Guest Post by Heather Vaughan

Icon: The Shirtwaist Dress in Good Housekeeping and other media

Presented at Women in Magazines Conference at Kingston University, London, on 22-23 June 2012

Heather Vaughan is an independent writer and fashion historian, whose work focuses on the study of dress in the late 19th through the 20th century. After obtaining her Master of Arts degree in Visual Culture Costume Studies from New York University, she focused on writing and researching fashion and costume in media. She is primarily known for her research on film design pioneer Natacha Rambova, and her contribution to the academic dress studies blog, Worn Through. Vaughan has been published internationally on various topics- including the Shirtwaist dress- in a variety of academic journals and books. More information can be found at her blog

Today’s period films typically show the 1950s housewife in the uniform of her profession: a shirtwaist dress.  The shirtwaist itself encompasses the 1950s ideal of conformity and domesticity with a variety of media reinforcing these notions over time.  In the 1950s magazines, television, books, and films all had varying degrees of influence over women’s fashion choices.

Magazines, however, had the strongest influence at the inception of the 1950s shirtwaist style, just after World War II.  Historian and documentary filmmaker David Halberstam explains, “Women turned to magazines to learn how to adapt to their new roles in the land of plenty.” Good Housekeeping was a practical lifestyle magazine that women utilized to inform and influence their fashion decisions. Good Housekeeping’s position and reputation sold women the 1950s shirtwaist and the idealized figure it came to represent.  Tracing the path of the shirtwaist—from its pre-war form, to the 1947 New Look revision by Haute Couture designer Christian Dior, to its gradual appearance in this new form in Good Housekeeping—shows the beginnings of its development as an icon.  Its presentation in both magazines and other media caused the style to permanently represent idealized motherhood and domesticity in the American mind.

Just prior to Dior’s New Look, the 1940s “wartime shirtwaister” was prevalent.  Author Angela Partington explains that this version was based on the Utility look.[i] It focused the silhouette on “square shoulders and short, straight skirts,” which is just the reverse of the soft, rounded shape of the New Look.  This Utility style shirtwaist was popular and appeared in advertisements in American magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Seventeen, and Mademoiselle in early 1947.

Many of these dresses appeared as golf or other sporting related clothing due to their comfort and practicality. Partington explains that the Utility look remained popular via the shirtwaist, but acknowledges that it changed form.  “The wartime shirtwaister[s] . . . flourished in the form of 1950s dresses which became almost symbolic of the housewife, and were invariably used to dress her in advertisements for household goods”.

Christian Dior’s influence on the iconic 1950s shirtwaist began with his New Look collection in the spring of 1947 that almost single-handedly defined the post-war silhouette.  Although other designers such as Claire McCardell were working with similar skirt shapes at the time, the fashion media credited Dior with the inception of the “New Look.”

While Dior did influence ready-to-wear styles, it is incorrect to say that his version merely “trickled down.”[ii] If anything, an opposite scenario caused the shirtwaists popularity. Dior took the already well-established form of the shirtwaist and created a new, haute couture version. As noted by Harold Koda and Richard Martin, Dior had a, “willingness to work with an established form but to complicate its construction and render it idiosyncratic”. The new style then slowly began to influence all price points and classes to create the new form, while obliterating the old one.

1 Historian Patricia Warner looked at the impact the Depression had on the 1930s shirtwaist in relation to sportswear in her article “The Americanization of Fashion: Sportswear, the movies & the 1930s.” (Twentieth-Century American Fashion By Linda Welters, Patricia Anne Cunningham), 93-95.
[i] “The Utility scheme was introduced by the Board of Trade in 1941 to ensure that low- and medium-quality consumer goods were produced to the highest standards at ‘reasonable’ prices, consistent with the restrictions on raw materials and labour.” For further details see Mendes & de la Haye,120-121.
[ii] Grant D. McCracken explains the specifics of the trickle down theory in his essay “The Trickle-Down Theory Rehabilitated:” The trickle-down theory, first stated by Simmel (1904), was an ingenious account of fashion change.  The theory holds that two conflicting principles act as a kind of engine or motive force for innovation.  Subordinate social groups, following the principle of imitation, seek to establish new status claims by adopting the clothing of super ordinate groups.  Super ordinate social groups, following the principle of differentiation, respond by adopting new fashion (40).
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5 Responses to Guest Post by Heather Vaughan

  1. Victoria Pass says:

    Thanks for posting this! Heather, I heard this paper at the Women in Magazines conference and it was really fantastic!

  2. Pingback: The Triangle Factory Fire and the Living Issue of Labor | Thread for Thought

  3. Pingback: The Triangle Factory Fire and the Living Issue of Labor | Thread for Thought | Thread for Thought

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  5. Sophia Moller says:

    An article delayed is article denied.

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