History of shirt dress

To introduce the new S/S22 Dress Collection, the team celebrates Jasper Conran London shirtdress.

Despite its modern allure, the shirt dress boasts a rich history, dating back as far as the 19th early century, bringing with it a story of feminism and functionality.

The Jasper Conran London design team runs through an evolution of this iconic piece, landing on our collection of S/S 22 shirt dresses for the modern wardrobe.

Words: Anna Ross

The New Woman

1890’s - 1920's

Collapsible Model 1985

First emerging in the early 20th century, what we now know as a 'blouse' was previously defined as a 'shirtwaist.' The shirtwaist would have been worn with the requisite corset and chemise, styled tucked into a skirt and featuring a button-down back.

The New Woman

However, as women increasingly were called to work, the shirtwaist and skirt eventually combined to form a more practical garment that buttoned down the front, similar to a menswear garment. Previously to this, their back-buttoning blouses required assistance from a housemaid, a luxury not many could afford during recessionary eras. What we now know as the shirtdress was a working garment, clothing nannies, waitresses, nurses and factory workers, who were offered a new air of independence born of the function and easy-wear of the look. " the new woman was born.

A Design Democracy

Although the shirtdress is now a linchpin in women's wardrobes globally, it was America who initially made it their own. As mass-manufacturing took off in the United States, it enabled a new wave of women to dress in a similar style as their wealthier peers, democratizing the shirt dress en masse; so much so, in 1938, Vogue declared the shirtdress as 'An American Institution.' Soon, the item moved from uniform to every day, and with it, fashion's shifted, and versions that buttoned down with menswear-inspired collars and cuffs became the style of the time, much like the design codes we recognize today.

The New Look

The 1940s were an era of significant change for the shirt dress. However, the look remained in simple cuts and ergonomic designs, both to save money on material while reflecting the more practical styling of the era, with 'House-Dress' styles populating women's fashion. Later in this decade as the economy bounced back and rationing cut, the silhouette shifted towards fuller or pleated skirts, picking up on utility-style detailings such as a boxier shoulder and statement buttons. It wasn't until 1947 that the item reached a high-fashion status, thanks to Christian Dior's iconic 'New Look.' This historical era in fashion transformed the piece with a decidedly feminine leaning, featuring a fuller skirt and nipped in waistline. The look began a new generation of glamour and changed the language of the shirt dress from a solely daytime item to one of evening allure.

Fifties Flare

Dior's New Look had a considerable influence on the iconic waspish waist and full skirt styles of the '50s, taking the item well away from its menswear-inspired codes and firmly into the modern woman's lexicon. Styles varied from day-to-day cotton in ginghams, stripes, spots and pops of colour, including more evening-ready variations.

The 1960s-1980s

During the latter part of the 20th century, the item was a staple in most women's wardrobes, and silhouette shifts moulded by cultural moments shaped the look for seasons to come.

The Swinging '60s brought with it a more casual and free-spirited era. Hemlines rose into mini silhouettes, while design icons such as Mary Quant and Pierre Cardin evolved styles into straight A-lines, banishing the nipped-in waistlines of seasons past.

During the 1970s, the shirtdress retained its roots in both work and leisure, seen styled with more casual belted waistlines and feminine twists on menswear details, much like we see today.

The power-dressing of the era of the 1980s bought with it its famous padded shoulders and statement sleeves. This silhouette was famed for making women look more 'powerful' to contend with their male counterparts as workplaces began to diversify in gender.

1990's - Current

The '90s and early part of the 21st century saw a drastic turn in the era of fashion. The bold-big shoulders and bold prints took a dramatic U-turn, as grunge, minimalism, sportswear and streetwear influenced silhouettes with a much more casual leaning, practical stance for everyday dressing.

Is it flattering, is it fresh, is it modern? This is what I think about when I'm designing." explains Jasper. Each piece boasts endless versatility: "You can wear most pieces with or without a belt. It can be a summer dress, it can be a work dress, it can be an evening dress. You can style it any way you want!" he surmises.