Late Medieval Fashion Redressed

Curved front vs. a straight front dress – thoughts

Sometimes I completely forget about things I’m not supposed to forget. This blog post is an example of that. I had this post 95% done sometime in 2014 and then promptly forgot all about it. I’m finally finishing it. I apologize to the person who inspired the post and I hope she still gets to see it, all this time later.


I got a query from a reader, Lady D of A Stitch in Time and Space, which I felt merited far more than a comment reply. The questions were:

  • Is there a reason to choose a curved front over straight front?
  • Does body shape make a difference?
  • Is one easier than the other?
  • Does it depend what closures or neckline you want to do?

Each one of these tempts me to fill reams of electronic paper with my thoughts, so I’ll do my best to answer them succinctly, based on my own experience and tailoring preferences.

Is there a reason to choose a curved front over straight front?

Perhaps. The two cuts will shape the body differently because they both have different tailoring and rely on the concept of negative ease (tight fabric pressing and molding the body). The curved front provides a more rounded bust silhouette and it tends to sit lower than the straight front dress, which provides more of a shelf/corset effect and tends to push the bosom high. So, if you’re going for a particular shape to the bosom, keep these differences in mind when picking which style to make. If you care more about which will be easier to get a flattering, proper fit from, I’d argue that adding curve to the sides and the front seams provides a lot more leeway for imperfect fit which will still result in a good bust shape than a pattern which only adds curve to the side seams. For the straight front, you really have to get it just right, or it’s very easy to make the bust look terrible. I’ve seen way too many straight front dresses with an unfortunate effect that squishes the bust on the lower outside quadrant in a diagonal that gives the lower curve an unnatural “V” shape. When done well, it’s magnificent. But far fewer people actually do it well than think they do. It takes either a serious affinity for tailoring or a LOT of practice to make it look right, in my opinion. If any of you got it in one, congratulations — you have a serious affinity for tailoring.

Does body shape make a difference?

It can, if you wish to be that discerning about it. Every rib cage and bust is different, and it’s possible that a curved front works better for one while a straight front works better for another. I believe that for large-busted women, a curved front is more forgiving. For a very small bust, it’s hard to make the case for a curved front, as the fabric does not need to swell out much at all to accommodate a modest cup size. But, even so, there are small-busted women who prefer a curve and there are large-busted women who swear by the straight front. This is the kind of thing each woman needs to decide for herself, in my opinion, possibly through trial and error.

Is one easier than the other?

Easier to fit? I’d say the curved front is easier to fit for a good look. Sewing-wise, the straight front is a bit easier, because your eyelets do not need to be distributed over curves. Also, if you lose weight, a straight front is a lot easier to take in without needing to redo eyelets. If you gain weight, it’s a tie, because proper expansion of the dress needs to occur along the side seams, armholes, and sleeves. The center front is the one thing that can get away with not being changed until there is a pretty large amount of weight gain.

Does it depend what closures or neckline you want to do?

If you’re fitting for serious bust support, you pretty much have to use lacing instead of buttons for your closure. If you’re making a fancier top layer, buttons have a better chance of laying down without the edge ruffling when that edge is straight. That said, we do have 14th century examples of extant garments (albeit men’s) with serious curve in their center-front openings where buttons are used to good effect. (Two of my favorites, if you are wondering: the coat armour attributed to Charles VI of France and the pourpoint attributed to Charles de Blois.) Neither of these tailoring styles rule out any particular closure type. I will point out, however, that if you are planning to side-lace, the curved-front design is risky, because when you sew your two curved panels together, it’s very easy to create a baggy pocket which does not get properly filled by the bust. People can easily misjudge how tight the bodice needs to be when doing this, and so I recommend using straight front tailoring for dresses which will side lace. Also, it will allow you to cut the front in one piece, creating a smooth expanse across the bosom. Here’s an example of me wearing a dress which side-laces and was cut in one piece across the front. The fit was nicely done by Charlotte Wurtzel Johnson. I used this dress as the base layer under my black dress with gold accents for my 1480s English Lady impression.

Straight front side laced square neck
This dress has a straight front, cut in one piece, it side laces, and the neck is a softened square.
Side view of a straight front dress
The side view shows the shape of the bust using this fitting style. A very experienced and talented fitter, Charlotte, draped me, so it looks pretty good.

