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The meaning of the word “shirtwaist” has evolved over the years, with changing fashions. In the first sense, a shirtwaist was a type of tailored women's blouse which was worn separately from a skirt or pair of trousers. In the later sense, the term came to mean a woman's dress with a bodice styled more like a man's shirt. Shirtwaist dresses were particularly popular in the 1950s, and they are still closely associated with this era in history.
The original shirtwaist was extremely popular in the late 1800s through the Edwardian era. The design was typically plain and modest, without the excessive frills and ornamentation which sometimes characterized women's wear. Many working women wore shirtwaists because they were practical and comfortable to work in, while upper class women wore the garments to enhance a feeling of independence. Many suffragettes, for example, wore shirtwaists in their marches rather than the more confining dresses of the period, and the popular Gibson Girl look was achieved with a shirtwaist and a long, slim skirt.
The dress style also began to emerge around this time, although it did not become as popular until the middle of the twentieth century. A shirtwaist dress is meant to mimic the lines and design of men's shirts, with a crisp collar and a button down front. The sleeves may be long or short, and the dress itself tends to be at least knee length, if not longer. The dresses can be very practical and subdued, or they may be more ornamental, and a range of materials and sewing styles are used for an assortment of desired looks, from matronly and professional to more sultry.
In its early incarnations, the shirtwaist dress was highly recommended for working women, and a vast improvement over more stifling clothing of the times. Teachers, for example, were encouraged to wear shirtwaist blouses and dresses because they were comfortable, practical, and professional looking. A range of materials were used, ranging from light wool to cotton, and the cuts tended to be relatively simple, with clean lines that ushered in the styles of the 1920s.
In the 1940s, the shirtwaist dress began to emerge as a common fashion, and by the 1950s, it was closely associated with capable housewives and secretaries. The simple design could be very elegant when well executed, and the pattern was seen as very feminine. A classic shirtwaist dress has a tucked in waist with broad hips and rounded shoulders, projecting a confident, comfortable image.