A great dress has pockets. But when it also boasts a button-down bodice, a belted waist, and a collar – Peter Pan or Chelsea – it gets elevated to pure, off-the-rack confection.
The shirtwaist dress, and all its menswear-inspired extras, is both cubicle and cocktail chic this summer, whether paired with flats, pumps or white-soled sneaks.
WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
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Shirtwaist dresses go back to the post-Civil War era, when working women began wearing simple, cotton button-down blouses modeled after men’s dress shirts.
By the 1890s, women began pairing the blouses, or shirtwaists, with matching skirts and referred to the still-corseted ensemble as a dress, said Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel University’s Robert and Penny Fox historic costume collection.
Throughout the turn of the 20th century, the shirtwaist was the suffragette uniform. Also, because the blouse and matching skirt combo were popular on tennis courts and golf courses, the shirtwaist was considered among the first “athleisure” looks.
Chanel’s shorter hemlines and drop waists sent the shirtwaist style to the back of the boudoir until the 1940s, when Christian Dior’s romantic New Look featured the modern-day shirtdress silhouette: short sleeves, belted waist, collar and mid-calf hemline.
In the 1950s, that same dress featured reams of crinoline under the skirts and came in a variety of prints and colors – think Lucille Ball – from polka dots to plaid.
Since then, the shirtwaist dress has been a fast-fashion go-to because it’s both practical and flattering on many body types. In the 1960s, the belt disappeared, assuming a trapeze silhouette. In the 1970s, it was a slimmer fit, with a belted sheath and fashioned from softer rayon fabrics; the 1980s brought shoulder pads. These days, thanks to Thom Browne (and H&M), the shirtwaist dress is an oversize, belted or non-belted, crisp, pin-striped boyfriend shirt.
Whatever form shirtwaist dresses take, you can trust it will be a style that’s quintessentially American.
WHO IS WEARING IT?
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Anne Hathaway. Any woman with a business meeting in the morning and dinner plans in the evening.
SHOULD YOU WEAR ONE?
I can’t think of a reason you wouldn’t. No dress looks better with ballet flats.