The first step in deciding what dress to make is to determine what style of dress best suits you (or the the wearer, if you are making it for someone else). Some of the features to consider are dress length, bodice style and skirt style along with body type. There are five basic body types with corresponding style features that are more flattering than others. When selecting a garment with respect to body type, the objective is to balance the figure and draw the eye toward the most flattering body feature. This philosophy applies not only to formal gowns, but to everyday apparel as well, but for the purpose of this discussion, I will focus specifically on dress elements.
Below, you will find a brief explanation of each body type along with a picture of a suggested pattern to flatter that body type. The dress shown is only one option of many. You can see many more available options by visiting the formal gown category of the major pattern makers: Vogue, Simplicity, Butterick, and McCall's. I found the Vogue website to be the most helpful because each pattern is categorized by body type.
Apple/RoundThis body type tends to be fuller around the middle with the upper body being larger than the bottom so you want create balance by de-emphasizing the waist and drawing the attention up and/or down from the waistline. Bodice styles that work well for apple-shaped figures are v-necks and wrap style tops. The diagonal lines elongate the figure and keep the eye moving across the body. Another complimentary style is the empire-waist dress.
Empire waistlines drop down from just under the bust and elongate the body as you can see in this example here. The eye naturally gravitates away from the waistline to the upper torso and face. The light layers also help camouflage fullness as well. This dress would also suit the pear-shaped figure as well.
PearWomen exhibiting this body type have a narrow upper body, a small waist, and wider hips. The focus and detail elements of the gown should be on the upper part of the dress to balance the figure and create the illusion of wider shoulders. The neckline should be open; possible styles include scoop, sweetheart and square necklines. The best skirt styles for this body type are A-line or asymmetrical skirts that skim over the hips. The empire style is another flattering option.
With the contrasting trim on the bodice, the eye is drawn upward. The skirt flows gently over the hips without drawing attention to them. This dress would also be suitable for the hourglass and inverted triangle body shapes.
Inverted TriangleWith this body type, the fullest part of the body is the shoulders and upper torso. To balance this body type, you will want to select a dress that shows off your upper body. Dresses with halter, strapless, or sleeveless bodices are perfect. Stay away from puffy sleeves. The best skirt style is an a-line that flares out to balance the fullness of the upper body.
The dress shown here has several features that serve to balance the body. The strappy bodice shows off the shoulders while the gathers add shaping and emphasis to the lower body. This dress would also be suitable for the hourglass and pear shaped figures.
RectangleRectangle bodies are mostly straight up and down, with an undefined waist, so you can use style elements to create the illusion of curves. Necklines to look for are scoop or v-neck; the waist should be fitted and if you have a small bust, ruching or ruffles at the bust add more dimension to the shape. This body type also looks good in prints and tailored garments. Most skirt types will be flattering, especially pencil, a-line and flared skirts.
The gathered and draped elements of this gown are very flattering for a rectangle shaped body. This gown is also a good choice for the hourglass and inverted triangle figures.
HourglassThe hourglass figure is shaped like the name, with curvy upper and lower body parts that are approximately the same width and a nipped in waist. Emphasize your curves by accentuating your waist. Complimentary bodice styles include v-neck, scoop and wrap around the torso. If you want to show off your shoulders, halters work as well. Fitted sheath dresses look fabulous on the hourglass figure. A-lines are another good shape. Avoid large prints and ruffly details which detract from your curves.
This dress is perfect for the hourglass figure with its halter-type top and sheath style skirt.
With this information, you should have a better idea of what to look for when selecting a pattern to sew for prom (or any other formal event). The next issue to address will be fabric selection. It is important to take into consideration the type of fabric because the draping qualities of fabric greatly affect how a garment hangs when constructed. I will address this issue in a later article. Below, I have recommended a few books on couture techniques and gown construction if you need to become familiar with some of the specialized techniques needed when sewing specialized fabric and fitting gowns.