The vintage shirtwaist dress has a long history in women’s fashion. Over the past 110 years, it gradually became the every-day house dress of women homemakers, casual dressers, and at times high fashion.
The shirtwaist dress is defined as a dress that buttoned up the front from the neck to waist or the neck to skirt hem. The shirt dress is another name for dresses that button down the front.
Shirtwaist and shirtdress can be used interchangeably, however, when talking of vintage dresses, the shirtwaist dress is the common name. The shirtwaist is also an old name for women’s blouses.
Today I wanted to walk you through a history of the shirtwaist dress, focusing on the 1940s where the shirtwaist dress had its heyday.
Early Shirtwaist Dresses 1900-1930s
The first shirtwaist dress I have in my collection is from 1909. It is a sailor-inspired dress made in white cotton with blue cuffs, collar, and necktie. The buttons on the dress help give it that nautical feel. Several sailor or sporty dresses of this era featured the shirtwaist design.
In the 1910s the preferred style of dress was a button or hook back, and in the 1920s it was the slip overhead tunic style leaving the front bodice smooth. If buttons were used they were purely ornamental. The only exception were uniforms for nurses, nannies, waitresses, and factory workers who wore either shirtwaist dresses or button-down smocks. The quickness with which a dress could be removed and replaced was the prime motivation for making shirtwaist uniforms for messy occupations.
By the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s, the shirtwaist dress moved from uniform into daywear. Buttons could now be functional, although placed in a highly decorative fashion. Most remained non-functional. Early 1930s shirtwaist dresses only buttoned to the waist. By 1937, the masculine look was in vogue and shirtwaist dresses buttoned all the way down with menswear style collars and cuffs. This was to become the dominant style of dress in the 1940s. Shop 1930s day dresses.
1940s Shirtwaist Dress
The most popular style of 1940s day dress was the shirtwaist dress. It is a classic dress, mostly worn as a house dress, but in the 1940s shirtwaist dresses could be worn anytime.
Prior to WWII, women required help from a servant or willing husband to dress in most styles of dresses. The wrap dress in the 1930s made women independent dressers while the shirtwaist dress in the 1940s became the new masculine or military-inspired style. No-fuss dressing was the way of the 1940s.
The big buttons up the front of the dress made it look casual, patriotic and dutiful. The 1940s shirtwaist dress was befitting for housework, running errands, and in some rare cases dining out 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 a day dress.
The shirtwaist skirt in either half or full button-up style 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 ’40s. Shop 1940s shirtwaist dresses.
1950s Shirtwaist Dresses
The 1950s continued to wear the shirtwaist dress at home as the iconic housewife dress and for casual daytime outfits. Stripes, plaid, gingham, and solid colors made daytime shirtwaist dresses fun to wear. Skirts of the 1950s were full, very full, and tea length. There were a few pencil skirt shaped shirtwaist dresses that we usually not worn at home, but out and about, while having lunch with friends, or when going to work.
In the later half of the decade, it was also used as an afternoon frock with small buttons that could be functional or decorative. Afternoon frocks were typically made of solid colors with matching buttons and in nicer, lighter fabrics. Shop 1950s shirtwaist dresses.
1960s-1970s Shirtwaist dresses
1960s decade continued to love the shirtwaist dress as a house dress or day dress. Solid, stripes and plaids took up new patterns and light colors. Skirt hemlines rose up, skirt shapes narrowed in, and cuffs and collars diminished to small accents. Both the full skirt and pencil-shaped shirtwaist dresses were worn, however the two merged together into one slender look by the 1970s.
With the movement for women to take up new occupations, you might think the shirtwaist dress would have experienced a demise in the 1970s. Not so.
The shirtwaist dress became even more popular at home, but especially as everyday dresses and professional dresses. They adapted to all the trends in the 1970s. Short mod shirtwaist dresses, knee-length pleated knit shirtwaist dresses, softer tie-neck shirtwaist dresses and finally the man-tailored white shirt-dress.
The shirtwaist dress continued into the 1980s, reflecting back on the 1940s with contrasting white collars, padded shoulders, A-line skirts and bold prints like polka dots.
Luckily, shirtwaist dresses have never gone out of style, so they are still easy to find today. For genuine vintage shirtwaist dresses, I like to shop on Etsy.com or eBay.com. Vintage shirtwaist dresses were made of cotton for most of the decades, which is a great fabric to wear. Here are our favorite vintage and vintage-inspired shirtwaist dresses online:
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.