Sweater dresses have a surprisingly long history. While we tend to associate their first burst of popularity with the 1950s, patterns for such garments were produced by pattern companies and in sewing magazines in the 1940s and 1930s. Today we tend to think of the sweater dress as a comfortable, casual clothing item, but this wasn’t always the case.
Through the 1950s, the soft lines of the sweater dress didn’t mean that wearing them was remotely comfortable. Foundation garments for women including girdles, corsets and highly structure bras were still the standard, and the clingy shape of the sweater dress only made them more essential.
In the 1960s, sweater dresses took on a split personality. Conservative dresses, usually in a single color and with small stitches, were appropriate for women in the workplace. Meanwhile, the sweater dress also became popular with the rise of the hippies who incorporated multiple colors, layers and stitch styles, including crochet. Sleeves became wide and outrageous. As they moved towards the 1970s, sweater dresses came in all lengths – from the micro-mini to floor-length versions. Some were worn alone, other were worn over slacks and blouses or smaller, clingier dresses.
In the early 1980s, the sweater dress was largely co-opted into the dance-wear craze, and sweatshirt dresses were as common as their knit cousins. Worn with leggings, the lengths were often quite short, and bold patterns in primary colors were popular. Bright reds and blues, along with black, white and yellow dominated the sweater dress in the first half of the eighties. In the later eighties, hems came down a bit (but were still largely above the knee), and the dresses took on more muted colors. Sweatshirt materials were out, and the traditional sweater dress was back to being knit. That said, the silhouette still remained loose.
Beginning in the 1990s and moving through the turn of the century to today, the sweater dress went back to its roots, becoming clingier , more appropriate for office settings and often homemade as knitting once again became a popular activity for women.