McCalls 6696: History of the Shirtwaister


Project Info

Sewing Pattern: McCalls 6696

"This pretty pattern has some complicated techniques, but is ultimately well drafted. I enjoyed sewing it but struggled with my lack of collar experience. I'm sure it will be easy for anyone with experience!"

Francesca Haselden 4

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Buy it for £8.25

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The Shirtwaister is a classic shirt top, nipped in at the waist, with either a pencil skirt or full skirt attached below. They became popular in the 1940s as they replicated mens uniform styles in the forces, and were translated not only over to women’s uniforms but also into everyday women’s fashion. They typically only came with narrow skirts as fabric needed to be conserved. In the 50s, the style continued but the end of fabric rationing allowed for much fuller skirts, such as circle skirts.

The style started to drop out of mainstream fashion in the late 1960s as the less fitted shift dress rose to fame. But the shirtwaister well and truly came back during the 1980s ’50s revival, this time often accompanied by wide collars or strong sleeves with the essence of ’80s power dressing.


Here are some bonus pictures of my Nanny Marie in one of her shirtwaister dresses from 1955 to 1962 (my uncle is three weeks old in one of the pictures).


Shirtwaisters and pear shapes

Why are Shirtwaister styles so good for pear shapes? The waist of anyone with a pear shape tends to be the narrowest point, and in order to show off the small waist a fitted dress needs to be worn. The issue with fully fitted dresses is that the hips are then made more prominent. By creating a dress with a full skirt and small waist, the best parts are emphasised and the wider parts can be skimmed over and slimmed down. The fitted shirt of the dress adds extra interest up top, which helps to balance out a pear shape. Sleeves are also always good for pear shapes as they draw attention and add bulk to the top, giving the impression of a more hourglass figure. Follow Francesca Haselden’s board Shirtwaisters on Pinterest.

Making McCalls 6696

This is the first time I’ve worked on a dress with complicated elements. Gathers, pleats, buttons and buttonholes, collars and pockets. It’s a little more difficult that some standard cotton-dress patterns. The collar needs to be spot on to look good, the sleeves need to sit just right and the button band must be crisp so that it doesn’t gape. But the pleats and gathers do allow for a little wiggle room when fitting. I decided to make a “wearable toile”, by this I mean that the aim of my toile is to actually be able to wear it, and work it completely. Usually toiles omit things like buttons and belt loops, collars etc as they are more about a good fit on the body. But I wanted an opportunity to practice the techniques I would need on a cheaper fabric. If it works, I get two dresses! I picked up some super-simple burgundy polycotton. It’s easy to sew and was cheap at only £2.99 p/m, although polycotton isn’t always the greatest on warm days. Hopefully this should be good as it still has quite a high cotton content. I cut the bodice with a little extra on the side seams, and will tack thoroughly. Because I’ll be sewing on my Oekaki Renaissance I can tack by machine, which makes me far more likely to do it! Keep following the blog to see the progression of this dress!

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Francesca Haselden

Francesca is the owner of EatSleepKnitUK, she also works for Toyota Home Sewing and is a web developer 9-5!

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