What Made a Blouse a Shirt-Waist in 1909-1910? I Don’t Know.

Shirt-waist from Delineator article, February 1910, p. 97.

I wish I could give a definitive answer to “What’s the difference between a ‘shirt-waist’ and a blouse or ‘waist?’ ”

But: fashion writing…. (sigh.) It’s not the most precise art.

A mixture of “Shirt Waists” and “Waists” (sometimes called blouses.) Top of page 54, National Cloak & Suit catalog, 1909.

I thought I could pick out the “Shirt Waists” from this catalog at a glance. I was wrong. This page of women’s “waists” and “shirt-waists” from the National Cloak & Suit Company for 1909 (Dover Books: Women’s Fashions of the Early 1900s: An Unabridged Republication of New York Fashions, 1909) shows the confusion. (You can also find it as a PDF online.)

My instinct after pouring through books and magazines was to think that, if it unbuttons down the front, it’s a “shirt-waist.” But that’s probably because of the shirtwaist dresses I wore in the 1950s and 1960s. Those didn’t necessarily (or usually) button all the way down the front to the hem, but they always closed with buttons at least to the waist in front.

Left, Shirt Waist 4614. That’s what I was expecting.

I think most of us would recognize that No. 4614 (top left) is a “tailored shirt-waist,” “nattily mannish.” It visibly buttons down the front, and the collar opens in the center front, too. But what, exactly, makes it a Shirt Waist?

No. 4616 (on the same page) is also described as a “Shirt Waist.” [Although those buttons are purely decorative….]

No. 4616 is a “Tucked Shirt Waist of India Lawn.” “The front displays groups of tiny pearl buttons.” Does it actually open down the front? No. It “buttons in back.”  Does the collar open in front? No. (Collars were often connected to the garment at one side, and opened at the side neck or back neck, being finished and hanging free where not attached. So the collar opening is inconclusive.) What makes it a Shirt Waist?

Shirt Waist 4614 and “Waist” No. 4613. What’s the difference? I don’t know.

No. 4613 (right, next to Shirt Waist 4614) has a “visible button closing in front” and a “detachable turn-over linen collar.” But it’s a “Waist.” Apparently a stiff detachable collar isn’t the criterion, either.

Maye I’m putting too much faith in the copy writer…. Or maybe it has to do with tucked pleats…?

Right, Shirt Waist 4625. But No. 4630, left of it, is described as a “Waist.” Page 56. Both are pleated…. And both really do button down the front — somehow.

Above: No. 4625 (at right) is a “Shirt Waist of Pure linen… mannishly finished with detachable stiff linen collar….” This one looks like a shirt-waist to me, too!

Below: a blouse waist and a shirt waist.

Right, Shirt Waist No. 4633. Left, Waist 4635.  Yes! To me, No. 4635 looks like a blouse waist and 4633 looks like a shirt waist. (Page 57.) If only it were this simple.

No. 4633, above right, is a “Shirt Waist.” It “closes visibly with pearl buttons through a box-plait…..” and has “stiff link cuffs of the [striped shirt] material. Detachable linen collar.” And it’s pleated/tucked.

“Shirt Waist” No. 4641, from page 58.

No. 4641 is another “Shirt Waist” with button front opening and detachable collar. Embroidery and other feminine touches do not disqualify a “waist” from being a Shirt Waist. A Shirt Waist can even have a side front closing, like the one below. But it does seem to need full length sleeves, like a man’s business shirt.

No. 4611 — with its asymmetrical closing, is still a Shirt Waist. Page 53.

On the other hand….

“Waist” No. 4607, page 58.

No. 4607, which “closes visibly with pearl buttons ” down the tucked front, and has a “detachable stiff linen collar”  — [surely this is a shirt waist?] — is a “Waist of fine quality Linene.” A “Waist!”

At this point I began to consider the “all the news that fits the print” principle; the copy writer is required to squeeze the selling points into the available room for text, because this is a catalog. The word “Shirt” might be edited out to fit the space available. However, there seems to be plenty of room in that listing for more than one additional word! (That’s a long series of dots!)

