The shirtwaist dress, also known as the shirtmaker or simply the shirtdress, is one of the most American of all fashions. It has endured throughout the entire twentieth century into the early twenty-first. It owes its origins to the shirtwaist blouse, that very early product of the American ready-to-wear industry that emerged as part of the uniform of the New Woman in the 1890s. Its styling is based on a man's tailored shirt
with a skirt added, either as a one-piece dress or as separates. If separate, the skirt and shirt are usually made from the same material.
It began as a practical, washable nurse's uniform, usually cotton, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century and continued in this mode into World War I, where it became the uniform for the Red Cross and other organizations needing practical, washable clothing for their women workers.
Trim and becoming, the shirtwaist's practicality lent itself to the postwar enthusiasm for active sports, and by the 1920s, occasional "sports dresses" based on it but not using the name were adopted for golf and tennis. Caroline Millbank notes that by 1926, Best & Co. promoted what they called their "shirtmaker frocks" for sports, made of cotton and ready to be monogrammed. As a fashion, it hit its stride in the 1930s, in large part because of the upscale men's shirt manufacturer, the McMullen Company of Glens Falls, N.Y. who, in its attempt to over-come the falling market in fine men's shirts during the Depression, introduced to the retail industry a line for women, the "shirt frock," in 1935. These were two-piece cotton, linen, or lightweight wool dresses, with choices of either skirts or culottes that looked like skirts.
The term "shirtwaist," derived from "waist," the nineteenth-century term for what we would now call a blouse (in itself so-called because it bloused over the waistband as it was tucked into the skirt), was commonplace by the 1890s. However, the name as applied to sports dresses was not generally used until considerably later. Women's magazines from the 1930s and into the 1940s referred to it rather clumsily as "the button-downthe-front style" or, more vaguely, the "sports dress" even as they acknowledged that it had become a classic of American style. In a very early version, Simplicity Patterns offered a "shirtmaker" in 1937, but The Ladies' Home Journal did not consistently use the name in their articles and advertising until sometime around 1941, and even Best & Co. called its dress a "golfer" that same year. However, a major article in Life (9 May) on "Summer Sports Style" devoted two full pages showing 18 illustrations of various "classic shirtwaists," in all price points and in both day and evening wear. By so doing, perhaps they helped to codify the name that has stuck. Full-skirted versions following the New Look's dictates became the outfits of choice for the American housewife of the 1950s and early 1960s. Later in the century, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Geoffrey Beene and Bill Blass took it to a new and elegant high, introducing the classic shirtmaker in luxurious and unusual fabric combinations for evening wear. It continues to remain staple of American style in the twenty-first century, by now a conservative classic whose practicality and versatility make it a necessary part of many women's wardrobes.
Ladies Home Journal, February 1938, p. 63.
Payne, Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd edition. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.
Patricia Campbell Warner
The shirtwaist was a tailored blouse or shirt worn mainly by working-class women in the early years of the twentieth century. The shirtwaist was often worn with a fitted or looser A-line long skirt. Sometimes it was worn with a "tailor-made," which was a skirt-and-jacket suit. The shirtwaist had a rounded neck or came with a tailored collar. Many buttoned up the back, and women who could not reach behind them had to call upon a husband or female family member to close the tiny buttons.
The advantages of wearing shirtwaists were many. Shirtwaists emphasized a natural waistline to give a flattering look to the figure. They allowed freedom of movement. The garments were manufactured in volume and therefore were affordable. They were relatively small items and could be washed by hand in a sink or washbowl and ironed quickly.
Even though many women wore corsets underneath shirtwaists to maintain sculptured figures, the shirtwaist was a liberating item of clothing. It took the place of the stiff, tight, high-collared bodices of the nineteenth century.
By the early 1910s cotton shirtwaists were worn by hundreds of thousands of working women. Through the decade the garment changed according to fashion trends. Early shirtwaists featured pleats in the shoulders that reflected the puffy-shouldered Gibson girl look popularized in the sketches of American artist and fashion illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944). By 1914 shirtwaists had less rigid puff shoulders and often were worn untucked so that some fabric flowed below the natural waist. That look later made way for the dropped-waist dresses of the 1920s.
Shirtwaists worn by housewives and female factory workers usually were solid white cotton blouses with simple pleating that allowed for mobility. Shirtwaists also served as garments of women office workers, or even as dressier fare. Better quality daytime shirt-waists were made of fine cotton, silk, or linen. Fancier shirtwaists could be part of evening outfits. These more decorative garments often were custom sewn. They featured such fabrics as silk, laces, taffeta, and sateen and some displayed lively patterns.
Because the shirtwaist was primarily a working woman's blouse, it most commonly was manufactured as ready-to-wear clothing. One of the factories that produced this item was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. In 1911 this factory entered history books as a place of infamy when it burned down. Lacking any safety codes to protect workers, the disaster resulted in the deaths of 146 female workers. The disaster led to a major upgrade in safety regulations for factory workers.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ballentine, Michael. "Those Glorious Gibson Girls." Town and Country (May 1983): 194-204.
Gibson, Charles Dana, and H. C. Pitz. The Gibson Girl and Her America. New York: Dover, 1969.
Lieurance, Suzanne. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Sweatshop Reform in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2003.
Snyder-Haug, Diane. Antique & Vintage Clothing: A Guide to Dating and Valuation of Women's Clothing, 1850–1940. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1997.