What is the Difference Between a Dress and a Gown?

wiseGEEK Writer

The difference between a dress and a gown is largely one of semantics and personal preference. The word "gown" tends to refer to more formal garments, like those worn for weddings, proms or balls. A "dress" can be any one-piece garment with a skirt of any length, and can be either formal or informal. While many gowns are referred to as dresses, like those worn to a wedding or prom, people seldom hear less formal garments referred to this way. For example, a sundress is never a sungown.

Woman wearing a short, summer dress.
Woman wearing a short, summer dress.

All gowns are dresses, but not all dresses are gowns. In earlier English examples from the 16th century onward, the word "dress" referred to both men and women’s clothing ensembles. It might be modified by terms like evening, traveling, riding, and people can still see examples of this on invitations to certain events. An invitation might state that a function requires semi-formal dress or attire, for example. When an invitation states that the occasion is formal, women are expected to wear an evening gown.

Gowns are long and generally worn in the evening.
Gowns are long and generally worn in the evening.

When the term is used strictly, a gown is fancy and frivolous wear, with a tight fitting bodice and a full floor-length skirt. Certain close-fitting styles, like the form fitting types worn by actresses to award ceremonies, are still often considered to be gowns. Attending the Oscars, for example, tends to require formal eveningwear for both men and women, though notable exceptions have been fashion disasters of the past.

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Emerald green cocktail dress.
Emerald green cocktail dress.

Another related term is frock. A frock may also be a less formal dress, but may also be an evening or formal gown. The word "frock" is more popular in the UK than in the US for referring to any one-piece garment with a skirt.

A cocktail dress.
A cocktail dress.

An exception to these general definitions is a graduation gown, which is worn over clothing. A woman might wear a dress under such a garment if she is planning to attend graduation celebrations after the ceremony. Usually, the outfit is flowing and oversized, and it is worn over other clothes, though a few graduates have tried to get away with wearing only the gown as part of a prank or bet. This may be cause for amusement but is considered inappropriate for the event of graduation from high school or college.

An evening gown.
An evening gown.
A bride often wears a gown during her wedding ceremony.
A bride often wears a gown during her wedding ceremony.
Pantyhose are a fashion necessity with any dress or gown.
Pantyhose are a fashion necessity with any dress or gown.
A dress is any one-piece garment with a skirt.
A dress is any one-piece garment with a skirt.

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Discussion Comments

anon930863

What about a night gown? They are not fancy at all.

EarlyForest

@lightning88 -- Like the article said, it's not always such a rigid thing.

Whereas I suppose that most evening dresses would be technically considered gowns, it's not like the fashion police are going to arrest you if you call it a dress instead.

I think a lot of the confusion can come from fashion houses calling their designer dresses "gowns" to make them sound fancier.

Long story short, there are technical differences, but it's not a terribly big deal.

lightning88

So is it possible for an evening dress to not be a gown? Most of them have the fitted top and long skirt, right?

rallenwriter

The semantics of clothing is always so interesting to me. For example, a shirt dress can never be a shirt gown, but a cocktail dress can be a cocktail gown if it's fancy enough.

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