So I went back to good old Delineator magazine. There, the same pattern may be described both ways, as is No. 3754, which is a “waist” in the illustration and a “shirt-waist” in the accompanying text.

Butterick waist 3754, Delineator, April 1910, p. 294.

Butterick 3754 pattern description, Delineator, April 1910, page 294. “A new style of shirt-waist. No. 3754….”

Alternate views of Butterick 3754. Delineator, April 1910, page 294. So many variations!

At least the Butterick “Waist” and “Shirt-Waist” patterns in Delineator have some justification for being described both ways: unlike a store-bought waist, a blouse/waist pattern could be made more than one way. The same blouse pattern might be made with the soft collar option or a stiff, detachable, turn-down collar. (And a collar like the one at left might be made separately and basted into place when wanted.) Other options were gathers instead of tucks, and either long or 3/4 sleeves.

Butterick shirt-waist pattern 3595; two versions from February 1910.

Two views of Butterick 3595: with attached collar (L) and ready for a detachable collar (R).

Notice the buttonhole in the back of the version on the right; it is ready to have a stiff, detachable collar secured with a collar button or stud, just like men’s business shirts.

Butterick Shirt-waist 3757, two views from April 1910. Page 297.

Another incarnation of Butterick Shirt-Waist 3757. The frill is probably a “button-in” option, as it was on No. 3754.

In this version, it opens down the front with a row of visible buttons, it has a stiff, detachable collar, it has stitched-down pleats or tucks, and long sleeves with French cuffs. But, as shown in its other views, … not necessarily!

One other thing to keep in mind: men’s shirts did not always open all the way down the front in the early 1900s. So the complete center front button opening on women’s waists may not be key to defining a “shirt waist.”

This man’s shirt has a CF button placket, but it doesn’t reach the bottom hem.

This man’s pull-on shirt has a striped bib with button placket, on a plain knit shirt.

Man’s knit shirt with striped fabric bib.

In conclusion (and confusion) I present:

Caption for illustration of Butterick 3716. Delineator, April 1910. p. 295.

Is that what they were thinking? Delineator, April 1910, p. 295.

I’m looking forward to comments from anyone who can definitively define the women’s “shirt waist” for me 🙂

Click here for the Fashion Institute’s essay on shirtwaists.   [EDIT 5/30/19;  I asked and I received: for some very helpful suggestions — and the information that men’s shirts could also be called “shirt-waists” — see the comments below from Peter Pane!]


Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1910s and WW I era, Edwardian fashions, Hairstyles, Musings, Shirts and Blouses, Shirts for men, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing

26 responses to “What Made a Blouse a Shirt-Waist in 1909-1910? I Don’t Know.

  1. One question solved… sort of! 😉

    • Ellen

      Super late to this party, but I saw a reference to shirts v.s shirtwaists in an 1890s men’s tailoring book. In menswear, the difference was apparently that a shirt was cut loose (i.e. only drawn into your body by your trouser waistband) while a shirtwaist had a casing around the waist to gather in the fabric to your body. Both would look exactly the same when tucked in because the casing on a shirtwaist would be covered over by the waistband.

      The Butterick 3595 shirtwaist illustration you show appears to have a casing in it. So maybe the difference holds true for womenswear as well, and it’s nothing to do with buttons at all?

  2. Perhaps the blouse waist more resembled that worn by Little Lord Fauntleroy, (wildly popular book 1885 and play 1889), with its lacey collar and cuffs and loose sleeves. Women’s blouse styles of the time were draped on a tight-fitting foundation. Closer fitting shirt-waists arrived a little later as sports activities for women became the rage, about 1890.

    • Blouse waists are the “usual” and shirt-waists the novelty, judging by the numbers of each on offer in that catalog. Seriously, most waists (which we would call blouses) did not button down the front. (And what about nursing mothers, I wonder? Housedresses and “wrappers” for them, I suppose.) And you are right that shirt-waists go back to the late 1800s.

