Glossary – Pneumonia Blouse

White cotton ‘pneumonia’ blouses, c. 1910s

Diaphanous cotton batiste shirtwaists, often trimmed with lace and decorated with whitework embroidery were slangily referred to as ‘pneumonia blouses’ as early as 1905. The pneumonia term is often erroneously thought to date back to the Spanish Influenza of 1918/19, but in fact, the term was falling from use around that time possibly because the term was no longer amusing in light of the severity of the Spanish Influenza.

The term shows up in the 1906 novel ‘A Waif’s Progress’, by Rhoda Broughton, the heroine gets a bad cold “The result of a pneumonia blouse, I suppose! As long as girls strip themselves naked in January they cannot be surprised at their chests and lungs resenting it.”

That same year an article appeared in the New Zealand newspaper The Evening Post referring to a backlash that had started the year before in the U.S. against the style that Americans were calling the ‘peekaboo waist’:

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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