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Motherhood: Donna Reed & The Shirtwaist Dress

In the mid to late 1950s television began to reinforce the shirtwaist as a mother’s uniform on family comedy TV shows such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and later, The Donna Reed Show.  These shows reinforced the idea that a responsible or “good” woman [or mother] is well put together at all times, and that her place was in the home. [i] With the advent and prevalence of television, women were shown doing housework in the most perfect of ensembles, including Dior inspired shirtwaists, with high heels, and pearls.  Early television shows, such as The Honeymooners had been slightly more realistic and less idealistic than later shows such as Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Donna Reed Show.

In addition, the later 1950s saw a dramatic shift in terms of influence as television began to outweigh all other media types.  Television Historian Mary Ellen Zuckerman explains that, “by the mid-fifties it was clear that television could attract larger audiences than any of the older media, even with the cut-rate subscriptions increasingly offered by magazines” (203).

Television characters affected how women felt about themselves and their capabilities, both in terms of motherhood as well as in terms of appearance.[ii] In 1959, Donna Reed was given an award for her character on The Donna Reed Show from the founders of Mothers Day (The American Mother’s Committee), reinforcing the notion that women should be mothers who strive for perfection (Chapman; Fane 107).  William Roberts, who created the characters for The Donna Reed Show described her character as “wife, mother, companion, booster, nurse, housekeeper, cook, laundress, gardener, bookkeeper, clubwoman, choir singer, PTA officer, Scout leader, and at the same time effervescent, immaculate, and pretty” (Fultz 118).  Moreover, her character and unrealistic perfection helped to solidify the shirtwaist dress as an icon of female perfection for American Culture.

-This has been an excerpt from my 2009 article on the Shirtwaist Dress, published in the Journal of American Culture.


[i] Of “the goodwife “Her setting was the home and she was seldom seen outside it.  Her uniform was the apron and later, the housedress”  (Meehan 34).

[ii] “Titles such as ‘Do You Make These Beauty Blunders?’” suggested just how close women could be to making mistakes and did little to alleviate the anxieties about personal appearance that were also being fostered by films, and later, television”  (Walker 193).

Sources:

Vaughan, Heather A. “Icon: Tracing the History of the Shirtwaist Dress” Journal of American Culture, Vol 32, Issue 1 (March 2009) pp 29-37.

Chapman, Priscilla. “Donna Reed Wins citation for Television Family Show.” New York Herald Tribune 20 May 1959.

Fane, Xenia Flyer.  “Television Image of the Father: A Comparison of the Father Image Held by Home Economics Teachers with the Image Perceived by High School Students on Commercial Television.”  Diss. New York U, 1965.

Fultz, Jay.  In Search of Donna Reed.  Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1998.

Meehan, Diana M. Ladies of the Evening: Women Characters of Prime-time Television.  Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Walker, Nancy A. Shaping Our Mothers’ World: American Women’s Magazines.  Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 2000.

Zuckerman, Mary Ellen. A History of Popular Women’s Magazines in the United States, 1792-1995.  Westport: Greenwood P, 1998.

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