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Green-print dress, Diane von Furstenberg, $448. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
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The classic shirtwaist is this year's summer-to-fall frock. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
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Gray-print dress, Current Elliot, $278. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

But what if the past wasn't so bad? What if a few tweaks can bring it comfortably into the present?

That's the case these days with the shirtwaist dress, a style that goes back to the Civil War era, when working women began wearing simple, cotton, button-down blouses modeled after men's dress shirts. Dubbed shirtwaists, they were extremely functional and could be worn with other pieces or individually. The style has come and gone since then, most recently about 40 years ago.

"You saw them a lot in the '60s and '70s, but the style is coming back in full force now," says Suzanne West, owner of Frankie & Julian's fashion boutique on Frazier Avenue.

The quintessentially American shirtwaist — and all its menswear-inspired extras — is both cubicle and cocktail chic this summer, whether paired with flats, pumps or white-soled sneaks. A great dress has pockets and shirtwaists have those, but when it it also boasts a button-down bodice, a belted waist and a collar — Peter Pan or Chelsea — it gets elevated to pure, off-the-rack confection.

Maggie Dosch, a former women's fashion manager at Dillard's in Chattanooga, says men-inspired styles for women have long been popular. And she's a fan of shirtwaists.

"I have a black silk one that's my 'go to' piece," she says. "I also have a classic one I wear with boots. It's the dress that has stood the test of time."

The evolution of the shirtwaist was well underway by the 1890s, when women began pairing the blouses with matching skirts and referred to the still-corseted ensemble as a dress, says Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel University's Robert and Penny Fox historic costume collection.

Throughout the turn of the 20th century, the shirtwaist was the suffragette uniform, a sign that the woman wearing it was no longer beholden to the women-stay-home rules of the past. Also, because the blouse and matching skirt combo were popular on tennis courts and golf courses, the shirtwaist was considered among the first "athleisure" looks.

Chanel's newer, shorter hemlines and drop waists sent the shirtwaist style to the back of the boudoir until the 1940s, when Christian Dior's romantic New Look featured the modern-day shirtwaist silhouette: short sleeves, belted waist, collar and mid-thigh hemline.

In the 1950s, the dress featured reams of crinoline under the skirts and came in a variety of prints and colors — think Lucille Ball — from polka dots to plaid.

Since then, the shirtwaist has been a fast-fashion go-to because it's both practical and flattering on many body types. In the 1960s, the belt disappeared and the dress assumed a trapeze silhouette. In the 1970s, it was a slimmer fit, with a belted sheath and fashioned from softer rayon fabrics; the 1980s brought shoulder pads.

These days, thanks to fashion designer Thom Browne and clothing maker H&M, the shirtwaist dress is an oversize, belted or non-belted, crisp, pin-striped boyfriend shirt.

Emily Goodin, former owner of Boutique Couture in Chattanooga and now wardrobe stylist for Effortless Style and Etcetera in Nashville, says women tend to like the shirtwaist because they identify it with femininity.

"The combination of the collar, cinched waist and an A-line skirt accentuate only the positive of every woman's body," Goodin says. "Any body type, whether petite and thin or tall and curvy, can pull off this look."

West says today's updated versions of the dress are suitable for women of all ages and body shapes.

"A belted, straight style is good for a woman that needs to give herself more of a waist, but the full-figured woman should opt for an A-line style," she says.

Goodin says she generally thinks of twentysomethings when she considers the shirtwaist.

"The shirtwaist dress is a symbol of coming into ones womanhood," she says. "However, this doesn't mean other ages can't rock these dresses.

"There are so many occasions for which the dress is appropriate — luncheons, derby parties, a bridal or baby shower. Slip on a pair of dainty heels and some pearl earrings and you've arrived as a lady."

Tribune News Service contributed to this story.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com.

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