Presumable it was named as such because of the way in which the wearer of the dress might walk due to the tightness of its pencil skirt. This style became very popular during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and offered an arguably sexier and more sophisticated style option than the very full-skirted dresses that have become synonymous stylistically with most of the 1950’s. Earlier in the decade, many designers experimented with a variety of alternative dress silhouettes, such as the trapeze, but it wasn’t really until the very tail end of the 1950’s that the wiggle dress, AKA the sheath dress, really found its way into the wardrobes of many ‘normal’ women.
As sewers interested in mid-century vintage patterns will no doubt have already noticed, many home sewing patterns from the era in question (late 1950’s to early 1960’s) actually included the pattern pieces for both full skirt and slim skirt options, either of which could be paired with the same bodice pieces to created two wildly differing looks (see above and at the very bottom of this post). In a way, the wiggle version shares the same purpose as the full skirted version: emphasising an hour glass silhouette. However, the wiggle version has the added bonus (?) of leaving less to the imagination. Yet I would argue that the tasteful hemline and often demure neckline means a wiggle dress ALWAYS falls on the correct side of the classy/trashy divide.
Mid-century fashion geeks such as myself may get a buzz from tracing the emergence of the wiggle dress and then seeing its continued evolution as it morphed into the shapes that became the shift dresses and A-lines which defined the latter part of the 1960’s. Towards the mid sixties, the trend for undefined waists gained ground in popular consciousness. The wiggle dress started to adopt a straighter line, either by omitting all of the darts and side seam shaping and relying solely on belts to create waist definition (many pattern envelope illustrations began to show these less hourglass versions both belted and unbelted (eg. See above)), OR by gradually easing the severity of the darts and merely hinting at rather than screaming about the existence of the wearer’s waist (see below).
The wiggle or sheath dress is, in my humble opinion, a genius addition to any retro lover’s wardrobe. If fitted well, the right dress or pattern can boast womanly curves using contoured side seams and darting. In addition, a waist seam and possibly even a belt draw the eye to a defined waist. The right wiggle dress or sewing pattern can make the most out of little natural curves OR work by translating all that pre-existing curvy goodness into a sassy shaped garment with the just enough of a touch of class (see Joan in Mad Men, picture below, should you have even the slightest vaguest doubt).
Despite the relative ubiquity of this style of vintage dress pattern, I love the variety that you can find through the different bodice treatments, for example Butterick 6582 (pictured below), or, for that matter, the McCalls 6732 and Simplicity 3038 which featured in my last post. And have you seen Casey’s recent incredible green wiggle dress creation? Or Sew Red Hot's blue floral printed sheath? Both leave me lost for words. Other than ‘want’ of course.
I've been a fan of this style for some time, but didn't approach actually sewing or wearing such a garment myself until earlier this year when I made my coral dress and then later my leopard and black Rockabilly version. I rarely put my 'upper assets' on display, so was drawn to the sophisticated neckline. Similarly, I'm not sure a mini skirt hemline would look very good these days either so the knee-length style also appealed. But once I made and wore these dresses I soon discovered that the neat fitting and figure hugging qualities of this style made me feel more sexy in a dress than I had previously thought possible.
Contemporary fashion, for a number of years, seems to have been focussed on silhouettes that suit relatively boyish and very slender women (well, girls). Tunic tops/smocks, skinny jeans, front-pleated or harem trousers and cropped T-shirts, I feel, generally look better on the teenage 'clothes hanger' frame than on a full grown woman in possession of undeniable curves. Since university I been experimenting with silhouette, contemporary as well as a variety of vintage ones. I would hesitate to conclude that the wiggle dress era makes the most of the positive elements of my kind of body shape, whilst glossing over the less positive ones. That said, I don't think it's the most comfortable style to wear all day every day. I'm no Joan Holloway and wouldn't welcome the feelings of having my shape so on display permantly. But for certain events and going out of an evening, I think I've found the style for me.