Friday, May 30, 2014
Button-Ups: Uniform of the Modern Woman
Look in your closet. Whether you’re 19 or 99, a homemaker or a CEO, chances are you’ll find a white button-up blouse. Dress shirts have become a closet staple for any modern woman, largely due to their simplicity. These shirts are classic, polished and appropriate for virtually any occasion, from a crucial business meeting, to a casual day at home. Their extreme versatility explains the vast popularity of these classic pieces and their tendency for long lasting chicness. However, the simple button-up has a secret history, filled with conflict and controversy. This mild mannered wardrobe essential played a vital role in liberating women from the restricting undergarments that they had been confined to for centuries, and has played an integral role, in women’s quest for equality.
The button-up blouse emerged as women’s attire during the 1900’s. Although blouses would occasionally drift into fashion for chic women, the garment was most heavily donned by men, and by poor women, who sought cheap, functional attire. Wealthy, fashionable ladies tended to prefer more restricting, corseted dresses, as they had no need to entertain notions of “functionality.” However at the turn of the century, bicycling became a popular past time for both genders. Women’s fashions were ill equipped for such a strenuous activity. In order to accommodate women on bicycles, athletic companies introduced a style known as the lingerie blouse, a top exceedingly similar to the today’s button-ups. These blouses were heavily embellished and lacked the simplicity of their modern day equivalents. Still they managed to bridge the gap between classes, and became immensely popular, both on bicycles and off. While corsets were still worn with these shirts, blouses came to represent start of the end of their repressive reign. As time continued, more women abandoned their corsets, as to move around more easily. The blouses of the time allowed them to do so, as their style accommodated the more relaxed silhouette. In order to boost sales, corset companies introduced a style known as the tango corset, a longer style that was easier for women to move around in. This corset came with a detachable brazier. Eventually, the tango corset, too, was abandoned, leaving only the bras that we wear today.
The lingerie blouse gave way to the Gibson girl blouse, a simpler top, adorned with many tucks and pleats. Other styles of blouses drifted in and out of fashion in the decades that followed. The 1920’s fashion frequently featured loose unfitted tops, decorated with beading and other embellishments. Over time, women’s blouses came to resemble the modern day button-up more closely, however there was still a great deal of deviation between men and women’s dress shirts. Women’s tops, were generally far more embellished, than men’s, featuring lace, pleats, and other adornments. Women’s blouses were also buttoned from the left side while men’s were buttoned from the right, a custom that still persists today. However, during the Second World War, the two shirts became far more similar. As men fought abroad, there were fewer people working to produce the supplies that were essential for battle. In order to compensate, many women adopted men’s work in factories. With these jobs, women also adopted men’s garments, particularly, their simple collared shirts. While there were a few alterations, the shirts were simpler, less decorated and easier to wear than ever before. Yes, the button-up shirt had emerged, offering the classic, understated appeal that we still enjoy today.
Even after the end of WWII, and their return to the household, women continued to don the tops. While occasionally altered, the iconic button-up evolved very little in the following decades, while their popularity only increased. The garment became more engrained in the public consciousness, as women began to abandon domesticity and join the work force. Much like the workingwomen of the early 20th century, women enjoyed the functionality of the collared blouse, while on the job. In 1966, the garment was cemented as a modern classic, when Yves St. Laurent introduced Le Smoking, the first exclusively feminine suit. Button-up blouses have been considered a closet essential ever since.
White button-ups are a staple in any woman’s wardrobe. The style looks natural, polished and appropriate on anyone, from Michelle Duggard to Jenna Lyons, and can be styled in virtually hundreds of ways. While the top itself, can be boring and hackneyed at times, its history is anything but. From the shirt’s humble origins, as working wear, to its function in gender equality, the button-up blouse has greatly evolved, yet its impact on the world has been even greater.