Thumbing through my 1940s catalogs and 1940s vintage dresses on Pinterest it is clear that the most popular style of day dress was the shirtwaist dress or just shirt dress. Why? Because they look good on every body type and because of this the style has remained popular ever since the 1940s. It is the classic dress of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, maybe not the 70s but back again in the 1980s and still common today.
The shirtwaist dress got its name from how it combined a blouse top and a skirt bottom into one dress. Blouses, called shirtwaists for most of the early 20th century, were buttoned up the front for a style that was easy to put on. They used to button at the back but that required help from a servant or willing husband, a luxury fewer had after WW1. Attaching the shirt top and skirt also made dresses easier to slip on and button up. No fuss dressing was the way of the 1940s.
Another style of 1940s shirt dress extended the buttons all the way down the skirt. A bit more tedious to button up they were even more popular as 1940s day dresses. The big buttons up the front of the dress made it look casual and fitting for both housework, running errands, and in some rare cases dinner dresses. For a slightly less casual look buttons were run up off center, to one side. They appeared more decorative than practical but they were both!
The half shirtdress tops had 4 to 6 large matching buttons and a small pointed shirt-collar. A small, rounded peter pan collar was occasionally used for this style as well. The collar led to a small V neck opening with narrow lapels before reaching the top button. This was a very classic dress top style for most of the 1940s, especially on day dress.
The shirtwaist skirt for either half or full button up styles was always an A-line cut. Flared just enough to be loose over the hips and wide enough for easy walking. It was also light on fabric quantity which met the rationing restrictions during the war years. As rationing lifted more gathers were added to skirts for even more fullness. Long knife pleats were also in style and added to the straight military-inspired look of the ’40s. The long pleating also slimmed down the A-line skirt into a rectangle tube which was a trendy shape going into the late 40’s.
Shopping for a 1940s Shirtwaist Dress
Luckily since shirtwaist dresses have never gone out of style they are still easy to find today. For vintage I like to shop etsy.com or ebay.com. Vintage 1940s dresses were made of Rayon or cotton most of the time which are both great fabrics to wear.
If you want to be authentic to the era avoid ’80s does ’40s shirtwaist dresses. They look similar but are made of polyester or some other hot horrible man-made material (can you tell I despise polyester!) However because the style is very ’40s and they are still very affordable they do make good costumes. I do own a few that I wear in the cooler seasons.