Tea, scuba, bodycon – your guide to today’s fabric and style terms.

If the last time you had to ask what a fashion term meant was when a neighbour said she’d bought a ‘shellsuit’, then it’s high time you updated your style vocabulary. 

It didn’t really matter too much when we used to walk into a store to shop for our clothes because we could point and try on any outfit we saw on the racks.  But today online shopping is becoming the norm and it’s point and click now, so we’d better know what we’re pointing at before we hand over our credit card.  And that’s when it becomes vital to know what all the terms mean on fashion websites.

Here’s a list of the terms I’ve noticed frequently.  Scroll down to see what each of them means. 

Length Style Features Necklines Fabrics
Mini Bodycon Fishtail Sweetheart Tulle
Midi Bandage Tiered Bateau Illusion
Maxi Skater Peplum Slash Mesh
Tea Fit and flare Ruched Scoop Chiffon
Cocktail Hi-lo Flounce Plunge Georgette
Ballerina Asymmetrical Bustier Bardot Organza
Gown Shift Off the shoulder Taffeta
Sheath Cold shoulder Tape-work
Pencil Spaghetti Polyester
Wrap Scuba
Swing Neoprene

But first some hints on how to use these terms to drastically cut down the time you spend online searching for the right outfit.  Online shopping is different from high street shopping.  And fashion shopping is different again.

Several years ago I met the woman who started NotOnTheHighStreet.com – a highly successful online retailer.  She said she had budgeted for lots of techie help to get the site running well and professional buyers to fill the pages with fabulous gift items.  But when she opened for business she realized how different an online shop was.  She had not foreseen how many items get returned.  She had to quickly build a team to deal with that.

Now that’s for items that don’t need to fit, don’t need to go with your shoes, don’t need to bring out your skin tone and don’t need to survive a suitcase and still look lovely.  Imagine the number of outfits that get returned when it’s clothes we are buying.

And every one of those returns means someone was disappointed and had to repackage and manage the re-sending.  So sites give us as much information as they can and as shoppers we need to make the very best choices we can to avoid having to return stuff.  So you may think that means hours and hours of online searching to choose the right outfit.  But we don’t have hours and hours.  We have other things to do.  So here’s how I approach online shopping for a dress.

How to stop wasting time and find that special dress faster

There are millions of dresses available to you once you start shopping online.  So you need to narrow down your focus as fast as possible before you go crazy scrolling through thousands of inappropriate frocks. 

On the left hand side of most fashion retail websites you’ll see a list of not only sizes, colours and brands but styles and fabrics.  You need to select only those features which you know suit you.  I like to search all dresses of one style to get my eye in to what is possible within that look.  I might have two or three styles in mind.  Then I can home in on specific looks and colours that might be right for me.

Here’s how I organise my search:

  • Size.  Why fall for a dress only to discover it’s not in stock in your size?  And you’ll be surprised how often that happens.  Sites are updated all the time so it’s worth going back a week later to see if new stock in your size has been uploaded.
  • Length (see below for how length can be described by different retailers).  I am 5’2” so if there is no petite size (and I can tell you there are very few petite sizes) I look for minis which on the average model of 5’9”+ stop at 6 inches or so above the knee, but on me fall to just where I want.  If I can’t find what I want in mini then I look at the length I want but dismiss immediately any dress that has a fancy hem.  Because I will need to take the dress up 6 or so inches and my sewing skills are basic.

Obviously if you are taller than most models you will look for longer frocks than you actually want, in the hope they will look just as you wish when you try them on.  Sites usually tell you the height of the model.

  • Occasion. Many retailers suggest whether the dresses are perfect for a casual day out or for a fun party or for a formal do.  I start with Mother of the Bride if this is a choice offered.  Then, or instead, I look at wedding guest.  And then perhaps summer dresses, as my daughter’s wedding is in June.

Don’t be discouraged if the retailer’s selection is not what you would associate with that occasion.  The store is trying to capture the largest audience possible.  American wedding dresses are very often long whereas us Brits usually go for a shorter little number.  I’m guessing our Australian cousins have a more relaxed dress code too. (Feel free to comment – I’d love to know!)

Having now researched many of the larger sites I am quick to dismiss any website whose first 6 images are for dresses I wouldn’t wear in a million years.  Somewhere there are no doubt Mothers of the Bride who consider very short bodycon dresses as right and proper for their daughters’ big day.  Or is it just that the page editor is 22 years old?   

You can usually judge whether you’re on the same wavelength (or planet) within the first line or two of outfits so don’t waste time hoping to come across something perfect within the next 400 images.  Life’s short as every internet retailer knows.  Click back to Google and find another retailer.  Or use my suggested start list of buying dresses online here.

  • Style.  There are many ways sites try to organize their styles.  Some name them and you’ll find most of those names below.  Others allow you to choose the neckline or length of sleeve that you prefer.  It’s easy to not bother to narrow things down at this point.  But it really is worth it. 

