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.