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.

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