  3. Peter Pane

    Look up “shirt waist” in wikipedia… “waist” = clothing. A shirtwaist was originally a separate blouse constructed like a shirt; i.e., of shirting fabric with turnover collar and cuffs and a front button closure. In the later Victorian period, the term became applied more generally to unlined blouses with relatively simple construction and usually of a cotton or linen fabric, but often highly ornamented with embroidery and lace.

    From the mid-20th century, shirtwaist referred to a dress with the upper portion (the bodice and sleeves) fashioned like a man’s shirt, with a turnover collar and buttons down the front. Different embroidery were added to the shirtwaist, like rhinestones and different patterns.

    A shirtwaist is the original name for what we would call a blouse today. They are usually for summer wear, and are unlined and unboned and come in a vast array of styles. They can be made of any light weight fabric. Shirtwaists start to become popular in the early 1890s and become even more so throughout the next few decades, and are a staple for the working woman and the fashionable woman alike. It can be worn tucked into the skirt, or over the skirt, as desired.

    newspapers.com typically refer to ‘shirt waists’ as boy’s clothing in the 1890s. BUT look at page 29 Aug 12, 1900 of the San Francisco Examiner. A full page on the Shirt Waist Man. “At last the shirt-waist knows no sex”. Its the shock seeing a man not wearing his jacket, just the shirt, in public.

    3 years later, page 25, March 8, 1903, The Inner Ocean (Chicago) half page article “woman’s comfort and ease calls for another season of shirt waists”

    You may wish to also research the “shirt waist extenders”. These undergarments were made to provide the “pigeon chest” look, so popular of the day. These were before the brassiere came into fashion.

    • Thank you for that newspaper research! The idea that the term “shirt-waist” was applied to menswear is very helpful I have seen patterns for men’s shirts called “negligee” shirts, meaning they had soft, attached collars (and probably that they unbuttoned all the way to the waist, although this isn’t clear in the illustrations I have. You also raise the possibility that the very feminine waists in the National catalog which are called “shirt-waists” means they are unlined (not built on a foundation or “French Lining.”) That is a great help! I am grateful for readers like you!

  4. I can only add to the confusion…my grandma, who always had a great interest in fashion, ( I would have killed for her hat collection), called all womens white, tucked blouses, shirt waist blouses. a plain blouse was a blouse, because it was ” blousey”, ie, loose fitting. Add in a few darts, and it “fit like a shirt waist, very flattering”. she was born c.1919, but pictures of her as a young woman show her and her sisters wearing this style up to about 1929. the flapper period pretty much skipped them. Religious, Catholic, Eastern Eurooean. there was none of the showing of ankles! But there was some pretty fierce tailoring/ fitting going on.

    Around the time the got married, and became women of their own households, she and her sisters rapidly caught up to trend, but new arrivals from eastern Europe seemed to wear the long dark skirt with tailored blouse untill WWII began. (Women in my family didnt start wearing trousers untill midc1980s to church or synagogue. some of the older ladies never did )

  5. The Brooklyn Public Library offers “Access to the full run of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, Brooklyn’s premier newspaper from 1841 to 1955, as well as Brooklyn Life, a society magazine published from 1890 to 1931. Issues are searchable online, offering an exciting resource for students, teachers, historians, genealogists, or anyone interested in Brooklyn and American history.” In the 03 Aug 1890 issue is a sale of tennis blouses of flannel, so maybe a blouse at that time was a bodice (waist) that fit slightly looser than a shirt(waist) and enabled a greater range of motion.

    • Thank you for this online source. Considering that many “waists” might look loosely fitted, but actually have a tight interior foundation that controlled the fullness, the idea of a “blouse” or “shirt” being a single, loosely fitted layer appeals to me. (With luck, I will eventually come across an article introducing the term “blouse….”)

