The introduction of ready-to-wear shirtwaists in the 1890s was a beginning point for significant growth in the women's apparel industry. The almost universal acceptance of waists by women at all economic levels initially both shaped and was shaped by the organization of the men's shirt and collar trade. These companies recognized sales potential and, as one of the most organized segments of the industry, had the capabilities to produce in large quantity. However, with seemingly unquenchable demand, competition escalated quickly. It soon became an industry characterized by rapid growth, style competition and style piracy. The incredible profusion of styles at every quality level and price point also altered how retailers marketed ready-to-wear, and facilitated changes in women's perceptions of fashion. As they wholeheartedly adopted the shirtwaist in its many variations, it appeared to be a democratic style desired and worn by all women, consumers who understood and demanded access to fashion.
consumer apparel manufacture
In 1894, a columnist for Ohio Farmer stated that the 'reign' of the shirtwaist was not over and that it was worn by 'the youthful, the middle-aged, and those even quite advanced in years' (Anon. 1894a: 85). In 1902 author Julia Ditto Young (1902: 354) observed that the woman's shirtwaist continued to be 'the one style of waist' which everyone wore. Still others were more colour-fully descriptive, depicting it as a garment worn by everyone from the 'fat cook in the kitchen' to the 'women who dress upon incomes of millions' (Anon. 1901: 16). The enthusiasm was not unfounded. Trade publications such as The Haberdasher and Dry Goods Economist predicted popularity of ready-to-wear shirtwaists as early as 1889, and demand for the fashionable and functional garment grew rapidly through the 1890s. However, women's acceptance of it as a fashionable ready-to-wear garment was dependent on the ability of the apparel industry to produce it in an acceptable range of fabrics, styles, and prices, and of retailers to make it appealing to women from all walks of life. It also was aided by women's increasingly more active lifestyles. As popularity grew, it appeared to be a democratic garment that blurred class distinctions. It also marked the beginning of rapid growth in the United States women's ready-to-wear industry.
This essay examines the earliest development of women's shirtwaist production within the United States men's shirt and collar industry and demonstrates that these producers not only possessed the technology and labour pool to enter the women's shirt trade at the earliest signs of popularity, but the skills and personnel to impact the rapid development of the women's ready-to-wear industry through existing and rationalized production facilities. Prior to this manuscript scholars have focused on the critical importance of the shirtwaist in labour history, including the 1909 shirtwaist maker's strike, known as the Uprising of the 20,000, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 (Drehle 2003). Others have investigated questions of gender roles related to shirtwaist fashions or women's roles as apparel producers in factories...