Game, Blouses (part 1)

Game, Blouses is a three-part series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


Charlie Murphy recounted his amazing basketball game with Prince on David Chappelle’s show in 2004. Prince challenges the Murphy “gang” to a late-night basketball game. Prince doesn’t change out of his ruffly, figure-skater styled shirt and tiny jacket. Murphy cackles with laughter when Prince’s team come onto the court, decked out in their full-on purple rain outfits. “You know what we’re going to call this,” gasps out Murphy, laughing, “the shirts against the blouses.” Of course, Prince and his team win: Game, Blouses.

In fact, Murphy was historically accurate, even if he really meant the Blouses comment as a sexist slam.Blouses were, originally, loose blue-colored smocks or blouses worn by French workers. The earliest usage is from 1828, according to our friend the Oxford English Dictionary. In typical fashion, a few years later the word shows up in England (nearly everything to do with fashion in the 1800s starts in Paris and pops up in London days-weeks-months-years later), when Thackeray (he who created the original mean girl Becky Sharp) reports on the “blouse” in a 1840s book called Paris Sketch.

A blouse was so closely associated with French workmen that in 1872 Bulwer-Lytton (okay, he was almost always lumbering decades behind everyone else, but still) uses the word as a noun, calling a group of workmen in Paris “blouses.” Snap that, Murphy! Game On, Blouses!


(Image of Bill Cunningham from The Satorialist)

We are most familiar with the 1820s-1840s men’s “blouse” – a French workman’s smock in blue — through Bill Cunningham, the famed New York Times street style and society photographer, who died in 2016. Cunningham, born in 1929 in Boston, wasn’t really channeling some folklorish affectation; he consciously adopted the “uniform” as a visual statement of his life choice of not making money, of not accumulating crap, of focusing on his work. But he of all people certainly understood the historical dimensions of his choice and the contemporary message of old-fashioned workmanship.

It wasn’t until the 1870s when “Blouse” became a term for women’s wear, according to the OED (according to the web, the dates scatter like raindrops, from 1790s to 1820s to 1880s; I’m sticking with my friend OED). In 1870 Young Ladies Journal mentions “blouses or tunics” for “young ladies costumes”. From the look of the three covers, YLJ was a mild version of Cosmo for gals in its time. The cover art is sentimental, romanticized and pitched a bit hysterical even for the 1870s. But it’s as good a gauge of “teen fashion” as Teen Magazine is at understanding what 14 year old girls wore in 1985: that is, maybe aspirational but most young ladies could not pull these looks off, either because of the expense or the body. (ps: I love the way the front cover models are depicted as odd little peg dolls, hinged at the torso but otherwise immobile, so that even when prone they are unbending in the leg area.)

What the OED and these covers tell me, though, is that by 1870 the “blouse”, a French workman’s smock, had made its tunic way towards women’s clothing. Once an item of clothing is relabeled in feminine terms, it’s not going back to the boys. The “taint” of weakness that femininity connoted (that’s Con-noted, not de-noted, people) meant that a smock, once assigned a feminine meaning, is staying as a girl’s thing. And the Blouse is on its transition journey.

Game, Blouses is a three-part series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3


2 thoughts on “Game, Blouses (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Game, Blouses (part 2) | Style of Resistance

  2. Pingback: Striking! | Style of Resistance

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