From Shirtwaist to Wardrobe Staple: The Surprisingly Progressive History of the Iconic Shirt Dress
The shirt dress has always evoked the image of a powerful, capable woman striding ahead. Despite being a wardrobe staple for over a century, the symbolism of a progressive, modern woman is forever encapsulated in this beloved wardrobe cornerstone.
Considering the enduring vision of crisp modernity attached to the shirt dress, it’s perhaps not surprising that this garment has a suitably feminist history which has been shaped and moulded by women’s changing roles and growing freedoms.
Below is a short timeline of the shirt dress to illustrate some of the progressive moments in history which are ironed into its folds, making it an enduring work (and play!) horse worthy of every woman’s closet.
Before it gained its chic stripped down moniker, the “shirt dress,” was known as the “shirtwaist dress”. Drawing inspiration from the more utilitarian nature of men’s clothing, the shirt dress was born from a humble garment known as the “shirtwaist top” — better known to our modern ears as a “blouse.”
Emerging in the 1890s, the shirtwaist top was a uniform which signified the “New Woman.” According to fashion blogger, Vintage Dancer, this New Woman “demanded the same educational and professional opportunities as men. Rather than wearing fussy dresses bedecked with yards of the over-the-top trim beloved by Victorians, she preferred progressive, menswear-inspired clothes.”
On a purely practical level, the fact that the shirtwaist top and the resulting shirtwaist dress buttoned down the front was significant in itself. Previously, most shirts buttoned up the back which required a willing husband or a servant to get in and out of, meaning that women were incapable of dressing independently.
When women were called to work in unprecedented numbers during WW1, the shirtwaist top and the skirt eventually merged into one garment as women demanded appropriately functional clothes which still maintained a chic, recognisably feminine silhouette.
Crafted — in part — to allow women to segway into the world of work en masse, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the shirt dress is inextricably meshed with the uniform. Nurses, nannies, waitresses and factory workers all wore button down garments which allowed them to be changed swiftly and without unnecessary fuss.
Although they were also popular in Europe, the shirtdress is historically an all-American affair. This touchstone of the democratic, accessibility of mass-manufactured fashion took off spectacularly as the shirtdress allowed working and middle-class women to be just as ‘well dressed’ as their wealthier peers.
America was a leader in mass fashion and, as a result, less-wealthy women were considered much more fashionably dressed than their peers across the pond — where mass manufacture hadn’t quite caught on yet.
The shirt dress had really left its enduring cultural stamp by the end of the ‘30s. In June 1938, Vogue declared the shirt dress as “an American institution” and suggested sealing one in a time capsule “for the purpose of enlightening future civilizations about our own.”
By the 1930’s the shirtwaist dress had moved from uniform and into the more leisurely realm of “daywear.” At the beginning of the ‘30s, most shirt dresses only buttoned down to the waist, but by the end of the decade, the masculine look was en vogue and the “shirt” in the dress became more apparent. These dresses — still totally recognizable in the shirt dresses modern form — buttoned all the way down, complete with menswear style collars and cuffs.
Image Credit: Pinterest/Thehouseofroxy
The shirt dress arguably had its heyday in the 1940’s as the iconic “house dress.” Summing up the no-fuss cuts typical of the ‘40s, the masculine shirt dress was the versatile womens’ mainstay of the decade.
During World War 2, military-inspired fashion helped to demonstrate a patriotic attitude and the shirt dress, with it’s big statement buttons up the front, certainly fit the bill. This, coupled with it’s somewhat casual feel cemented the shirt dress as the garb of a modern, efficient woman on the move.
According to fashion blogger, Vintage Dancer, In the ‘40s the shirtwaist skirt was always A-line cut for ease of movement and to be frugal on fabric, but after WW2, the ever-changing silhouette of the shirt dress began to shift. As rationing was lifted, the skirts became fuller and long knife pleats were also introduced — deepening the garments' military stylings.
Image Credit: Vintage Dancer
These ultra-masculine underpinnings were absolutely turned on their heads in 1947 with Christian Dior’s “New Look,” which married the wartime sensibilities of the shirtdress with a decadent celebration of good old-fashioned feminine glamour. Ironically, this “New Look” adopted many of the rigid silhouettes, the shirt dress itself was originally an antidote to.
Image Credit: Brooks
A spirit of fun was injected into the shirtwaist dress in the 1950s, where pastel colours, gingham prints and sassy stripes made the shirt dress more playful and less utilitarian.
Image Credit: Sewing London
As you can see in the image above, the ‘50s ‘housewife’ silhouette was in full swing for daywear, but a more nipped in slinky silhouette was beginning to emerge and pull the shirt dress into the realm of sleek, sophisticated evening wear.
1960s, 1970s and 1980s
Image Credit: FitNYC
Although not immediately reminiscent of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the shirt dress really demonstrates it’s chameleon-like ability to slip seamlessly into any era over these seminal fashion decades.
In the ‘60s, smaller collars became typical of the garment, reflecting the fashion of the decade and more casual fabrics such a softer cotton and denim reinventing the classic garment.
Image Credit: So Vintage Patterns
While the shirtdress retained its status as a casual house dress, it also retained its roots as a workwear garment. Halston’s 1972 shirtwaist dress was a fitting woman’s equivalent to a business suit and according to the, MFIT deputy director Patricia Mears:
“In many ways, its construction is like that of a man’s shirt: it has a set-in collar; a yoke in back; long, set-in sleeves that end in a two-button cuff; and is rather straight cut. Halston subtly modified a number of these elements: the collar is a bit oversized and sharply pointed. The sleeves are tighter than those of a man’s shirt and are set into smaller armholes, and the shape is slightly A-lined. The most dramatic difference from its menswear antecedent is the placement of the buttons, which commence at the breastbone rather than at the neckline. For more and more women early in the 1970s, a slim figure achieved through diet and exercise had become the beauty standard. Many young women also embraced the concurrent trend of discarding their brassieres.
True to form, in the ‘80s, the shirt dress blossomed full-sleeves, padded shoulders and — sometimes — a return to the full collar of the ‘40s.
Image Credit: Pintrest
Certain garments just seem to have a timeless staying power, which always looks utterly current and the shirt dress is one of these. Providing a template which gives designers the chance to imbue a classic style with their own flavour, the shirt dress is versatile, yet imbued with the sentiments which led to its creation.
According to designer Joseph Altuzarra the multifaceted charm of the shirt dress is apparent to the women who wear it, as well as the designers who experiment with it. He explained to the Wall Street Journal that:
“There’s a sensuality that doesn’t feel fussy or overdone. It’s not form fitting, so there’s an ease of movement. You can unbutton the top buttons so that the front is open, you can roll up the sleeves, you can open the bottom so that you see more leg.”
This instant customisable appeal allows the shirt dress to transcend decades and occasions with an apparent ease.