Friday, November 4, 2011

What Is a Shirt Waist?

Shirt waist designs from 1906, when Betsy would've been 14.
Click to enlarge. {Source}
I received a request to do some posts about fashions of time. (Thanks, Kate!) So today I will be talking about shirt waists.   

As the Betsy-Tacy books take place from 1897-1917, the fashions are set in three different periods: the late Victorian period (1837-1901), the Edwardian period (1901-1910; some sources say until 1914), and, finally, at the cusp of the era ushered in by World War I (1914-1918). As you can see, the Edwardian era was the main period which the clothing would be from, as those styles would have been popular through Betsy's adolescence. 

Edwardian shirt waists, probably from
the later part of the period. {Source}
These were twenty years of tremendous change--on the fashion front and in all other areas. One style, however, that remained popular throughout these two decades was the shirt waist (apparently it can be spelled as one word--shirtwaist--or two words--shirt waist--or simply called "a waist").
A simple shirt waist {Source}
Waist is a common term for the bodice of a dress or for a blouse or woman's shirt from the early 19th century through the Edwardian period.
A shirtwaist was originally a separate blouse constructed like a shirt. {Source}
The shirtwaist, a costume with a bodice or waist tailored like a man's shirt with a high collar, was adopted for informal daywear and became the uniform of working women. {Source}
Although skirt and blouse effects had been in and out of fashion for centuries, the shirtwaist with this button up the front bodice and attached skirt really took off in the Gibson Girl days of the early twentieth century. The no-nonsense skirtwaist could be softened with lace and trimmings or pared down for a crisp look. It fit perfectly the trend toward an acceptance of a more active, self-determinate woman.{Source}
So a shirt waist is basically just a blouse, usually worn over a corset and othe undergarments, and then tucked into a skirt. There are many mentions of shirt waists in the Betsy-Tacy series: 
Betsy made sure that her hair was in curl. She put on a crisp hair ribbon and a white ruffled shirt waist, fresh from Anna's iron. (Heaven to Betsy, 297)
…Betsy returned to school wearing a clean, starched shirt waist and even more stiffly starched resolves." (Betsy and Joe, 489)
1908 shirt waist styles (Betsy would be 16). {Source}
In some of these photos, you will notice the unusual posture of the women. This was what was referred to as the "S Curve."
The Edwardian woman strove for a deep bosom, a tiny waist, and rounded hips - not so different from the ideal of other periods. What made the Edwardian fashion figure unusual (though not unique) was the S-curved corset that pushed the bosom forward and the hips backward into a S-shaped silhouette when view from the side. {Source}
I am not sure if this is a style that Betsy adopted. I don't recall seeing any photos of her or her friends in this exaggerated pose, but that doesn't mean that they didn't try to emulate it! In any case, it doesn't look very comfortable to me. I also don't know how Betsy could fall into her Ethel Barrymore droop with a corset like that...

I know that there are probably shirt waists pictured in Vera Neville's illustrations, but I don't have the books with me to check right now. I also recall a photo (click link to view) featured in the back of one of the high school books (I think it was Betsy Was a Junior) where the real life girls that inspired the female characters of Okto Delta are all standing together. I am quite sure that they are all wearing shirt waists in this picture {image source}. Now that you know what this style is, I'm sure that you will notice them a lot in the books. Maud gave many great descriptions of the clothes worn throughout the series, and this is a topic that I look forward to exploring more in the future.

I hope that I have all this information correct. I am not a history or fashion expert! If you would like to read more (or check my facts!) here are some of the sources I consulted when compiling this post:


  1. Now I understand! They're just shirts and I sort of want one. I put a link to your blog on mine. I love these updates.