The 1911 Triangle Fire Remembered

Ruth La Ferla for The New York Times, March 22, 2011

One hundred years after the Triangle Waist Company fire, the fashion that employed small armies of seamstresses at the turn of the last century endures.

The American shirtwaist was a trend that, quite literally, had legs. This brash but sensible pairing of tailored shirt and skirt offered a glimpse of the ankles, which was as rare in its day as it was freeing.

Designed for utility, the style was embraced at the turn of the 20th century by legions of young women who preferred its hiked hemline and unfettered curves to the confining, street-sweeping dresses that had hobbled their mothers and aunts.

Few looks have been as versatile — or as egalitarian — adapting through the decades to all sorts of shifting conditions and sociopolitical landscapes.

And few have so nimbly walked the line between function and frivolity.

By 1911 the Triangle factory, a half-block east of Washington Square Park, was the largest maker of waists in New York City. Pressed elbow to elbow at the factory, in Greenwich Village, hundreds of women, working 12 to 16 hours six days a week, earned $5 a week or less to help dress Americans in the white, gauzy blouses — also called shirtwaists — that when worn with a skirt completed the look.

In the last minutes of the work week, on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a match or a cigarette tossed into a waste basket ignited a fire that fed on the scraps of cloth and paper patterns hanging overhead. The blaze swept through the factory — the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of the 10-story building — within a half-hour, leaving 146 dead, all but 23 of them young women. About 50 jumped to their deaths to escape the relentless flames.

As hundreds of events this week mark the 100th anniversary of the fire on Friday, the shirtwaist style has proved its remarkable staying power.

Democratic from its inception, the shirtwaist was “one of America’s first truly class-shattering fashions,” wrote David Von Drehle, who briefly outlined its history in “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003).

DiorPat English/Time Life Pictures, via Getty ImagesTania Chez Dior, a French dress model. View more photos »
The cast of Columbia TriStar, via Getty ImagesThe cast of “The Donna Reed Show.”View more photos »

The practical uniform of factory hands, clerks, shopkeepers and librarians, it “both symbolized and enabled a wave of women’s liberation,” Mr. Von Drehle argued, the “perfect repudiation of corsets and bustles and hoops — all the ludicrous contraptions that literally imprisoned women in their own clothes.”

The earliest shirtwaists — originally shirts and separate skirts — were engineered for mobility, their popularity coinciding with a huge urbanization that saw women rushing about the streets, demanding the vote and, ultimately, flooding the workforce.

By 1910, when the entire American population was only 90 million, more than 5 million women held jobs outside the home. At that time, as Mr. Von Drehle noted, nearly a third of all factory workers in New York State were women, the majority dressed in a shirtwaist and skirt.

Shirtwaists flourished in the early 1900s as a badge of confidence and athletic femininity, the sporty attire of the Gibson Girl. They attained a touch of worldliness in the late 1940s when Christian Dior introduced a version, propped up by petticoats, as an essential component of his fabled New Look.

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