May 18, 2011

A modern history of the A-line

Today's post is from Sarai of Colette Patterns - the owner of the pattern company that drafted the skirt we're attempting for this sewalong! She cordially agreed to give us a perspective on the history of the A-line and subsequently has also given us a some beautiful inspiration as well. Thank you Sarai for such a wonderful piece of history. Ok, everyone - sit back, relax and let your creative juices flow as you read on.

Image: Christian Dior's Signature A-Line look from 1955.

A-line skirts seem almost magical in their ability to flatter so many body types. While the flared skirt with a fitted waist has been around a while, it wasn't until the 1950s that the modern idea of the A-line began to develop.

The first use of the term "A-line" in fashion dates back to Christian Dior in his Spring 1955 collection. Dior and other Paris designers set the trends at this time, and Dior capitalized on this by organizing his collections around specific themes with descriptive names. From 1954 to 1955 he designed three collections, each based on a letter (H, A, and Y). These each marked a turn away from his previous hit collection of 1947, the "New Look" characterized by small waists, and full skirts.

However, the A-line created by Dior isn't quite what we think of when we talk about A-lines today. It had narrow shoulders, a long smooth waistline, and a flar of skirt towards the bottom. It's signature look was a flared jacket over very full skirt.

It was in 1958 that Dior's successor, Yves Saint Laurent, truly captured the modern A-Line shape. In his first collection for Dior, Yves Saint Laurent introduced the dramatic "trapeze line," consisting of dresses that flared outward from fitted shoulders.

Images: A dress from the Trapeze collection, a sketch by Saint Laurent, another trapeze dress on a model.

Saint Laurent's extreme new silhouette was not immediately adopted, but less extreme versions began popping up in the early 60s, and were to remain popular through the 1970s. A-line skirts and dresses were absolutely everywhere at this time.

Image: Vintage Vogue pattern from the 1960s, from Vintage British Style

Of course, neither Dior nor Saint Laurent invented the concept of the softly flared skirt. We can see examples of similar shapes in the 1930s and 1940s, and even dating back to the Edwardian Era. But it was at this time that the A-line as we know it developed, and entered the fashion lexicon.

The term "A-line" is most often used to describe skirts or dresses, but can also be used for jackets and coats. At its most basic, an A-line shape is characterized by a fitted top that flares out to form an A shape. When it comes to skirts, the fit comes from darts or seams rather than more decorative fullness, like gathers or pleats.

Image: A modern A-line skirt from Kate Spade

The wonderful thing about this silhouette is that it flatters just about everyone. It creates a more defined waist, while the shape draws the eye upward. The hip-skimming shape is very flattering on women with larger hips, balancing out the area with the flare at the hem. For slimmer figures, it creates an illusion of curves. And for top-heavy figures (like mine!), it balances out the bust to create more of an hourglass.

Expert's First Garment

The first dress I ever made myself was an A-line. It was a simple little 60s-style shift dress, which I made up in quilter's cotton. The print was a psychedelic red and black swirl, and I trimmed it with some cheap ruffled black lace. I laugh to look back on it now, as I'd never make those kinds of fabric choices today. But I loved that dress and wore it all the time to high school, and even my best friend was envious of it. Still, though I might cringe slightly at my 16-year-old taste, I knew what shapes fit and would look good on me, and I still adore that early 60s silhouette.

Sources: Thanks to the Clothing and Fashion Encyclopedia


  1. I love a bit of fashion history and this is a great post! I want a party version in white with sequins now... Can't wait to start sewing, but the lead up is also proving a lot of food for thought (and time for my invisible zipper foot to arrive as my regular zipper foot is the wrong sort!) as well as inspiration.
    Thank you Sunni!

  2. Thanks for this. It is interesting to learn about one of the most popular skirt styles. For how flattering it is on so many people it is surprising that it really hasn't been around that long.

  3. Thankyou for a managable bit of history. A line skirts are just lovely, so pleased so many people are joining this sew along.

  4. Linda (crazygrad at pr)May 18, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    I'm a women's historian so I can always go for more history!

  5. Thankyou Sarai.. For the history on the aline..and also for this wonderful pattern.. I am looking so forward to this sew along with Sunni.. Happy Sewing.

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