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
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.
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.
Kheel Center, Cornell University Library. The Triangle Factory Fire. http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire (accessed on August 18, 2003).
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.