Shirtwaists

Democratic Fashion for a Democratic Nation

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Office at H.O. Company, CHS Collections
This 1909 picture of the H.O. Company’s office interior shows the long-lasting popularity of the shirtwaist. Almost twenty years after its initial popularity, at least eight out of the ten women pictured wore shirtwaists to work on this particular day.
Shirtwaist, 1915-1920, CHS Collections, 1974.50.197
This shirtwaist was originally owned by Florence Sidette Marcy Crofut, Wellesely College graduate. The buttons at center front, pleats, and high collar are characteristics of shirtwaists styled after men’s shirts.
Shirtwaist, about 1910, CHS Collections, 1974.50.929
Another example of a men’s style tailored shirtwaist, also owned by Ms. Crofut, this circa 1910 shirtwaist would have been worn with a detachable high collar and cuff links.
Shirtwaist, 1900-1910, CHS Collections, 1985.93.3
Lucy Elvira Morey, the wife of a Mansfield dairy farmer, likely wore this shirtwaist between 1900 and 1910.

 

In today’s age of designer knock-offs and credit cards, a walk down the street does not always tell you the economic and social standing of the people around you.  One of the first times that clothing blurred the lines between different social classes, was in the 1890s when women of all classes adopted the popular “shirtwaist.”

 

Simply defined, a shirtwaist is a garment that covers the upper portion of the body.  Women wore shirtwaists to work and play and to perform every-day tasks.  Since shirtwaists could be worn with different skirts, they provided versatility in a small wardrobe.

 

Shirtwaists could be bought ready-made at a department store, made at home, or made-to-order by a seamstress.  They could be simple and functional or elaborate.  They could also be made of any color or fabric desired, making shirtwaists a garment that could reach across social classes, activities, and incomes.  They were also easy to wash, something not characteristic of other fashionable garments at the time.

 

The costume collection at The Connecticut Historical Society includes numerous examples of actual shirtwaists worn by women in Connecticut.  The CHS graphics collection includes photographs of women wearing shirtwaists in many different contexts—from camping out to working in Hartford insurance companies.  Both the photographs and the actual shirtwaists are available for viewing on request.  For more information contact research_center@chs.org.