The Iconic Shirtwaist Dress, Part 1: A history
April 16, 2010
I have always loved shirtwaist dresses, and have been seeking the perfect vintage pattern for a long time. My vision for the essential shirtwaist dress corresponds very closely with the model on the right:
3/4 length sleeves, buttons all the way down the front, red floral fabric, and a bright red cummerbund.
During the process of looking at what I’m sure was every single 50s and early 60s shirtdress pattern out there, I learned a great deal about the garment itself, which I would love to share with all of you. I stumbled upon an article called “Tracing the Path of the 1950s Shirtwaist Dress” by Heather Vaughan on the in the online journal Clothesline, which led me to the website of Costume Institute at the Met (go check it out–you could spend hours printing inspiration photos here). Stay with me, y’all. I was an American studies major, after all, and I really enjoyed this foray into the world of the shirtwaist–I hope you will, too.
Vaughan’s basic thesis is this: “The shirtwaist itself encompasses the 1950s ideal of conformity and domesticity and a variety of media reinforced these notions over time.” She argues that magazines played the most significant role in perpetuating these ideals. Eek. Now, I don’t need to be told that fashion and cultural ideals were tightly interwoven during that period (see Gertie’s post about the housedress), but I admit to being surprised about how much the ideal of the “perfect woman” was connected to the shirtwaist dress, one of my favorite silhouettes of all time (boo hoo).
Vaughan notes that The Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences called the shirtwaist dress “a simple, practical dress” that, “because of its trim simplicity and graceful dignity,” it had advantages in both the classroom and business (I know it’s disturbing how much this highlights the limited range of jobs available to women during the era, but let’s move on). Before you get offended (or just confused) by the name The Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, I’ll pause for a brief history of the organization.
It was founded by Mary Brooks Picken (1886-1981), who was considered an authority on textiles, sewing, and needlecrafts for decades. She published ninety-six books on a range of subjects (fashion, tailoring, patternmaking, millinery, etc.) between 1915 and 1957. She taught the economics of fashion at Columbia, was one of the five founding members of the Costume Institute at the Met, and was the first trustee of FIT. In short, she is awesome. Again, moving on.
The 1940s shirtwaist had as its basis the wartime, utilitarian appeal. It was considered a useful ensemble for most daily activities, eveningwear, and even participating in sporting events (take that, LuLu Lemon). Supposedly, it also helped young women feel more adult. If you search for shirtwaist patterns online, many of them are geared toward teens, as seen here:
The role of Dior
The 1950s style shirtwaist (or the shirtwaist silhouette as I know it) was popularized by Christian Dior beginning in the late 40s. His “New Look” collection in 1947, according to Vaughan, “almost single-handedly defined the post-war silhouette.” Dior focused on the “nipped-in” waist and a full (often very) full skirt. The single dress widely recognized as the catalyst for the shirtwaist’s overwhelming popularity is called Cherie and is, luckily, on display at the Met and on the Costume Institute’s website.
Here it is, in all its glory. You can’t fully appreciate it without seeing a close-up of the skirt detail:
According to this page on the Met’s website:
“Chérie exemplifies the “New Look” in all its salient elements: sloped shoulder, raised bustline, narrowed waist, and a monumental volume of skirt falling away from a padded hipline to below the calf. The New Look arrived uncompromised and complete, not as a tentative suggestion or stage in evolution.”
Pleats were a central element of the shirtwaist during this era, as seen in this Vogue pattern:
Harper’s Bazaar called the Dior shirtwaist silhouette “the essence of femininity” and noted: “Bodices and jackets are fitted tightly to the body and buttoned from neck to wasp waist…skirts are tremendously full, and from ten to twelve inches off the ground. Yards and yards of material swing and swirl because pleats are hand-pressed and flare to the hem.”
The Role of Good Housekeeping
Nancy White was the fashion director of Good Housekeeping in 1947 when Dior released his “New Look” collection. White followed the trends “from a distance,” according to Vaughan, and reported on them in a manner that was colored by the practicality for which the magazine was known. Good Housekeeping criticized the high price points of Dior and similar designers, but embraced the silhouette of the style and the values embodied therein. The essential components of Dior’s shirtwaist were all found in GH in the late 40s and early 50s, including the pleats and “wasp” waist.
Posture was also highly emphasized during this period, and GH encouraged its readers to do the following: “When you stand and walk, consciously tuck your buttocks under as if you were flinching from a spank.” I wonder how many 50s housewives were so accustomed to being spanked that they could incorporate it easily into their everyday movements…but I digress.
Pleating in the skirt was soon neglected in favor of a smoother silhouette, and was eventually discarded altogether:
Throughout the 50s, small alterations to the pattern helped retain its popularity. The most significant of these was the use of printed fabrics, particularly floral prints:
Throughout the mid- to late fifties, the concept of the dress as cultural icon was reinforced through popular television characters on shows like Leave it to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and The Donna Reed Show. Troublingly, Vaughan notes that Donna Reed’s “character and unrealistic perfection helped to solidify the shirtwaist dress as an icon of female perfection.” By the mid-sixties, however, the shirtwaist dress had disappeared in favor of boxier, straighter silhouettes.
Vaughan’s article, though excellent, does not delve into detail about the different types of shirtwaist, a topic I will pick up on another day as I continue to share my quest for the perfect shirtwaist dress pattern. Stay tuned for part two of my miniseries!