  6. The time-frame 1909-1910 is right at a cusp in fashion. Tight high collars, set-in sleeves, and precisely pleated fronts were set aside. Peasant blouses with kimono sleeves, a lower collar, or no collar at all, decorated with embroidered bands rather than pleats, began to dominate the fashion scene.

  7. Well, I’m confused too. Like you, I thought a “shirt waist” was a women’s blouse that buttoned up the front and had some features of a man’s shirt. Maybe the mixed usage of “waist” and “shirt waist” is that of the general and the specific, like one might say “pants” and “bell bottom pants.” But I think your suspicion that space might have something to do with the choice of words might also be right.

    • Thanks for that! I was partly trying to suggest that our sources are not always ideal — and the person who has the final copy edit may know less that the original writer. I love Dorothy Sayer’s murder mystery, Murder Must Advertise because Sayers had worked for a 1920s advertising firm, and the ways that space and timing affect the printed ads are part of her plot. I was laughing in the library a few months ago because her hero suggests a margarine ad that would contain the worlds, “If you kept a cow in your kitchen.” His boss rejects it on the grounds that it sounds unsanitary, but I found an ad in an old magazine that did show a cow in the kitchen!

  8. I have no facts to report, or sources to cite, but I was always under the impression that the key word in this term is “waist” as they are fitted in the waist (not just gathered by the skirt band) and supported by interior structure. So it’s a term describing a particular fashion style that tips it’s hat to menswear (but only vaguely resembles it in construction) but identifies it as a feminine article.

    • In early 20th century terms, the top garment (what we now call a blouse or shirt), made separately from the skirt, was a “waist.” Often a “waist” did have a tightly fitted interior structure. Shirts didn’t have a fitted interior structure, so perhaps that is part of the “shirt-waist” description. However, there are many delicate vintage upper garments from around 1910 without interior structure. I’ll try to browse the Sears catalogs — to compare with the National Cloak catalog that started this discussion.

  9. Christina

    “Waist” and “shirt waist” I believe was originally an American term. In Britain blouse was used and you don’t see the term “shirt” for women until after The First World War. In the 1890’s Americans were influenced by English tailoring in women’s fashion. There may be a subtle subtext with the roles women were taking and their emancipation and adopting mens tailoring construction techniques. “Man-tailoring” was also used to describe these waists in advertising.

    • Thank you. I was just wondering if the history of “blouse” was possibly different in British usage, given the pejorative expression “he’s a big girl’s blouse.” Not to mention the “gymslip” which no American would classify as a “slip.” My husband wrote a book called British English for American Readers, and we collected these “same but different” expressions for years. One of my favorite “don’t assume” examples is “hundredweight.” No, in England it does not weigh 100 pounds…. It weighs 8 stone. (112 lbs.)

  10. Christina

    The gymslip is credited to “Mary Tait, a student of Martina Bergman-Österberg, a pioneer of women’s physical education in Britain” and was introduced in 1897. It is a sleeveless pleated tunic. I interpret the “slip” to be as in slip-over. (Americans would probably use “jumper” and that of course is a knitted sweater in the UK.) It was worn over a blouse or undergarment. “He’s a big girl’s blouse” would be rather derogatory today.

  11. Never mind what its called, those high collar under the chin look like the most uncomfortable things ever!! They look quite stiff, as they would have to be to remain in place.
    bonnie in provence

  12. This article should help you out, if you can access it. If I am remembering correctly, shirtwaist was adopted from men’s fashion terminology because factories producing men’s shirts were the first producers of women’s “shirtwaists”, which started out more mannish because that was what their designers/patterners knew how to make. Then they made different styles when they realized how lucrative it was! I don’t remember if the author discusses the introduction of the term blouse or not.

  13. In reference to the question “ how did nursing mothers manage” I can direct you to specific blouses ( I’m English) in the Dover publication Sears catalog 1909 to 1920 page 32. Nursing Waists which have side vents to allow mother to “ nurse baby…..without any embarrassment whether at home or in public “
    More than a hundred years on and this still causes controversy in some circles!

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