Monday, July 15, 2013

Shirtwaists and the New Woman

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Over the weekend I had the pleasure of seeing the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum’s exhibit Fashioning the New Woman, 1890-1925.  It was an excellent exhibit which both showcased their amazing collection of clothing and talked about the changing role of women in the opening years of the 20th Century.  If you have a spare weekend to visit Washington DC between now and the end of August, I highly recommend checking it out.  Even if you can’t make it, you can still enjoy my send-up of the essential piece of early 20th Century fashion:  the shirtwaist.

                Although the name sounds weird today, at the start of the 20th Century, everyone and their mother knew what one was and probably owned more than quite a few.  The shirtwaist is simply a woman’s blouse cut like a man’s that is to say with a collar and buttons down the front.  The shirtwaists came in all colors and patterns and the more expensive kinds often had embellishments like ruffles or embroidery.  Worn with skirts, they were an indispensable part of every woman’s wardrobe. 


                Because of its simplicity and its resemblance to men’s shirts, the shirtwaist and plain skirt combination became the uniform of female workers throughout the country.  Increasingly throughout the 1890s and into the early 20th Century women were entering the workforce as never before.  Poorer immigrant women were wearing shirtwaists even as they sat sewing them in New York City sweatshops.  Locally, women wore them to work at the Elmira telephone exchange, to the stores where they worked as shop clerks and to classes at Elmira College.  Because of their association with working women, shirtwaists were often heralded as the uniform of the New Women, an active woman of independent means.

Elmira Telephone exchange, 1896


Sheehan, Dean & Co. employees, ca. 1900

1 comment:

  1. Could the shirtwaist have helped the "new woman" win the right to vote in 1920?