The Shirtwaist's Place in History



By the early 1900s, the shirtwaist had become a standard item in women’s wardrobes. Fashioned in fabrics of fine cotton, silk or linen with custom embellishments on the bodice, the high-collared blouse with long sleeves -- full at the top and tight fitting around the wrist -- was the perfect complement to evening outfits. Produced in ready-to-wear factories and available at lower prices, the plain cotton shirtwaist, when paired with an A-line skirt hemmed to the ankle, became the uniform of working women and housewives in the beginning of the twentieth century.

The shirtwaist, however, was more than a popular fashion. The absence of tight bodices, bustles and corsets afforded working women the mobility they needed to perform their jobs, and became a symbol of independence at a time when women were demanding the right to vote and entering the workforce in droves. By 1910, nearly one-third of all New York State factory workers were women, most dressed for their jobs in a white cotton shirtwaist and a dark skirt.

Yet, the popularity of the shirtwaist brought with it a long list of concerns. The growing demand for the garment and the resulting increase in factory mass production, led to unsafe working conditions in crowded, poorly ventilated sweatshops, where mostly young immigrant women worked long hours for low wages. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was among the worst offenders.