History of the Iconic Shirt Dress

History of the Iconic Shirt Dress

Christian Dior's “New Look,” which was a feminine variation of a typical men's shirt, became an iconic dress that was popular around the world in the 1950s.

In her  Wall Street Journal article on the shirt-dress, fashion writer, Nancy McDonnell quotes a June 1938 Vogue magazine article that declared the shirtwaist dress “an American institution” and suggested one should be sealed in a time capsule “for the purpose of enlightening future civilizations about our own.”

The shirtwaist dress got its name from how it combined a blouse top and a skirt bottom into one dress. Blouses, called shirtwaists for most of the early 20th century, were buttoned up the front for a style that was easy to put on. They used to button at the back but that required help from a servant or willing husband, a luxury fewer had after WW1.  Attaching the shirt top and skirt also made dresses easier to slip on and button up.

The origins of the shirtwaist dress actually began with the “shirtwaist top” (aka what we now know as the “blouse,” originally fashioned from men’s shirts), which emerged in the 1890s as a uniform for the “New Woman, who demanded the same educational and professional opportunities as men. Rather than wearing fussy dresses bedecked with yards of the over-the-top trim beloved by Victorians, she preferred progressive, menswear-inspired clothes.”

Christian Dior

Christian Dior


After World War II, many women stopped paying attention to fashion and style due to economic scarcity. Clothing, in general, was meant to be practical instead of glamorous. That changed in 1947, when Christian Dior launched his “New Look,” which was a feminine variation of a typical men's shirt (standard collar, button front, sleeves) and became an iconic dress that was popular around the world in the 1950s. It was initially called the shirtwaist, and it began with a skirt that was made fuller and flashier with a crinoline and was later discarded as women began prioritizing their comfort.

Christian Dior Shirtdress on Cover of Vogue 1947


Another style of 1940s shirt dress extended the buttons all the way down the skirt. A bit more tedious to button up they were even more popular as 1940s-day dresses. The big buttons up the front of the dress made it look casual and fitting for both housework, running errands, and in some rare cases dinner dresses. For a slightly less casual look buttons were run up off center, to one side. They appeared more decorative than practical, but they were both!


According to Wikipedia>

Shirt dresses were sometimes called “shirtwaist dresses” when they first became fashionable during the 1950s. The 1950s version of the shirtdress was launched as part of Christian Dior ‘s post–World War II “New Look” couture designs, with a full skirt held up by wearing a crinoline (a stiff skirt or structured petticoat). They often featured a notched collar, and elbow-length sleeves with cuffs. More informal versions of the shirtdress, made of cotton, but retaining the full skirt and collar, became a staple part of many women’s wardrobes during the 1950s, with designers such as Anne Fogarty becoming known for their versions of this style.


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