The History Of One Of The Most Iconic Dresses Of The 20th Century (That You Still Wear!)

January 11, 2018

|Sairy Romero
shirt dress history

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.

There’s a famous scene in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) where Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda Priestly, casually gives a speech about the origins of the “cerulean blue” sweater that Anne Hathaway’s character (Andrea Sachs) is wearing. It’s a quick account of how an important fashion designer created a collection of cerulean dresses which influenced many other designers and ultimately reached the cheap place where Andrea got the sweater. It ends like this: “…that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” She tells the story after Andrea mockingly implies that she doesn’t take fashion seriously and that she cares about more important things than clothes. With that short (and frankly badass) speech, Miranda shows Andrea that the fashion industry isn’t just about looking good: the way we dress is closely related to bigger issues.


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If we think that fashion is superficial, it’s only because we’re looking at it in a superficial way. The blue sweater speech is cool, but there’s another piece of clothing that could have been used in that scene and that I personally think is way more interesting. I’m talking about the shirtdress, a garment that not only shows the influence of the fashion industry in our daily lives, but perfectly exemplifies how the evolution of fashion is never an isolated process: it’s the consequence of politics and major social changes.


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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 lunched 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.


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Did women suddenly start to care about comfort after centuries of wearing heavy and troublesome underwear? Did they naturally stop tolerating the tight corsets that made them faint in the 1800s? The reason for these changes isn't casual, and in the case of the shirtdress, a new idea about the place of women in society was being presented through the new style. The soft fabrics, like cotton and silk, the looser fit and the informality were represented women’s domesticity, and their place as housewives who, basically, cook and do chores all day and need to feel comfortable while doing that.


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This femininity ideal spread, of course, through magazines and television. In the 1950s, popular sitcoms didn’t only have the purpose of entertainment, they were also meant to show these ideals through their famous characters. The perfect, charismatic housewives of shows like The Donna Reed Show rocked the shirtwaist and helped popularize it even more. After that, the shirtdress kept evolving, and luckily times changed and those ideals slowly lost force.


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Now, many women around the world still use that dress, probably without thinking about its origins and, surely, without caring about any kind of feminine perfection other than looking awesome.


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Sairy Romero

Sairy Romero


Creative writer
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