Game, Blouses (part 2)


Photo from private (that would be my own) collection

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

Our two gals are wearing shirtwaists — what we today would call blouses. Usually made of fine, thin cotton weave, and often incorporating lace inset or trim, these blouses were made by women of the same age as these two, in unregulated and tight quarters. An influx of immigrants made up the work force; men and women worked in shirtwaist factories; women — who were often really just teenaged girls — were the lowest ranked workers. Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

As discussed in “Game, Blouses (part 1),” blouses were associated first with men and later in the 19th century women began wearing “blouses” as a kind of novelty item. In 1870, for example, the July 2 issue of Harper’s Bazaar discussed “shirt-waists” for boys: “Jaunty sailor fashions are more popular than ever for boys. The predominating suit worn by boys from five to eight years old is dark navy blue flannel, made with knee trowsers and a Garibaldi suit…”.

Several threads of meaning are bundled up here. First, there is the “jaunty” characterization of these sailor fashions — that renegade, jaunty feel is going to carry over when “shirt-waists” make their way into women’s wear. Second, there is Garibaldi. It’s a man, Giuseppe Garibaldi, a dashing, handsome Italian nationalist warrior. More about him in a second.  But here’s a boy from about the right year (1870 or 1871) in a Garibaldi-inspired suit. (image from random pinterest board without affiliation.)


By 1872 Harper’s Bazaar notes that “Garibaldi trowsers, or Zouaves, are losing favor.” At this point, prepare to have your head spin a bit. Chuck out any ideas you had that people in England or the U.S. were somehow unworldly, isolated, or parochial. Guess what? People lived in a global economy, often with a localized basis, but the cultural influences were by no means local. So here we have some jaunty outfits for young boys, influenced by an Italian nationalist fighter and the Zouaves, a group of light infantry fighters. The first Zouaves were from France and fought in North Africa. By the 1860s the Papal Zouaves (the really dashing ones), fought on behalf of the Pope and against the Risorgimento (Italian nationalists fighting for “one Italy”). Whew.

In 1899 a regional journal reported that “many of the new silk shirtwaists are made in the true Garibaldi style with no yoke in the back”. He lived on (he died in 1882) in women’s fashion. Garibaldi himself was the kind of man whose actions, sentiments, and persona gave rise long after his death to many many monuments. In his lifetime his exploits were thoroughly covered in the ladies’ mags, and his image — literally, what he looked like — was spread pretty much throughout the world.

A terrific “croquet” dress with red Garibaldi jacket, from the Manchester (UK) City Museum. Image of Garibaldi himself.

He was famous for his dashing style, his voluminous red blouse tucked swashbuckingly into his khaki-toned trousers. It might seem odd that his blouse gets adopted as women’s fashion, but in fact, his impact on women’s fashion was seen in his lifetime in the popularity of “garibaldi” and “zouave” jackets galore.


(image from and they got the image from Fashion Institute of New York/SUNY)

Shirtwaists became really popular among women just as the century moved in 1900. In this ad, the women look uptight and bound up, but from the perspective of the 1800s, these women looked frighteningly modern. The shirtwaist offered women interchangeable dress; one could own many shirtwaists and switch them out with different skirts and jackets. Once popular, shirtwaists remained in American life, morphing into blouses by the 1930s. The blouse had its roots in men’s culture, but interestingly, in two different strains of marginal men: French workingmen’s culture and the exciting warrior culture of Italian nationalist battles.


When I look at my two ladies standing arm in arm in what looks like a working-class neighborhood, the yard opening out to a commercial street (that building to the left is a corner store front). These are most likely working women, shirtwaists tucked into their skirts, hair “undone” and without jewels or ornament. These are women soldiering through life. As you probably know, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in NYC revealed the immoral working conditions of immigrant, young women; provided the political cover for passage of several worker protection laws; and marks a moment in U.S. history where the plight of working women swayed public opinion towards the good and betterment of workers.

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


3 thoughts on “Game, Blouses (part 2)

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

  2. Pingback: Game, Blouses (part 3) | Style of Resistance

  3. Pingback: Striking! | Style of Resistance

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