The Fashion Statement: The Shirtwaist's Enduring Influence
As you may have heard by now, Friday marks the 100th anniversary of one of the worst workplace tragedies in history -- the Triangle Waist Company fire where 146 people, mostly women, were killed in a New York garment factory. The factory was one of the largest makers of the shirtwaist. That event changed the labor movement forever, not to mention mandated laws like sprinkler systems and unlocked exits in public areas.
As newspapers and TV documentaries chronicle this terrible turn-of-the-century event, some people have asked me, "What exactly is a shirtwaist?"
As La Ferla points out in the Times, the shirtwaist was all the rage in America at the turn of the century. It was a combination of a tailored shirt and a skirt that showed a bit of leg (it would show even more leg years later). The shirtwaist began to take on historical significance in fashion. After the fire, it signified women's demands for better working conditions and a kind of liberation.
Several decades later, it morphed into Dior's famous New Look of the '40s, typified the way most women dressed in the '50s (think: Donna Reed) and, later that same decade, became an emblem of the civil rights movement.
Gallery: The Shirtwaist
Fast forward to today and most of us refer to the shirtwaist as a shirtdress, thanks in large part to Diane von Furstenberg, who took the shirtwaist and wrapped it around its wearer like a kimono. Yves Saint Laurent gave the shirtdress a khaki, large-buttoned safari edge.
Through its many incarnations on runways here and abroad, the American-born look is stronger than ever. For spring, Paul & Joe has a short brown version covered in a floral print cinched with a belt. Chanel channeled the '50s with a short-sleeved pink dress with a rounded collar. Nicole Kidman wore a white version to the Santa Barbara film festival earlier this year. And Kristen Dunst showed up at a Chanel fashion show last year wearing a black one, pleated on just one side and belted.
By virtue of its passe moniker, is one of the most popular trends of last century that's long forgotten. But, like the women who gave up their lives in that tragic fire 100 hundred years ago and their influence on fashion, labor and safety laws, the shirtwaist's legacy lives on.
The shirtdress is at once casual practical, minimalist and elegant; it moves easily from day to night-in other words, a classic.