Fashion Moments – The Shirtwaist

Fashion Moments by Deborah Sweeney

This is the first in a new weekly series on specific fashion trends. Each week I will present a different garment or piece of female fashion that was prevalent during the 19th and 20th centuries. My goal is to educate family researchers and genealogists about the clothing worn by our ancestors. Dating photographs is an issue we all encounter and struggle with as family archivists. Additionally, anyone who writes about their family history should be aware of the environment in which our ancestors lived, and that includes what clothes they wore.

The Shirtwaist

The shirtwaist was a mainstay of the female wardrobe from the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century. What exactly is a shirtwaist? To understand the evolution of the term, it is necessary to understand the definition of waist to a 19th century person. In modern times, the word waist refers to the part of the human body between the ribs and hips. In the past, waist was another term for the bodice of a woman’s dress.

Waist (wāst) n. The upper part of a garment, extending from the shoulders to the waistline, esp. the bodice of a woman’s dress.

As women became more independent and began working outside the home, their style of dress was modeled after male attire. A well dressed man of business typically wore a white shirt with a turned down collar and cuffs under his coat and/or vest. The term shirtwaist was a combination of the two terms: shirt + waist. Therefore, shirtwaist is a term only used to describe the female version of a male dress shirt.

 Shirtwaist (shȗrt’ wāst) n. A woman’s tailored shirt with details copied from men’s shirts.

A typical shirtwaist was unstructured (no boning or inner lining) and was made from a material such as cotton or linen. Occasionally they were made of silk. Another benefit of the shirtwaist was the ease of laundering. Boned and lined bodices were generally not washed often. Over time, shirtwaists evolved from the simple tailored version of a man’s shirt to beautiful feminine garments embellished with lace and trimmings.

Shirtwaist, c1895, American silk and cotton

Shirtwaist, American, c1895 (silk & cotton). Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Collection

Although introduced as early as the 1860s, shirtwaists became more popular as the 19th century progressed. With illustrators like Charles Dana Gibson regularly drawing sporty and active women, women’s dress was finally changing. However, it would take another twenty or so years before the more natural styles of the 1920s became fashionable. By the mid 1890s, women were no longer being hampered by bustles and hoops as well as obsessive corseting. The movement to promote Aesthetic Dress (which began in England in the 1850s and was led by artists such as Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema) also influenced the trend towards healthier and non-restrictive clothing for women. The Aesthetic dress movement rejected the wearing of tight-laced corsets altogether.


A study for “When Women Are Jurors,” by Charles Dana Gibson, 1902 (Image in the Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons)

The term shirtwaist, or waist for short, endured from the early 1890s though the 1920s. The term finally passed out of common usage with shirt and blouse being more commonly used today.

Perhaps one of the most well known events regarding the shirtwaist was the 1911 Triangle Factory fire in New York City. Shirtwaists were very popular and cheap to manufacture. Mail order catalogues as well as clothing stores all sold shirtwaists. See the links below to learn more about the Triangle Factory fire, and PBS’s documentary about this tragedy which killed hundreds of immigrant factory workers. The overwhelming majority of the victims were women.

Evolution of the Shirtwaist

The style of the shirtwaist changed over the years. When dating photographs, it is important to note the changes to cuffs, collars and necklines as well as the rise and fall of the waistline.

Shirt waist patterns from the Modern Priscilla Magazine, 1906. (Image from the Library of Congress)

For Further Reading:

More about the fashion trends that influenced the Aesthetic Dress Movement:

On the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Shirtwaists:

©2015 written by Deborah Sweeney
Post originally found:

1 thought on “Fashion Moments – The Shirtwaist

  1. davidmadison1942

    Fascinating stuff, Deb. Years ago I read a bio of Charles Dana Gibson; I’ve always loved his illustrations. He really shocked people by drawing women playing football.


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