The neckline does affect the fit of the bust, and to repeat what I’ve said above, the harder fit is the straight front. So, the wider and deeper the neckline, the more challenging it can be to get the bust to fit well. I recommend you attempt a neckline that is as wide as you can manage it without doing away with the shoulder seam altogether. I also recommend covering the whole bust — not dipping too low into the cleavage that tends to occur with a tightly-fitted dress like this. The dress above has a square neckline with slight rounding at the corners.

Check out this past post about necklines for a survey of necklines on fitted dresses in the art of the time.

6 thoughts on “Curved front vs. a straight front dress – thoughts”

  1. Thank you for answering all my questions. I went for a curved front bodice in the end…especially as I had to fit it without a fitting buddy. I got a similar fit to your image above. I’m up to the point where I need to start making the eyelets.

  2. You are probably going to roll your eyes at this question, but here goes:

    I’ve been attracted to the idea of creating a dress with a similar look to this, a very basic 14th-15th cent wool dress, for everyday wear for years now. I love the look. I love that it doesn’t require a bra. And it seems to me, that for a farm wife, it would be quite practical.

    But…I’ve never worn such a dress. I know that of course many hard-working women over hundreds of years, wore dresses such as this in their daily lives. What I don’t know, is if they were at a level of comfort that a modern woman expects to feel in her clothes. My daily activities involve animal chores, gardening, cleaning, kneading bread, and mothering six children, one of whom I’m breastfeeding. From your experience wearing these type of dresses, do you think a woman like me could be comfortable wearing one for her daily wear? Or is it just a silly, romantic dream?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    Thanks, Emily

    1. Hi Emily,

      That’s not an eyeroll-worthy question at all. It’s a good one. All I can do is tell you my own experience, good and bad. I have found that the tight fit feels great at first, and does for several hours, but by the end of the day I’m yearning to get it off and let it all hang out, so to speak. We modern women are spoiled with our loose clothing and variety of style (with possibly the exception of bras, which frequently feel like torture devices by days end, no matter how well they “fit”, IMO!). Anything that is tight will eventually make you feel this way as the hours go by. I’m careful to make the fit over my abdomen relatively loose so I can breath deeply by expanding my abdomen more. The fit just under my bust is the tightest part, so a deep lung expansion there is restricted.

      When I wear these dresses, I’m typically in an outdoor environment, any time of year, and frequently walking a lot, and doing chores too — just chores that you would find at a re-enactment event, such as preparing food/cooking over a fire, helping put up or take down a canvas pavilion, helping set up a tournament, etc. I think you could do this while doing farm work, but you’d want to make sure your neckline is high enough to cover your entire bust so that when bending over you don’t get the feeling that things are going to spill out. You’d also want to make sure your sleeves allow good mobility for your arms. You could do the “idealized peasant” look, as depicted in the Très Riches Heures, month of June, where the dress is short-sleeved and worn over a loose, white linen chemise. This allows you to roll up sleeves and have full elbow mobility, especially in summer months. In cooler months when you’d want your arms more covered, you could use the “elbow hinge” tailoring I discuss in another article on this site to provide a deep pocket for your elbow to fully bend without any constriction.

      Some women have figured out how to breast feed while wearing a fully-laced-up dress, so I know it’s possible. These dresses typically lace from bottom to top in the front, so if you undo a few inches of lacing at the top, it’s likely you could pop a breast out and be on your way. The one thing to consider though is the different size of the bust when breast feeding versus when not. If you create the dress when not breastfeeding, it may still fit when you are breastfeeding — but likely with the front opening not meeting in the middle — the lacing would span across it to hold everything in place, but not keep it closed. That’s one great thing about lacing — very adjustable. I think it would be a fun experiment for you to try if you have time away from your farm. In the end, even if you find it’s just not for you, I am sure you’ll have enjoyed the process of making the dress and trying it out. (And have someone take pictures too!) In the end you might decide it IS something you feel good in. A lot of people swear by these dresses and find them comfortable from morning to dark. Best of luck!

  3. Tasha,
    I am so sorry that I never responded to thank you for your information. Thank you very much. You gave me a lot to think about.

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