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When you hear the term “shirtwaist” you most likely visualize a dress that buttons from neck to hem, cinched at the waist by some sort of belt. It’s one of my favorite shapes and flatters most every body type.

I have at least five shirtwaist dresses hanging in my closet, including this 1970s Gidding-Jenny, the namesake brand of a now-defunct Cincinnati department store known for exclusive women’s ready-to-wear and lavish purple packaging.

Photo courtesy of Onasill-Bill Badzo, a Canadian photographer.

The store closed in 1995, the last of the old-time department stores that made shopping a real experience. When you walked into the store, you were greeted by a signature fragrance.

Photo courtesy of Department of Everyday.

Even their building had a distinct appearance. Built in 1883, it received a new Italianate façade in 1920, designed by Rookwood Pottery. The theme was an autumn harvest, depicted here by this close-up.

My polished-cotton dress originally belonged to my mother-in-law. Jane was preoccupied with staying slim. Every time she hugged me, she would say, “You’re a reed!” as if we were miles apart on the weight spectrum. There is no doubt in my mind that she had a distorted image of her own body. As you can see from the fit of this vintage dress, we must have been exactly the same size. Jane wore it the summer of 2014 when she took all the girls in the family on a whirlwind tour of New York City.

The original shirtwaists. We tend to forget that the shirtwaist of the early 1900s was an entirely different thing, basically a blouse tucked into a skirt. This Gibson Girl art illustrates an early iteration, which featured dramatically puffed sleeves. Shirtwaists were the signature of a working woman in the early 1900s. They were easy to launder, cheap to manufacture and remained popular for 20 to 30 years.

In 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly women and girls, died making shirtwaists when a fire broke out in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The accident spawned the largest work strike in the city’s history, affecting 500 factories where women labored under harsh, sometimes dangerous working conditions similar to those found in today’s fast fashion factories.

By 1915 lightweight summer shirts like these were worn untucked—a look that made way for the dropped waistlines of the 1920s. (If you like the looks of these vintage shirtwaists, get the look at Victorian Trading Company.)

The classic blouse has had highs and lows. In a world that’s gone kind of bonkers over fashion, I gather that the plain ‘ole blouse is currently in a slump. I base that on what I see and hear. A few years ago, one of my fashionista friends said something like this: “Why would I choose a blouse and khakis when I could use my clothes to be creative, beautiful and inspiring?”

Cause blouses and shirts are crisp and classy? Cause they look good on everyone, whether they’re paired with jeans, shorts or skirts? Cause it was good enough for Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn—why not us?

Call me boring. I can’t seem to ditch my affection for shirts. I even gave away an entire collection of them hoping to reform. It’s no use. Since I can’t swear off them, I might just as well wear them with confidence. Maybe I can convince a few of you to help restore their reputation.

Want to make a blouse more interesting?

  • Add details like vintage button covers and cuff links, scarves and necklaces.
  • Pop the collar. (I once had a waiter lean over and whisper in my ear, “Ma’am, your collar is standing up.” Yeah. I know. Not everyone gets it.)
  • Tuck a shirt into belted, wide-legged trousers. Or picture this: a ruby-red tank underneath a black-and-white gingham shirt, tucked into white skinny jeans. One of my friends wore this to church yesterday. She added a great pair of earrings, a slash of red lipstick, and she was stunning.
  • Wear a blouse untucked over slim, ankle length slacks or straight-leg jeans, a great look when you want to be chic but comfortable.

There you go. A classic that’s already hanging in your closet, (I hope) and all you need to look put together on the fly. What was your family’s favorite old time department store? Do you ever yearn for those old-world shopping experiences? I do!

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.