See what I did there with the header photo? Trapeze, trapeze dress? In case you don’t know, that person swinging up there is me. I took a trapeze class for my 46th birthday in 2020. It was the last cool thing I did that year before the world shut down. I figured, if I am going to connect this post about trapeze dresses to actual trapezing, I might as well use a photo of myself. A word of warning, however, if you ever decide to take a trapeze class, know that it’s about 1/2 as fun and three times as painful as you might imagine.
WHAT IS A TRAPEZE DRESS, AND HOW DID IT GET ITS NAME?
The trapeze dress was first designed by Yves Saint Laurent in the late 50s after he took over the Christian Dior label when the namesake died in 1957. The trapeze dress was a departure from the signature ’50s cinched waist look that Christian Dior was famous for. The trapeze shape has a more relaxed, fluid shape and where the body disappears (i.e. covers a multitude of sins). These dresses used less fabric and create an A-line shape from the shoulders making it comfortable and easy to wear. It was this style that transitioned us to the mod styles of the 1960s.
So why was it called a trapeze dress? You would think because the style is so swingy, just like a trapeze, right? Trapeze, which gets its name from the Latin word trapezium, is a geometrical four-sided figure that is mimicked by the shape made by the ceiling, ropes, and bar in a trapeze. If you look at the geometric shape of a trapezium, you will see, it looks a lot like a trapeze dress. So while trapeze dresses and actual trapezing have nothing to do with one another, it was the origin of the trapezium which influenced the name of the trapeze which influenced the name of the dress shape.
THE APPEAL OF TRAPEZE DRESSES DESPITE HOW UNFLATTERING THEY CAN BE
Now that we’ve got some fashion history— along with some fun fodder you can use at your next dinner party— out of the way, let’s talk about trapeze dresses for summer because they are everywhere in all lengths and styles. We had this unusual temperature spike last week that nobody was prepared for and by the weekend, while the weather finally dipped into the high 60s, the humidity was raging at about 89%. And let me tell you, when it gets this muggy, the last thing you want is anything clothing touching your body. It truly is the humidity, not the heat, that is a killer. This is what can make trapeze dresses so appealing— they swing away from your body, are cool, and make you feel unencumbered.
On the flip side, however, trapeze dresses can be wildly unflattering because it’s shaped like a tent, which is another term commonly used to describe trapeze dresses. Not only does a trapeze dress stand away from the body and eliminate the appearance of a shape, but trapeze dresses also drag the eye down, which can create the appearance of width and shortness. If you have a big chest, the dress is going to fall from your chest and make you look as wide as your bust line. Large hips and thighs? Sure, you won’t see them but given how the eyes are pulled downward, you’re just emphasizing a shape you are trying to hide. If you’re curvy, trapeze dresses will camouflage any curves you have and it’s that loss of curves that can make a curvy person look larger than they are. My mother-in-law wears trapeze dresses exceptionally well, but she’s also 99 lbs. with the shape of a 12-year-old boy.
So why wear them if they are so God-awful? Well, going back to what I said about the humidity I experienced last weekend, it’s because they’re comfortable, cool, and basically the perfect IDGAF dress. Granted, it has to basically be the temperature of the sun for most of us to be willing to look that bad so I don’t want to imply that all trapeze dresses will make you look like a large, fat triangle. However, some most definitely will make you look like you are smuggling contractor bags full of lawn clippings under your dress. The key is to find styles that work for your unique proportions and shape and to also know how to style these dresses to mitigate the issues they can cause. I am styling five styles below to give you some help.
HOW TO WEAR TRAPEZE DRESSES
This dress from Simkhai is the kiss of death for someone who is very pear-shaped with narrow shoulders and a larger bottom half but fabulous for someone who has a broad upper body. I also wouldn’t be inclined to put it on someone with a very large chest because the dress is just going to fall straight from the boobs and create a super unflattering line. Women with large chests typically have a defined waist and by bypassing it completely a body will look bigger and, dare I say, dumpier. In addition, it’s hard to tell from this photo, but if you look at it on the model, you will see there is a seam right beneath the bust which is the last place anyone who is busty wants a seam because when you shorten the visual length of a body part you also widen it.
If the shape of this dress is for you, meaning you have a flatter chest, a straighter silhouette, and broad shoulders, I styled it with M.Gemi’s Lizza Nuova sandals in their new pop pink color, a small white crossbody from ALLSAINTS, and silver crescent hoop earrings from Chan Luu.
There are some plusses and minuses to this dress from Weekend Max Mara. The first is there is no seam right below the bust and the drop waist can be a flattering silhouette on a variety of body shapes. Just as when you shorten the visual length of a body part you widen its appearance, when you elongate the visual length of a body part, you slenderize it. So it’s got that going for it, which is nice. However, as with most trapeze styles, a wider hem will draw the eye downward and not only widen the look of the body but make it squatter and shorter in appearance. The wider the sweep (a sweep is the total circumference of the hem of a skirt or dress), the shorter you’re going to look.
A solution to the squattiness would be to add some heels, like this wedge style from Eileen Fisher. I further finished the look with a chartreuse bag from Tous and a link necklace from Laura Lombardi. This can also be a solution if you have short or heavy legs. Just make sure to avoid dark shoes, particularly those with ankle straps.
The popular Daytripper dress from Everlane has a surprisingly good amount of things going for it. In fact, even I, who have a big chest, curves, and heavy legs, have been considering the possibility of buying this style. First, the dress has more structure which is better for curves. If you recall my fat in a Ziploc bag vs. fat in a Tupperware container analogy, a structured container forces fat to take its shape whereas, fat easily manipulates the shape of a soft container, like a Ziploc bag. This dress just has more structure. In addition, the stronger shoulder shape and sharp collar help draw the eye up vs. down, and the lack of seaming, which shortens the body and there is no flounce, ruffles, or extra fabric which all creates a more streamlined look. This is not to say that when I actually try on this dress I won’t laugh myself right out of it or look for a belt to cinch my waist, but it does have potential.
The benefit of this dress is that the sweep of the trapeze is very narrow, however, in fabric like this, it might also be a bit skimpy for some shapes. A narrower trapeze dress can be more flattering if you are heavier on the bottom, but, again, fat in a Ziploc container vs. in a Tupperware one. I styled this Nic + Zoe dress with red wrap sandals from Margaux, a circle crossbody from Quince, and brown shell earrings.
The torso gathering on this dress appears to be slightly lower than the first dress which can potentially minimize bust size. In many ways, it’s not a true trapeze dress because there is a more defined waist shape, but it’s a great workaround style if trapeze dresses just don’t work for you. This is what can also make this dress flattering. It’s not just a trapeze shape but where on a trapeze dress starts to flare that can make it more flattering. By grazing the rib cage and dropping the trapeze shape slightly, the torso gets elongated, the slim part of a ribcage is exposed and a body can look slimmer than if the flare occurs right under the bust.
I styled this dress from Boden with Veronica Beard sandals (I have them in a jelly magenta shade from last year and they are fabulous), a rattan crossbody from Clare V, and gold bamboo hoops from Kenneth Jay Lane.
TRAPEZE DRESSES ARE WEARABLE IF YOU KNOW WHICH STYLE TO WEAR
If you looking for more trapeze dresses to shop, check out these additional styles.