11 September 2013

A Shirt Is a Terrible Thing to Waist

Yesterday I quoted L. Frank Baum’s description in The Patchwork Girl of Oz of a Munchkin boy wearing “a blue ruffled waist.” When I first read that book, I must have glossed over the phrase because:

  • John R. Neill’s pictures show Ojo wearing a white shirt with a ruff around his neck.
  • I had no idea what a “ruffled waist” might be.
This year, thanks to Google Books, I solved that mystery for myself. In 1897, the American Home Magazine published this picture of a ruffled waist.
Elsewhere in the magazine are examples of a shirt waist, blouse waist, silk waist, Norfolk waist, tucked waist, full waist, draped waist, and military waist.

The magazine also used “waist” to mean a person’s midriff or its circumference, as we still use the term (and once in a metaphor for how “the Chesapeake, like a great arm, reaches up and entwines itself about the waist of Maryland”). But obviously turn-of-that-century readers understood that the word could mean a garment of the sort we’d call a shirt.

Thus, Baum described Ojo wearing a blue ruffled shirt, perhaps with vertical ruffles like this lady. And Neill chose instead to draw Ojo with a ruff around his neck and a plainly sewn, if floppy, white shirt.

Baum used “waist” in similar ways in his other fantasy novels. In Sky Island he described the boy Button-Bright this way: “He wore a blouse waist, a short jacket, and knickerbockers.” And in The Scarecrow of Oz, Button-Bright looks like this: “He was dressed in a brown velvet jacket and knickerbockers, with brown stockings, buckled shoes and a blue shirt-waist that had frills down its front.”

Baum always portrayed Button-Bright as an upper-class, fairly precious (though indestructible) little American boy. His mother or governess (he had both) therefore dressed him in loose, frilly shirts. Or, as his contemporaries would say, waists.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I'm sure I skipped right over "waist" in those instances, too. And now we know.

I've also come across "shirt-waist" in a notorious context, The Triangle Shirt-Waist Fire of 1911. "Upon finding that they could not use the doors to escape and the fire burning at their clothes and hair, the girls of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, aged mostly between 13 and 23 years of age, jumped 9 stories to their death. One after another the girls jumped to their deaths on the concrete over one hundred of feet below. Sometimes the girls jumped three and four at a time."

J. L. Bell said...

When I read about the Triangle Shirt-Waist Factory fire as a kid, I assumed that a "shirt-waist" was some variety of shirt. The usages above suggest that it was some variety of waist.