Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Shirt-Waists are for Pantywaists

This is one of 1122 articles in my book Now and Then Again, The Way We Were and the Way We Are, second edition. The book is available from Amazon for $20.95 print and $9.95 Kindle and also as an ebook from Apple, Kobo, and Scribd for $9.95. It's fixed format so it's better with a tablet, laptop, or computer. There are more articles from the book on another blog here. And there is a book preview website.

Shirt-Waists are for Pantywaists

Do you remember reading about the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911? The fire in Manhattan killed 146 people, mainly young women garment workers. The fire led to better safety regulations and working conditions.

Shirtwaists were very popular then; Triangle was one of many factories making them. So what is a shirtwaist?

A shirtwaist was a woman’s blouse constructed like a shirt, with collar and buttons. It became a symbol of the modern independent woman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It freed women from the voluminous floor-length dresses of their mothers. It was worn tucked into a skirt that sometimes showed a scandalous glimpse of ankle.

The popularity of shirtwaists can be traced to a dry goods merchant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Samuel M. Foster, in 1884. During a desperately slow winter Foster recalled that boys’ shirtwaists had been a good seller. He was out of them but one of his clerks had bought one for his son. The garment was retrieved and torn apart and used as a pattern to make more in the back of the store. The shirtwaists caught on with women.

Foster became a millionaire for "providing the world with the most useful and the most universally-worn garment ever devised", according to the 1917 Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, Indiana

Men at that time had to wear a coat, which was a problem in hot weather. If they took off the coat and wore just a shirt it was considered effeminate — a man in a shirtwaist, a woman’s garment.

An article titled The Shirt-Waist For Men, Again in The Literary Digest from July 13, 1901, quoting the New York Tribune, says "More and more coatless men are to be seen day by day, and certainly it can not be maintained that they are all callow youth or men readily convicted of a desire to to look like women."

The problem especially vexed postmen who had to be out and about in hot weather. A letter-carrier from New Haven sum-med it up: "What do they want to rig us out with shirt-waists for? Do they think we are a lot of women? Some of the men who favor shirt-waists will one of these days be calling for hoopskirts for the carriers. Give us the blouse, a man’s garment."

The Tribune thought this a splendid idea:
"A blouse, according to the dictionary is a loose upper garment worn by men in the place of a coat. Certainly give us the blouse, or, in other words call it a blouse and don’t, for pity’s sake, call it a shirt-waist. The garment will be just the same, and the resultant coolness will be just as delightful, but the stigma of aping the women will be forever removed."

 Postal regulations were changed to permit shirtwaists in 1902. Postmen could wear “a neat shirt waist or loose-fitting blouse, instead of coat and vest” “during the heated term”.  The Times reported April 9, 1901 that Washington police, after they saw pictures of Camden, N.J. police in shirtwaists agitated for cooler uniforms, too. “The apostles of the shirt waist for the Washington force have been ardent in their propaganda ever since they saw these enticing pictures.” But police chief Sylvester “thinks a coatless officer would fail to inspire the turbulent with awe.”

By the way, a pantywaist was a child’s undergarment, short pants buttoned to a shirt. The first known use of pantywaist to mean a sissy was in 1936.

Evidently the nomenclature problem of summer wear for men wasn’t solved in 1901. 33 years later, an August 4, 1934 article in the Literary Digest titled Word for "Shirt-Sleeves" Is America's Crying Need explains that "shirt-sleeves" means removing the coat but not the waistcoat so only the shirt’s sleeves were exposed.

"At the time when any shirt made up without a stiff bosom was called a ‘negligee,’ one wearing such a shirt without coat or vest was called a ‘shirt-waist man.’" (Negligee originally meant informal wear.)

 If a man is "in his shirt" it implies that he is wearing neither coat nor trousers, so there is a need for a word "which would indicate that a man is wearing his trousers and his shirt without encumbrance of either coat or vest." (How about hippie?)

Copyright © Joseph Mirsky 2020

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