June 24, 2016

Primary Sources: Edwardian Shirtwaists, 3 Examples from my Collection

Before I jump into making an Edwardian shirtwaist myself this weekend, I thought I would delve into my storage and pull out the three antique shirtwaists I happen to have in my collection! It seems strange I have never shown you all these before, but better late than never right?

My favorite professor from college kindly past these antique items on to me before I left school as she knew I would appreciate them, and I sure do! One day I'd love to have a whole collection of antique garments, but until then these lovely items will tide me over. Each is a masterpiece of its kind, these are much more detailed and gorgeous shirtwaists than I would ever be able to create! I don't have the patience for this much delicate lace insertion! Still the general construction clues and materials are of interest as I begin my own project, so lets take a closer look...

First up is this most lovely white work embroidered shirtwaist that I imagine would be dated later than the other two examples I have based on the fact that it has less of that eponymous pigeon bust shape and looks more like a transition to the sleeker blouses of the teens era. The fullness here is gathered to a waistband and the shirt closes in the front over a central panel. The sleeves are 3/4 length which is something I think I'll do for my own shirtwaist as it seems common enough. Made in a semi-sheer white cotton, I believe the embroidery is actually a boarder print from the fabric artfully placed rather than being done specifically for the piece (or done after it was assembled). Never the less, the white thread embroidery is super gorgeous!

Embroidered fabric panel is set into the sleeve with a boarder of lace. It seems most if not all of this particular example is actually machine sewn with very tiny stitches.

In the photo above you see the front folded open to reveal the center front panel which closes at the bust with a hook and eye. Presumably there was also a hook or closure of some kind to close the shirt at the waist but there is nothing there now.

The back looks nearly identical to the front. I wish I could get a new one of these in my size :)

The second shirtwaist in my collection is a bit more formal, or at least it has full length sleeves and a lot (a ton!) of lace insertion!

The more tapered puff sleeve shape leads me to believe this shirtwaist is older than the first, as the crazy huge mutton sleeves were such a trend in the 1890s. The sleeve caps are covered in both lace insertion and lace ruffles! The front and back of this example have long rows of delicate and sheer cotton lace insertion. The center front is gathered to a waistband and the whole shirt closes at the center back, though I am not exactly how it stayed shut as there are no hooks, buttons or snaps anywhere on this piece! There seems to be a combination of machine and hand sewing on this shirt, the long panels of lace seem to have been sewn in with a machine and then sort-of edge stitched down with tiny hand stitches.

See the back above. The standing collar is entirely made of lace and starts at the center front, wraps around the back and fastens at the center front again. The cotton of this shirtwaist is super thin and after over a hundred years--is quite delicate!

The lace collar and lack of hooks or snaps.

Inside I noted that the seam allowance is trimmed into next to nothing and then whip-stitched finished.

The last shirtwaist is a sort of combination of the first two in design, incorporating both lace insertion and white work embroidery.

As you can see it is longer, tucking into the skirt rather than finishing at the waist. The bottom edge of this old gal is raw now, I assume it was cut or torn at some time and not intentionally done this way! The embroidered panels down the front are a-m-a-z-i-n-g, with sheer cotton net set into floral swirls.

I mean come on, too pretty!

  The back buttons up the center with carved shell buttons, but you can't see them because they are covered with a panel in matching pintucks. The back is rather different from the front with lines of pin tucks and strips of lace insertion as opposed to the embroidered sections on the front. The back of the waist has a sort of half waistband addition where two ties emanate from, I imagine that these ties were once longer and perhaps once tied int the center front to control/create the gathered fullness.

This inside shot shows the french seams used on the side seam and the binding used on the sleeve/armhole seam. Again this examples seems to have a mixture of machine and hand sewing.

Sadly this shirtwaist isn't in the best of shape with rust discoloration spotted all over but it seems it was displayed at one point as I discovered some conservation efforts inside! The front embroidered and lace portion has a piece of ultra fine nylon tulle netting sewn in to protect the embellishment from further damage. Possibly this shirtwaist was on display at one point in its 100+ year history!

I hope you all have enjoyed this look at a few real Edwardian shirtwaists, my own project will be much less couture and fancy! Since I am basing my ensemble on the idea of an adventurer on her travels, I don't think a simpler approach is such a bad idea ;)


  1. These are lovely, thanks so much for sharing them! I really need to take more photos of my antique clothing for more blog posts. It's been awhile since my last Behind the Seams post. :)

    1. Thank you Emily! I'll be looking out to see what you share next :)

  2. These are all gorgeous. I love seeing the detail of the construction and embroidery! Just lovely :)

  3. These are very beautiful. I think the second one is my favourite.

    1. Thanks Kate! The second one has so much lace insertion it must have been super tedious to make!

  4. These are gorgeous! Thank-you for sharing.

  5. These are magnificent! What stunning garments to have in your very own collection. Thank you for sharing their intricate, elegant, and completely classic beauty with us, dear Bianca.

    xoxo ♥ Jessica

  6. I'm intrigued by the second one - do you think it would have been starched in order to give the sleeves the required amount of puff?

    1. I'm not sure really. I think they would have been a lot puffier when the shirtwaist was new just by nature of the fabric/lace being new, now after 100+ years of being worn and stored the poor thing has become fragile but I imagine when it was first worn the whole thing had more body to it.


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