Casual Dresses and the Changing Face of Women’s Fashion

There are few pieces of clothing as beloved as the dress. It comes in many different forms – flowing and formal, or chic and tight-fitting. However, none is as widely worn as casual dresses. You’ll find them in homes, in business offices, on the sidelines at sports games, and in the grocery store and coffee shop.

However, dresses have not always been casual. Nor have women always been free to choose their own style or dress in a way that suited their personality or even their activities for the day. Riding a horse in petticoats and a corset? Uncomfortable but mandatory.

To really understand the wide range of choices available to women today, as well as the sheer empowerment and freedom offered by things as seemingly mundane as casual dresses, it’s important to understand how women’s fashion, particularly when it comes to dresses, has evolved over time.

In the Beginning…

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as a dress (let alone a fashion industry). Both men and women wore wrapped skirts and aprons made from hide or reeds, similar to the sarongs of today. That evolved over time and both men and women began wearing longer, one-piece garments, such as today’s kaftans. All dresses can trace their lineage back to these original garments – casual dresses just as much as work dresses and formalwear.

The Beginning of Diversity

Clothing began to diversify millennia ago. For instance, the first trousers were invented sometime around the 10th century BC in China and were worn for horseback riding. Dresses waited longer to become their own, defined type of clothing, although hints at this evolution can be seen across many cultures over time.

For instance, Cleopatra wore what we would today consider dresses. The ancient Greeks wore dress-like garments, too. These were largely utilitarian garments and the material was chosen as much for its ability to keep the body cool as any other reason. In a sense, we can trace casual dresses all the way back to Greece, but many cultures have evolved similar garments over time.

Dresses Go Formal

Fast forward several thousand years and we find ourselves in early medieval times. Casual dresses have existed for millennia at this point, but in Europe, things now take a turn toward the more formal. The shift toward intricacy and formality was due to many different factors, including the Catholic church and interactions between different cultures.

During this time, dresses began to be made from different layers of material. They also started incorporating intricate designs, as well as material other than cloth, including metal and fur. Many women used their dresses as indicators of wealth and prestige, and even poor women were required by social norms to dress in multiple layers for the sake of modesty (who cares about comfort?).

That was to remain the norm for hundreds of years. Casual dresses were virtually unknown in Europe, until the modern era. One needs to look no further than the strict dress code enforced by colonists coming to America, or the multilayered petticoats and restrictive undergarments worn in Victorian England for examples.

The Rise of Casual Dresses

Things began to change as the American colonies evolved. While England’s women were required to wear ever more layers, American women’s garments began to grow more casual. In a famous painting of Martha Washington, the first First Lady can be seen wearing a petticoat with an open-front dress with a frock beneath it. That trend continued with the rise of empire dresses at the end of the 1700s and into the early 1800s.

However, it was in the 1900s that casual dresses really started to come into their own. Examples of these can be found in many places, including the tight, straight dresses with high hemlines favored by “flappers” during the 1920s. In the 1930s, the Great Depression almost wiped the fashion industry out and many women simply wore what they could afford.

Simple dresses with belted waists emerged in the mid-1930s and carried forward into the 1940s. The same period saw the rise of “dress suits”, which were much less casual. Relaxed looks had to wait another decade or two but finally reemerged during the 1960s. Sheathe dresses were all the rage, but the mod-look with even higher hemlines (and the debut of the infamous miniskirt) took center stage at this time.

In the 1970s, the miniskirt actually took a leap forward, transforming into the jumper dress, which was perhaps the most iconic casual dress of the last century. Women paired it with long-sleeved blouses and turtlenecks to provide contrast and a touch of formality to what was otherwise a very informal garment. The 70s also ushered in the age of disco and Studio 54 – hemlines came down, but the casual dress was here to stay – breezy, filmy dresses managed to combine whimsy with comfort, while lamé brought sparkle and fun to the party.

The 1980s brought color and fun, but also a touch more formality to the dress world. Casual dresses were still available, but shoulder pads, long-sleeves, and stiff collars changed the feel for many women. The ostentatiousness of the 80s faded, bringing in a touch of chic minimalism in the 1990s – think narrow waists and spaghetti straps. As the 90s progressed, hemlines rose once more, but minimalism remained.

Entering the 2000s, casual and fun were the rules for many people. Bold colors and bare midriffs marked the beginning of the decade, but by 2005, vintage looks were in play, with A-line skirts and longer hemlines battling it out with miniskirts for top billing. In 2010, the body con(tour) dress debuted and managed to stick around for a surprisingly long time. Interestingly, while it was initially a formal dress, casual ways to wear it quickly sprung up and were embraced.

2020 was perhaps the year that fashion would like to forget. With the pandemic, social distancing, and remote working, most people opted for leisurewear and dresses hung in the closet, awaiting a brighter day.

What’s 2021 Got in Store for Casual Dresses?

