The shirt dress, or shirtdress, is an iconic piece of women’s clothing with its roots planted firmly in the women’s equality movement of the 19th century. When young women of the late nineteenth century (think Gibson Girls) wanted to gain educational opportunities equal to those of their male peers, and any kind of respectable job opportunities, one of the ways they expressed that desire was through fashion. They began wearing practical, narrower skirts and shirtwaists—what we would refer to as blouses—based on the design of men’s dress shirts. This ensemble was popularly accessorized with a necktie, just to drive the point home.
Shirtwaists evolved into “shirtwaist dresses,” which was a simple merging of the skirt and blouse pieces of an outfit. The buttons might stop at the waist or extend to the hem of the dress, and if they did go the length of the dress there would generally be no waist seam so the design relied on a belt to provide waist definition. The popularity of the shirtwaist dress waxed and waned over the next few decades, and then became something like a uniform for American women during World War II. Women who were not wearing pants in factories embraced the practical, economical design of a shirt dress. Post-war, Christian Dior included full-skirted, extremely elegant and feminine shirt dresses in his iconic New Look collection, which served to cement the concept of the shirt dress, in all its forms, in the American fashion psyche. All of the mothers in 1950s sitcoms wore shirt dresses, but so did Carol Brady. Halston brought the shirt dress back into high fashion in 1972, and they haven’t really left the scene since.
A shirtdress can be as relaxed or as elegant as the designer makes it. They are just as easily crafted from inexpensive cotton as from high-end silk. The concept and features stay the same, but the silhouette and small details are limitless, so that one relatively simple dress can be almost all things to all women. Why does all this matter to you, today? Because shirt dresses have been trending and the trajectory looks good for shirt dresses to not just be on the radar but to remain popular and stylish for several seasons. People got
extremely comfortable working remotely in their pajamas over the last year and a half, and shirt dresses offer the comfort, ease of movement, and wardrobe flexibility that those finally returning to the office crave. A well-fitting shirt dress is a little like a nightie with a belt, but looks so polished, so classic. . . the nightie thing will just be our little secret. Here, we’re going to talk about styling ideas for shirtdresses you can buy right now and wear for not only the foreseeable future, but most likely forever.
Wearing a shirt dress to work is one of the easiest sartorial decisions you can make. With the collared neckline and button placket, a shirt dress automatically lends your look an air of business-minded competence. Whether you choose a shirt dress in soft dark-wash chambray or a 70s-esque Ultrasuede, all you need is a great scarf and comfortable smoking slippers or low-heeled pumps to look totally polished and feel completely at your ease, too.
You always have options with shirt dress as office wear, too. You can choose to wear a shirt dress over leggings, topped with a bright cardigan in a creative atmosphere, or complement your shirt dress with a blazer and block-heeled pumps if the fashion watch word for your industry is “conservative.” Shirt dresses have day-to-night versatility, too, partly because of the design. I realize going to day-to-night is a much less pressing problem than television commercials of the 1980s would have me believe, but it does come up occasionally! Simply roll up your sleeves, undo an extra button, and switch out your earrings from classic pearl studs to something dangly and sparkly, et voila! Sultry nighttime look in under two minutes!
Things get fun when you do some creative styling to wear your shirt dresses through the colder months! Adding tights and boots is an obvious solution, and you probably know to top your shirt dress with a cardigan or blazer, but have you considered wearing a tall pullover sweater on top of a shirt dress? Essentially, you’re fooling the eye into reading your shirt dress as a skirt and blouse—THAT is major wardrobe flexibility! Further, you can wear a turtleneck or long-sleeved T-shirt under your shirt dress; it’s a
timeless Preppy layering trick that adds color and visual interest in an unexpected way.
A cotton shirt dress and casual sandals is really all you need to look great on the boardwalk or at the park when the weather turns steamy. Add a slouchy sun hat and crossbody bag, and watch this classic dress go boho. Or trade out the belt for something in black leather, wear a bit of extra eyeliner, and show your rocker-chick side. Warm weather styling options shine a bright light on the aesthetic versatility of the classic shirt dress!
The shirt dress may have been born in the 19th century, but we believe it is a dress for all time. The materials may change, the hemlines may change, the popularity may wax, wane or even explode, but shirt dresses in one iteration on another are an iconic American design that you can wear just about anywhere with confidence and in complete comfort. If you haven’t had a shirt dress in a long while, or perhaps ever, now is the moment to slip into the quintessential American dress and see what all the fuss is about.