If ever a trend had legs, it was the American shirtwaist. This brash but sensible fusion of tailored shirt and skirt offered, quite literally, a glimpse of the ankles, which was as rare as it was freeing.
Designed for utility, the style was embraced at the turn of the 20th century by legions of young women who preferred its hiked hemline and unfettered curves to the confining, street-sweeping dresses that had hobbled their mothers and aunts.
Few looks have been as versatile — or as egalitarian — adapting through the decades to all sorts of shifting conditions and sociopolitical landscapes.
And few have so nimbly walked the line between function and frivolity.
Shirtwaists flourished in the early 1900s as a badge of confidence and athletic femininity, the sporty attire of the Gibson Girl. They attained a touch of worldliness in the late 1940s when Christian Dior introduced a version, propped up by petticoats, as an essential component of his fabled New Look.
By midcentury, calf-length interpretations of the Dior shirtwaist represented domesticity to a generation of homemakers taking their style cues from Donna Reed. More recently, this sturdy fashion archetype was resurrected on “Mad Men,” the popular television series set in the 1950s and ’60s, inspiring a wave of nostalgic revivals on American fashion runways.
Democratic from its inception, the shirtwaist was “one of America’s first truly class-shattering fashions,” writes David Von Drehle, who briefly outlined its history in “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003).
A mainstay in the wardrobes of working women, it “both symbolized and enabled a wave of women’s liberation,” Mr. Von Drehle argued, the “perfect repudiation of corsets and bustles and hoops — all the ludicrous contraptions that literally imprisoned women in their own clothes.”
Not only that, the look traveled well, as popular on the playing field as it was in more formal settings. As the fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank observed in “New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style” (Abrams, 1989), the dress “was suitable for working women and college students, for street wear and lunching in a restaurant, and also for golf, tennis, boating and other summer sports.”
In the early 1900s, “waists,” as these comfort-driven shirts were known, were turned out by the thousands in steamy tenement rooms and factories like the Triangle Waist Company in Greenwich Village. In later versions combining top and skirt, they thrived as the practical uniform of women working on assembly lines, as bookkeepers and clerks, as seamstresses and even factory foremen.
Buttoned up as it was, the shirtwaist could flirt. There is nothing more coquettish in the summer than “a crisp looking shirtwaist of taffeta,” proclaimed The Chicago Daily Tribune in 1903. Society scribes liked its standardized look. “If a man can wear the same general-type shirt all day why can’t a woman do the same?” Amos Parrish pointedly inquired in The Schenectady Gazette in the spring of 1934.
By the 1950s, the trend had extended its reach to every level of the marketplace, from Saks Fifth Avenue to Sears.
Style setters lent it an unassailable chic. Grace Kelly wore a version in beige silk — subsequently christened the “To Catch a Prince” — when she and Prince Rainier of Monaco announced their engagement a few months before their marriage in 1956.
The following year the shirtwaist became, without willing it, an emblem of stoic resistance. “Of all the images of the civil rights movement, one of the most chilling is a photo of a black teenager in a shirtwaist dress and sunglasses,” noted Andrea Stone in a 2007 USA Today article commemorating the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School.
In the early 1970s, the shirtwaist was given a shot in the arm by Halston, whose streamlined, one-style-suits-all adaptation was issued in machine-washable Ultrasuede.
The bread and butter of his line, it achieved best-seller status, engendering a raft of knockoffs for the better part of the decade and continuing even now to inspire designers who have tweaked it for a modern eye.
The fashion equivalent of comfort food, recent incarnations derive their appeal from an economic climate that favors reliable standards over the showy and the new.
Yet designers have played fast and loose with a formula built on cinched waists, roomy skirts and mannishly tailored placket fronts. In their spring shows some riffed on the shirtwaist, offering versions in leather. Others toyed with skewed waistlines and fluttery kimono sleeves, placing their own quirky stamp on this trusted American classic.