular shape rather than a skirt or dress that flares out like the a-line or tapering in like the tulip. It’s a minimalist and demure similar to the sheath silhouette but works to elongate the body. 

A person with a wide waist and hips might love this silhouette as it works to smooth these areas while being very comfortable. This is another popular silhouette for summer clothes and works best with quality fabric that is lightweight and drapes very well.

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Box

The Box silhouette consists of a straight, unfitted jacket that is designed to hang loosely from the shoulders and can be paired with a matching straight, unfitted knee-length skirt, adding to the rectangular shape effect. Think Chanel lines, stiff tweed material and Jackie Kennedy’s famous pink suit. 

This is a very classic silhouette that can look dated if not done correctly but it has the ability to flatter many different body types which is great. The straight almost masculine lines of this silhouette create an elongating effect while being balanced out by a soft and tactile material like tweed. This is why this silhouette is often seen on business women and professionals like Amal Clooney for example.

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Classical A-symmetrical

A-symmetrical silhouettes are not often thought of as classical but in fact they have their origins in ancient Greece. The key characteristic of the asymmetrical dress is a slanted hemline or neckline, with the most common design featuring a one shoulder bodice. 

The degree to which the slant occurs in the skirt section of the dress can vary greatly ranging from a subtle slant in one direction to more severe slants which go both ways to create a peak in the centre. The asymmetrical style first came to the forefront of fashion back in the 1970s when top American designer Roy Halston released a series of dresses featuring the style.

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As you can see there are so many beautiful ways to experiment with classical silhouettes and incorporate them into your own wardrobe. We can sometimes get caught in a comfort zone with our outfit choices and we often wear the same silhouettes day in day out. 

However, I hope this post made it a bit easier to understand the different silhouettes that are out there for you to try. This is by no means an exhaustive list of silhouettes but if you can master basic classical silhouettes you will soon have a beautifully sophisticated wardrobe that you can curate fabulous outfits from.

Refine: How to refine your personal style

I hope you found this helpful. I would love to see how you use the tips in this article to enhance your style so please please tag me on Instagram, Tiktok or Pinterest or you can or send me a message because I would love to see! 

About the author 

Mish has a Masters in Fine Art and she has an interest in classical design, history and culture. She loves to analyze fashion and style through this lens to help people develop authentic personal style.