The Sheath versus the Shirtwaist in the 1960s


1964.  Click all photos to enlarge

Unless fashion doesn’t interest you at all, you must have noticed that the shirtwaist dress—now often called a shirt dress—is back in style. I have an irrational dislike for this  beloved classic of American design, which has always seemed dowdy to me. After some amateur self diagnosis, I think I have figured out why.

sheathcompositeWhen I first began to notice fashion styles in the 1960s, sheath dresses were all the rage. Many older women embraced the new style. My own grandmother, pictured on the left, was one of the early adapters.

shirtwaistcompositeBut if my photo collection is any indication, a majority of older women stuck with their comfortable shirtwaists, which had become almost a uniform for American women in the 1950s. Because it was mainly older women I saw in these out-of-style dresses, I coded  shirtwaist as “old.”

Now I am old myself and have nothing but respect for those women of the sixties who resisted fickle fashion for a style that felt comfortable.  I also know that fashion ideas are constantly recycled, changing meanings in the process.

altuzarra2Will I change my mind about the shirtwaist now that I can buy this Altuzarra striped silk version for $1900 at Neiman Marcus? I don’t think so.

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9 Responses to The Sheath versus the Shirtwaist in the 1960s

  1. eimear says:

    I used really like shirtwaist dresses (on other people), they have a lovely ‘breezy’ quality, but I wouldnt wear one anytime, as when my waist was 22/24inches it only emphasised my wider hips, and now my waist is a hopeful 29inches I think I just look bunched in. personally I prefer a different cut (empire line). in general though your ladies look so well turned out in the photos as they have the handbags, the cute shoes and putting the best side out…..

  2. Fabrickated says:

    Well for every older lady in a shirt-waister that is belted just under the ample bust there may have been a lovely young woman with a tiny waist, pert bosom and a fresh looking clothes. I remember my Mum loving them, probably in the early 1960s. I am not sure they are ever out of fashion – it depends a bit on style and fabric

    • Lynn says:

      Hah! Of course you are right–I know my dislike is irrational.

    • JS says:

      They were definitely out of fashion in the 1970s. I remember admiring a couple of girls in high school who were wearing them. I wondered where they’d bought them because I never saw the style in the stores. They looked great because they had the right body shape for them. I’m not sure they’d have done as much for me.

  3. When I think of shirtwaist dresses, I think of cotton: washable dresses that were also easy to iron — unbuttoned, they fit on an ironing board. Maybe older ladies on a budget liked them for the same reason that I wore them in high school and still wore them when I started college in 1962 — dressier and more flattering than a skirt and blouse, and no dry cleaning bills.

  4. Marilise says:

    My paternal grandmother liked the shirtwaist dress with a fuller skirt because she didn’t feel it necessary to wear a girdle under it, unlike the straighter sheath dress that she felt required one.

    And thanks for mentioning that there is a difference between a shirtwaist dress and a shirt dress. I’ve read a number of sewing and fashion blogs lately that don’t seem to know the difference.

    • Oh, yes! If you had to wear stockings — and “ladies” did not go barelegged in the 1950s or 60s — a garter belt under a full skirt was much more comfortable than a long pantygirdle under a sheath!

      • Marilise says:

        Also, “nice” girls/women didn’t allow their bottoms to visibly waggle, so a girdle was a requirement under the closer fitting sheath dress.

  5. JS says:

    I’ve never been crazy about shirt dresses, either, especially the ones that look exactly like a shirt. It’s too bad that older women didn’t adopt the shift dress because that is the most comfortable of all 60s styles.

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