The Garibaldi Shirt – the Blouse’s Direct Ancestor

The blouse is one of the most versatile items in women’s clothing. One can wear a blouse for different occasions and situations. It can be worn for work, school, casual and semi-formal events, or a fun date with your friends or your significant other. It is available long-sleeved, short-sleeved or sleeveless, or buttoned or zippered. It can be made of a variety of materials to suit any type of climate.

The versatility of the woman’s blouse is the number one reason why it still exists and remains popular up to now. Perhaps it’s time to dig deeper into the blouse’s direct ancestor – the Garibaldi shirt – which was also the precursor to the also-versatile shirtwaist of the Victorian period.

a black and white photo of Giuseppe Garibaldi
Italian general and patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, after whom the shirt is named

The Garibaldi shirt, also known as the Garibaldi jacket, is a woman’s shirt. It is named after the Italian folk hero Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 – 1882), who fought for his country’s independence by leading several military campaigns that eventually resulted in Italian unification.

Garibaldi_and_his_wife,_Anita,_defending_Rome_in_1849

In the picture above, you can see Garibaldi and his wife Anita (right) wearing red shirts. His followers were named “Redshirts” after the color of their blouses. This military blouse transitioned into a unisex blouse for civilian use. 

From the 1860s onwards, especially during the Civil War era, the Garibaldi shirt rose to popularity and exclusively became a blouse for women. It was the French empress, Eugénie de Montijo (main photo) who popularized the Garibaldi shirt as a women’s garment.

A woman wearing a Zouave jacket underneath what could be a Garibaldi shirt
A woman wearing a Zouave jacket underneath what could be a Garibaldi shirt

Women often wear the Garibaldi shirt underneath a Zouave jacket – a short jacket with an open front. But there are also cases that the shirt could also be worn by itself.

The Garibaldi shirt was originally red and typically made of merino wool; it was also known in Italian as “Camicia rossa” or “red shirt.” However, it later became available in different fabrics (such as muslin cotton), colors, and patterns. At the time, though, it seems that white, beige, and other light-colored Garibaldi shirts were among the most popular.

Like its descendants, the shirtwaist and blouse, the Garibaldi shirt was simple and versatile. Considering that restrictive garments (like the crinoline and bustle) were prevalent in 1800s fashion, the Garibaldi shirt was a welcome relief as it provided the wearer comfort and ease of movement.

Compared to the more elaborate women’s garments in the 1800s, the Garibaldi shirt was relatively simple. They were available plain or decorated with ruffles, pintucks, or delicate-looking lace collars. While the Garibaldi shirt was fashionable, it was also practical. The sleeves could be easily rolled up when there was work to be done. The shirt was also easy to wash and clean.

From Garibaldi shirt to shirtwaist to blouse

Shirtwaist designs of the early 1900s
A 1906 advertisement showing 16 different designs for shirtwaists

The Garibaldi shirt evolved into the shirtwaist (or simply waist) that became popular during the Victorian through the Edwardian eras. It was called shirtwaist because it was worn only above the waist, like the modern blouse. The shirtwaist’s construction was even much simpler, but it was still decorated with embroidery and lace.

A woman wearing a white blouse with bowtie and denim shorts
The modern blouse

As you can see in this picture, the modern blouse echoes the Garibaldi shirt and the shirtwaist. The term “blouse” today usually refers to any loose-fitting upper garment for women. 

Army Class A Blouse
US Army Class A blouse with ribbons

However, a blouse also refers to an army uniform jacket for men, which quite reminds us of the garment’s military roots.