A Fashion Faux Pas of Epic Proportions

What exactly is a “shirtwaist?” The American shirtwaist was a fashion trend for women at the turn of the 20th century, noted for the pairing of tailored shirt and skirt – offering a glimpse of the ankles – and was very fashion-forward during its day.

“Shirt-waist sets are among the attractive dress accessories to tempt the modish girl,” proclaims an article in the May 31, 1903 issue of The St. Louis Republic.

“All this talk about the elimination of the white shirtwaist is nonsense. The white washable blouse has become too thoroughly and indispensably a feature of the summer wardrobe to be sacrificed to any style mandate,” said a story in the April 24, 1910, issue of the Los Angeles Herald.

Few styles have left such an indelible mark on society, both for its versatility and reinvention through the decades – and for its rather tragic history.

The Triangle Waist Company factory was located on the top floors of a building on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in Manhattan. By 1911, the factory was the largest manufacturer of shirtwaists in New York City. At approximately 4:45 p.m. on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire – likely caused by an unextinguished match or cigarette – started in a scrap bin under one of the cutters’ tables. Within minutes the fire swept through the factory, leaving 146 dead, the majority of them young immigrant women.

Damaged fire escape at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company building after the 1911 fire / Prints and Photographs Division

An article in the March 26, 1911, issue of The San Francisco Call features a rather grisly account of the conflagration.

After the fire, legislation was passed requiring improved factory safety standards.  The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers, also saw a growth in membership. And, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded.

Further reading on the tragedy and its aftermath can be found in this selection of historic news articles.

Through the years, the shirtwaist has proved its remarkable staying power, thanks to updates by the likes of such designers as Dior and Halston. Most recently, the fashion has been popularized through television shows like “Mad Men,” set in the 1950s and 1960s. This retro resurgence, often referred to as “pin-up” or “rockabilly” style, features the calf-length interpretation of the full or pencil skirt, cinched waist and complementary blouse.


  1. Desiree Lourens
    March 25, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    Loved the article.

  2. Edward Bohls
    March 28, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I usually love this blog, but I’m distressed by your title and tone in your post here. Are you really describing the gruesome conflagration that killed 146 poor workers as a “fashion faux pas?”

    Meantime, your fifth paragraph has entire phrases that are exactly the same as those in the Wikipedia article on the same subject. “The Triangle Waist Company factory occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place,” for example.

    Hurried cutting and pasting, perhaps, could be described as a faux pas, but not a grisly death scene, surely. Please.

  3. Erin Allen
    March 30, 2011 at 9:15 am

    Mr. Bohls,
    Thank you for reading the blog, and thank you for your comment. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was indeed a tragedy, and, with my headline, it was certainly not my intention of making light of an unfortunate situation. My apologies to you and any others who might have misconstrued it as so.
    I really do hope you took the time to click through some of the links, particularly the historic newspaper articles that recounted the fire and its aftermath. I think those go a long way in commemorating the event, which was my purpose in this blog post.
    In regards to Wikipedia, the information is presented under a Creative Commons license, allowing users to share and repurpose the facts presented. I’m sorry that you find fault with the repurposing of one or two factual sentences in an entire blog post that is otherwise original material.
    Again, thank you for reading the Library’s blog, and I sincerely hope you continue to do so in the future.

  4. Edward Bohls
    March 30, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Ms. Allen, thank you for your kind and measured response. I was overly upset, I suppose, at what I thought was a tone inappropriate to the tragedy. I kinda feel like a jerk now. Sorry about that. — ejb

  5. Robin Nishida
    April 5, 2011 at 11:13 am

    About the other person’s complaint about text being taken from other sources and copied here:

    I had never heard of such a term as “repurposing” as an explanation of, or justification for, the copying and pasting of another person’s written work. A simple apology should suffice but the use of another person’s work, without noting that use, is really not excusable.

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