The 8th of March has just been and gone. Pre-packed sprigs of yellow mimosa in the supermarket and tacky adverts…. I have never liked this ‘celebration’ of women. It’s sad and, yes, even slightly insulting. But I am bringing the topic up because I have been thinking about – and wearing – white shirts quite a lot recently. The link of course is the Triangle factory fire in New York city back in 1911.
On the 25th of March that year the blouse (or ‘shirtwaist’ as they were then known in the States) factory that we can see in the image above, went up in flames. The doors were closed, the workers locked in. 123 women died and 23 men. A tragedy. Many of these women were immigrant family bread-winners. Their death sparked unionist and female political activism across America and beyond. The 8th of March is dedicated to them but sadly few women today are aware of this.
The shirtwaist was worn by all women at the turn of the century. Rich and poor alike. The two young women below were approximately the same age but even the simple blouses reflect the very different social status and economic possibilities.
John Singer Sargent, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard, 1888, Amon Carter museum, Fort Worth, Texas, USA
Pelizza da Volpedo, Suffering, 1900c, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy
In fact, the simplicity of the white blouse caused sartorial difficulties in certain respects: it was wonderfully modern and easy, you could match it up with anything. It was democratic, plain cotton for everyone. But in the world of haute couture this was not always a good thing. Distinction was needed. And this, in terms of the white blouse, came via the use of lace. White lace blouses had the same ‘function’ as the cotton ones but they were obviously more dressy and definitely more expensive – and suitably delicate for the ladies of leisure of the Belle Époque.
Vernon lace blouse, 1915-17c, Scandinavia
Some were in between on the social scale there were
Canadian female students, 1909, McCord museum Canada
And sporty types:
American lady in blouse and divided cycling skirt, 1900c
Lady paddling or rowing, 1900c
But who started off such a wide-spread and long-lasting fashion? It all began in the 1850s and not up, or down, but in the middle. The white blouse is one of the most sensible middle class inventions ever!
It was first worn by middle class teenage girls under jackets (often in velvet) and with a silk skirt. This would have been part of a ‘set’ comprising different bodices for different occasions. This was a mix and match concept. A clever way to get good use out of a silk dress, an ‘investment’ buy in those days. In the image below, the girl on the left wears her rust coloured silk taffeta skirt with a black jacket and the white blouse. (The skirt seems too long, but that is just because she is not wearing her wide, fashionable crinoline as she is in the countryside visiting her friend).
W.Gale, the confident, 1857, Tate Britain, London UK
Older generations soon followed: by the 1860s the blouse was worn by most women on a daily basis. In hot climates and on very informal occasions such the one in the image below, the ladies would remove the jacket of their two-piece suit (a concept straight from the male wardrobe – but that’s another story)
Silvestro Lega, the song, 1867, Pitti gallery, Florence, IT
In the two portrait below we can see how the blouse was also worn under the one-piece dress. The reason for this is practicaityl: hygiene (the white cotton blouse would soak up the sweat and could be soaped and boiled up innumerable times. Women had several of them).
Italian lady, 1860c
A.Renoir, woman in the garden, 1868c, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland
The model in the Renoir painting was Lise Tréhot, a dressmaker. She probably made her own white blouses! And here she is in a photo wearing a white blouse
(For more on the white blouse see my post from October 1914 on World War I fashion)