I know that for a summer wedding I do not want long sleeves.  I might buy a wrap or a lightweight jacket to go over the dress but the dress itself must not have long sleeves.  I need to get folks to focus on my upper body (which is still pretty much fine) and not on the grand expanses of my lower body, so I tend to look for a neckline than shows some skin – scoop, V, sweetheart.  I draw the line at plunge though! 

For informal occasions I search for boat neck, round neck and slash as I like that demure but healthy Jackie Kennedy vibe.

  • Colour.  This is my last selection as it’s difficult to decide.  What is blue?  I might want to see navy dresses but not pale blue or vice versa.  For my Mother of the Bride outfit I know I do not want white, black or red so if it’s possible to deselect these colours I do that.  I also know that I want a solid colour – not a print or check.  If it’s possible to select solid colour I do that too as I tend to fall in love with spotty and floral patterns and waste time wondering if, after all, I should consider them.

Truth is, you have to draw the line somewhere or you’d never make a decision so I have put together a spreadsheet (yes, I’m that sort of person!) with my decisions on length, style and colour and every time I see something I like I cut and paste the url (the web address at the top of the page) onto my spreadsheet, but only if the dress agrees with the criteria I have set.

  • Price.  This might be important to you – it is usually very important for me when buying clothes for other occasions.  But for my Mother of the Bride outfit I don’t input a price range.  But I note the price on my spreadsheet.

Looking beyond the image

So you’ve focussed in on a dress you like.  You click and up comes the large image, other views of the dress, possibly a video and a description. 

It can be difficult to imagine how that dress will look on you or even to see the details, even if you mouse over the image to zoom in.  But the description can often give you a hint if it’s for you.  The name of the style and the fabric are key.

The dress may look fitted but not too tight on the size UK 8 model but if the description says bodycon you will know immediately that larger ladies need not apply.  Well not unless they want to be the star of the show for all the wrong reasons.  If you want a fitted dress and you, like me, are a little larger than that sweet eighteen year old college student, you will need to look for one described as sheath, fitted or pencil perhaps.  Because you need structure to make the dress keep its intended shape even if you are a little on the heavy side. 

By the way, structure comes through good pattern cutting, plenty of seams and a decent fabric.  So expect to pay for these. 

If you scroll down below the fold (i.e. to the part of the web page that you cannot immediately see on your screen) and don’t get distracted by the ads that may be placed there, you will come to a detailed description of the garment plus height of the model, what size she is wearing and, importantly, fabric.

Knowing the names of modern fabrics and understanding their properties really helps you decide on whether the dress will give you the look you want.

So here are the essential terms you need to understand to shop online without wasting time and without needing to return too many items.

For more about getting started with online dress shopping see this post


Mini – above, or far above, the knee.  If you are short do not dismiss this category as it may contain dresses that are your ideal knee-grazing length.  Though be sure to check on the overall proportions.  The Christmas Fairy with the fun sticky-out tulle skirt look is not going to translate to party-wear when it reaches to your knee caps.

Midi – finishing anywhere from the knee to the calf.  In the sixties and seventies a midi was mid-calf but it now applies to knee length too.

Maxi – finishing anywhere from the lower calf to trailing along the floor.

Tea dress – usually below the knee.  Recalling the simple dresses of the forties these may be demure – or again not!

Cocktail dress – any length except to the floor, usually stops on the knee.  Designed for a semi-formal occasion or party.

Ballerina – falls to around the ankle.  Can look good with flat pumps, just like in the corps de ballet, but only if you have the height.

Gown – usually indicates a long dress, usually formal and often glamorous.


Bodycon – short for body conscious.  Often used interchangeably with ‘bandage dress’ but see below for the difference.  Very fitted.  Designed to skim the body contours.  Thin fabric which stretches across certain areas but may show some slack in other areas.  If you have lumpy bits you don’t wish to flaunt, this is a style to avoid.  I used to think bodycon meant body control but that’s really a bandage dress – see next.

Bandage – think stretchy bandaging used in hospitals.  Thickish fabric with tough, stretchy qualities which are intended to smooth your curves and support your fleshier areas.  Knitted not woven fabric usually a mix of rayon (for its silkiness) spandex (for its stretchiness) and nylon (for its toughness.)  This style was first made popular by the designer Herve Leger. Often sexy. 

Skater – dress with a defined waist and a skirt that flares out.  The top is usually fitted so that the skirt makes more of an impact.  Often well above the knee – think of the 50’s image of a girl on the ice.

Fit and flare – same idea as a skater dress but can be any length and the skirt might be just slightly flared.  Does not necessarily have a waist.

Hi-lo – the hem is higher at the front than at the back. Often showing your knees to advantage without sacrificing the floor-length gown look at the rear.  Possible to buy a more restrained version where the front hem is mid-calf – advised for anyone over the age of 50 by which age your knees are usually flabby or sharp and knobbly.

Asymmetrical – rather like hi-lo except that it is usually the hem to right side that is a different length from the left side.

Shift – what used to be called a sack dress in the 60’s.  Straight with little or no structure.  Think beachwear rather than Mother of the Bride.  Can look stunningly ingénue on a wedding guest with a great slim figure.

