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What is a maxi dress, and how do I wear it?

Maxi dresses aren't just for vacation anymore. With the right accessories, your maxi dress can take you from work to play no matter where you are.
Maxi dresses aren't just for vacation anymore. With the right accessories, your maxi dress can take you from work to play no matter where you are.
Photodisc/Thinkstock

In the 1940s, stylish socialites and the hottest Hollywood starlets wore brightly colored dresses with long, full-tiered skirts. Designers drew inspiration for these so-called patio, or squaw, dresses from traditional Native American and Southwestern designs. Though the patio dress soon fell out of fashion, this ankle-grazing dress style was revived during the 1960s when women from all walks of life embraced the colorful, free-flowing maxi dress. Unfortunately, by the late '70s, these long, billowing dresses had once again been relegated to the clearance racks.

After the sky-high hemlines of the early 21st century, the maxi dress gained a whole new generation of fans, as women everywhere sought out a comfortable, low-key alternative to the mini-skirts and impossibly short shorts of the period. However, the maxi dress is no longer the voluminous mound of polyester it was in the 1970s. Today's designers rely on cotton and other fine fabrics, which keep the wearer feeling cool and breezy, even on the hottest summer days. Modern maxi dresses also offer a much more flattering fit, with plenty of styles to accentuate any figure.

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Dressed up with simple jewelry and heeled shoes, these dresses give the wearer a look of casual sophistication that's appropriate at a summer party or even at the office. Dressed down with flip-flops and some funky bangles, the maxi dress offers the perfect way to stay cool and comfortable at the beach or on vacation.

But what if you're petite or plus-size? Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be a runway model to pull off this look. Part of the fun of the maxi dress is that with the right accessories and styling, this dress can work for bodies of all shapes and sizes.

Ready to add this classic wardrobe staple to your closet? Read on to learn how to choose the best maxi dress and accessories for your body type.

The key to looking as fabulous in your maxi dress as reality TV star Audrina Patridge looks in hers is to have your dress tailored to fit your body.
The key to looking as fabulous in your maxi dress as reality TV star Audrina Patridge looks in hers is to have your dress tailored to fit your body.
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

The key to pulling off a maxi dress lies in finding just the right fit for your body. Women who are of average or below average height may try on one of these dresses and find themselves swimming in a sea of fabric. To create a flattering look, choose a dress with a hemline that just grazes the top of your feet -- don't go any shorter than your ankle. For petite women, this may mean having the dress tailored to fit, or simply hemming it yourself if you've got a bit of sewing skill. For taller women, finding the correct length often requires trying on a few different brands or styles until you find one that falls just right.

Once you've found the right length, it's time to eliminate that tent-like look that so many associate with the maxi dress. One of the easiest ways to do this is to focus on material and cut. Seek out fabrics that drape just right over your curves, yet are still loose enough around those areas you'd rather keep hidden. A maxi with an empire waist or A-line design can make you look slimmer, while a V-neck helps to elongate the body. Pleats or tiers can help petite girls look more proportional, while halter-tops make big shoulders appear smaller.

The right accessories can also help you create a lean, sleek silhouette. Wear a belt around the narrowest part of your waste to emphasize your shape, or simply add a jacket or blazer for structure.

Even color and pattern can play a role in whether or not your dress flatters your figure. Plus-sized women should steer clear of intricate patterns and stick to medium or large prints. Petite ladies can pull off small prints, but they should avoid larger patterns that can overwhelm their shape. Dark, solid colors can make anyone look slimmer, and they offer the most versatility in terms of where the dress can be worn.

And of course, what would any dress be without the perfect pair of shoes? To balance out the length of the maxi dress, many women turn to platforms, wedges or espadrilles, which add height and length to the body. Taller women, or those looking for a more casual look, can wear these dresses with gladiator sandals or even flip-flops. Save the spiky heels for another day, as they can easily get caught in your long skirt and trip you up. Avoid boots and closed-toe shoes, which make can make you look dowdy and dated.

Happy shopping!

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Sources

  • Alexander, Hilary. "Pushing it to the Maxi." The Telegraph. May 28, 2007. (May 25, 2011) http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/columns/hilary-alexander/TMG3360201/Pushing-it-to-the-maxi.html
  • Bing, Bonnie. "Long on Style in Casual, Sophisticated Maxi Dress." The Seattle Times. May 23, 2011. (May 25, 2011) http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/living/2015126460_maxi24.html
  • Delany, Sarah. "The Maxi Dress: What Shoes Work?" Running With Heels. July 2, 2010. (May 25, 2011) http://www.runningwithheels.com/index.php/2010/07/what-to-wear-the-maxi-dress-which-shoes-work/
  • Jewish History Museum. "The Story of Faye Creations." 2011. (May 25, 2011) http://www.jewishhistorymuseum.org/news/news-and-events/49-a-love-of-ric-rac
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Women's Patio Dress, circa 1947." (May 25, 2011) http://collectionsonline.lacma.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=14604;type=101
  • The Chic Fashionista. "Maxi Dresses: How to Wear Them." (May 25, 2011) http://www.thechicfashionista.com/maxi-dresses-2.html
  • Vaughn, Heather. "Mini-History of the Maxi Dress." Worn Through. July 9, 2008. (May 25, 2011) http://www.wornthrough.com/2008/07/09/mini-history-of-the-maxi-dress/

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