With the pandemic on the way out, lovers of casual dresses can rejoice – you once more have a reason to ditch the sweats and get dressed. Where will fashion go this year? While there is no clear dominant direction, there are some interesting emerging trends that you should know.

Monochromatic

One of the emerging trends this year is the combination of monochromatic elements. Casual dresses no longer have to be black or white – you can combine them! The black/white combination offers an attractive fashion statement and draws the eye. It can also be used to achieve other goals.

When split vertically, the combination can add height and thinness. When done horizontally, it can make the wearer appear shorter or add volume. Note that the 1:1 black/white ratio is not the only option, either. Squares, checkerboards, stripes, and many other options are also possible to help you achieve the look you want.

The Basics

Casual dresses can be fun, but they can also be surprisingly elegant. One option that really stands out here is the basic maxi dress. Simple and clean, but eminently customizable with additional garments or accessories, the maxi is a fashion staple for any woman’s wardrobe. The length also offers a nice touch.

Midi dresses also fall under the heading of must-have basics. In contrast to maxis, midis are much shorter, with the hemline falling around the mid-thigh. They can be simple and casual, but change your accessories and they’re ready for a night on the town.

Finally, consider the “mixi”. Not sure what these are? They’re set to take 2021 by storm because they’re at once casual and simple. The length is between a midi and a maxi, giving a little bit more length without being too long.

Pastels

Pastels are hot this year. From frock dresses to jumpsuits and casual dresses, pastel hues are very popular right now. Lavender, pink, and mint green are three of the most widespread options, but designers are also tapping into the cheery appeal of yellow. Want to add a touch of something else to a pastel casual dress? Pair it with the right accessories – white boots can add style and brightness. Brown can add a bit of earthiness.

Floral Prints

Floral prints were hot in the 1990s, but the trend died out. 2021 is reviving it in a big way, but today’s floral prints are very different from those of yesteryear. You will find floral patterns that offer plenty of color, yet strike the right balance between bold and beautiful. They’re also available in midi, maxi, and “mixi” styles to suit your wardrobe needs.

Rising Sleeves

While long sleeves will always have their place, it’s time for bare arms! However, that doesn’t mean you have to go with something strapless – unless you just want to show off those gorgeous shoulders. Instead, opt for a mid-length sleeve that steps halfway down the upper arm, or go with a sleeveless design that keeps the shoulders covered. Of course, strapless options are certainly available if you’re feeling them.

Boots

In a throwback to the 1960s, casual dresses and skirts are now being paired once more with knee-high boots. They make a great fashion statement, and the contrast between the high hemline and knee-high leather is very appealing. Many women are pairing long-sleeved, high-hemmed dresses with cream-colored boots that reach to the mid-knee, but others are opting for even taller boots that terminate above the knee.

Not into boots? Whether you live in a climate that’s not conducive to boots or you simply prefer something a bit more minimal, there are lots of options that pair perfectly with casual dresses. A great pair of flats is a must-have, or you can combine the look of a tropical floral print with a pair of strappy sandals.

Focus on Accessories

It’s not just about casual dresses and footwear, though. Other accessories can also help you create your unique look. One interesting trend is toward bright yellow purses – they’re bold, cheery, and even beautiful. They can also pair well with pastels, but if you really want to make your style stand out, combine yellow with a black and white dress. Tassels and fringe are also making a comeback in 2021. From boots to handbags, long fringes and tassels add visual interest as well as a sense of motion.

How to Choose a Casual Dress

Finding the right casual dress for you can be challenging. You’ll need to know more than just your dress size. Consider the following:

  • Hemline – How high do you want the hemline? If you’re feeling bold, a midi might be just the thing. If you want something a little longer, a mixi dress is the better choice. Finally, if you want to cover your legs, a maxi is casual but can easily be transformed into something more elegant.
  • Print or No Print – Do you want to go the route of a print? Floral prints are super-hot this year, but there are plenty of other options. Or would you prefer something more geometric? A bit more monochromatic?
  • Sleeves – Finally, consider your sleeves. Long, short, three-quarters, sleeveless – each has its benefits and its place in your wardrobe.

It’s not just about the hemline, print, and sleeve length. Take time to consider how the dress will fit your particular body type. Will it flatter your figure?

Explore Connected Apparel

At Connected Apparel, we’ve been designing and manufacturing casual dresses for over 70 years. From flowing maxis to stunning midis and even mixis that help you mix it up, you’ll find a wide range of casual dresses to choose from.

Maggie offers a fitted waist with a flared hem combined with a fun abstract design. Quinn offers a high hemline and the beauty of chiffon. Angela delivers that classic A-line look with a lovely pastel floral print.

Whether you’re shopping for everyday wear or something to help you make the return to the office, you’ll find it within our catalog. Shop our incredible lineup of casual dresses and jumpsuits today!