The shirtwaist dress, also known as the shirtmaker or simply the shirtdress, is one of the most American of all fashions. It has endured throughout the entire twentieth century into the early twenty-first. It owes its origins to the shirtwaist blouse, that very early product of the American ready-to-wear industry that emerged as part of the uniform of the New Woman in the 1890s. Its styling is based on a man's tailored shirt with a skirt added, either as a one-piece dress or as separates. If separate, the skirt and shirt are usually made from the same material.
It began as a practical, washable nurse's uniform, usually cotton, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century and continued in this mode into World War I, where it became the uniform for the Red Cross and other organizations needing practical, washable clothing for their women workers.
A Sporting Option
Trim and becoming, the shirtwaist's practicality lent itself to the postwar enthusiasm for active sports, and by the 1920s, occasional "sports dresses" based on it but not using the name were adopted for golf and tennis. Caroline Millbank notes that by 1926, Best & Co. promoted what they called their "shirtmaker frocks" for sports, made of cotton and ready to be monogrammed. As a fashion, it hit its stride in the 1930s, in large part because of the upscale men's shirt manufacturer, the McMullen Company of Glens Falls, N.Y. who, in its attempt to over-come the falling market in fine men's shirts during the Depression, introduced to the retail industry a line for women, the "shirt frock," in 1935. These were two-piece cotton, linen, or lightweight wool dresses, with choices of either skirts or culottes that looked like skirts.
The term "shirtwaist," derived from "waist," the nineteenth-century term for what we would now call a blouse (in itself so-called because it bloused over the waistband as it was tucked into the skirt), was commonplace by the 1890s. However, the name as applied to sports dresses was not generally used until considerably later. Women's magazines from the 1930s and into the 1940s referred to it rather clumsily as "the button-downthe-front style" or, more vaguely, the "sports dress" even as they acknowledged that it had become a classic of American style. In a very early version, Simplicity Patterns offered a "shirtmaker" in 1937, but The Ladies' Home Journal did not consistently use the name in their articles and advertising until sometime around 1941, and even Best & Co. called its dress a "golfer" that same year. However, a major article in Life (9 May) on "Summer Sports Style" devoted two full pages showing 18 illustrations of various "classic shirtwaists," in all price points and in both day and evening wear. By so doing, perhaps they helped to codify the name that has stuck.
Full-skirted versions following the New Look's dictates became the outfits of choice for the American housewife of the 1950s and early 1960s. Later in the century, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Geoffrey Beene and Bill Blass took it to a new and elegant high, introducing the classic shirtmaker in luxurious and unusual fabric combinations for evening wear. It continues to remain staple of American style in the twenty-first century, by now a conservative classic whose practicality and versatility make it a necessary part of many women's wardrobes.
Ladies Home Journal, February 1938, p. 63.
Millbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Payne, Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd edition. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.