Sheath – close fitting dress with or without stretch, good structure.

Pencil – a type of sheath dress where the skirt is very narrow.  Usually indicated by the appearance of a slit at the back, side or front to allow movement.  Not ideal if you are arriving at the wedding in a LandRover.

Wrap dress – where the skirt, or the whole dress, is open at the front so that one side has to be wrapped over the other side and secured by a belt.  This dress looks great when you are standing but causes no end of embarrassment when sitting especially if the skirt is reasonably narrow.  Thus the rise of the ‘faux wrap’.  Faux is French for false and is used wherever a dress is designed to have the appearance of one fabric or style but is in fact made of a different fabric or constructed in a different way.  So a faux wrap dress looks the same as a wrap dress when you are standing but doesn’t reveal your inside thigh as soon as you sit down.

Swing dress – an A-line dress that is wide at the hem to give a sense of movement and swing when you walk.  Often falls from the shoulder, a halter neckline or a high waist. 


Fishtail – an extension of the hem at the back of the dress recalling a mermaid – think Copenhagen.

Tiered – the dress or just the skirt has bands of material going across giving a more floaty silhouette.

Peplum – a wavy ruffle at the waist of a dress or on a jacket

Ruched – where the material of the dress is drawn up into tiny gathers at one or both sides.  Usually found on close-fitting stretchy dresses and a godsend to us ladies who want to disguise lumps and bumps around our mid-section.

Flounce or ruffle – any wavy addition to a dress or the hem of a dress.  Whilst you may not see yourself as the ruffle type, I can tell you from personal experience that a well-placed ruffle running from the centre of the neckline and travelling down to the side seam at thigh height or a bit lower can be a perfect distraction to the eye when guests focus on your middle.

Bustier – a dress or top where the bodice has a structured lingerie look.  The look can date from the era before bras were worn – think bodice-ripper novels, or can be more in the Madonna vibe with a highly structured fifties style.  It certainly make guys look.

Necklines, shoulders, sleeves

Sweetheart – a very flattering look where the neck line is a curved V or heart-shaped.  It makes your neck look longer and offers a glimpse of décolletage.

Bateau or boat – presumably based on nautical sweaters, where the neck is wide but quite near to the collar bone.  Sometimes avoids the need for a zipper.  Think Audrey Hepburn.

Slash – similar to a boat neck but sitting closer to the collar bone.  Think Breton stripy t shirt.

Scoop – a rounded neckline that sits quite low on the chest.

Plunge – a V or rounded neckline that reveals the top, and often more, of the breast.

Bardot – a very wide neckline often with a cuff made of a double thickness of fabric, usually stretching from one shoulder to the other.  Think Bridget’s sweater.

Off the shoulder – similar to the bardot neckline but stretching from the top of one arm to the other.  Think exquisite formal evening gown.

Cold shoulder – sleeves of any length where some of the material covering the shoulder and upper arm has been cut away to give a peek at the skin beneath.

Spaghetti straps – very thin straps.  You’ll need a strapless bra.


Tulle – a fine net fabric used for wedding veils and tutus.  Sometimes called just net or bobinette (although this traditionally has a wider mesh than tulle). 

Illusion – a very fine net fabric with more drape and less stiffness than tulle.

Mesh – any fabric made as a net, of any thickness.

Chiffon – very lightweight, floaty, semi-transparent fabric.  Breathable so good on a hot day.

Georgette – the best is made from silk – think expensive silk scarf.  Sheer and fluid.

Organza – fine but crisp fabric with a sheen.

Taffeta – shiny, smooth, rather stiff, easily creases and not breathable.  Beware taffeta linings to jackets in the hot weather.  Inexpensive.  Ideal if you never expect to sit down, so great on the catwalk but a devil after lunch.

Tape-work – looks like heavy swirls of lace when applied to a dress. Phase Eight is known for their beautiful tape-work embellished dresses.

Polyester – used in many occasion dresses because it is durable, lightweight, and retains its shape.  It comes in every shade of every colour.  It does not require dry cleaning.  It does not stretch or shrink and can be permanently pleated.  But 100% polyester is not breathable so choose a style with no sleeves or with a wide cut if you are going to a summer wedding.  It causes static so choose a cotton-polyester (polycotton) blend to stop your hair standing on end when you put it on and to ensure your guests only get good shocks on the day.

Scuba – popular fabric for today because it is a knitted stretchy but solid fabric.  It is smooth and springy and can make soft to the touch jackets, dresses and pants.  Scuba diver suits are actually made of neoprene but hey, ‘scuba dress’ sounds fun, right?

Neoprene – often confused with scuba fabric.  Tough, stretchy and often used as a lining for structured outfits plus wellie boots. 

Ponte or Ponte Roma – a knitted jersey that is thicker than many jersey fabrics.  It does not fray, holds its shape, rarely creases and drapes well.  It has spandex in it so fits well as it can stretch. Think Eileen Fisher soft draped layers.

I hope this list is useful as you surf the web looking for that perfect outfit.  Please comment below if you think of other terms that should be added.

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