The shirtwaist dress, as it used to be called, has been around for decades in one guise or another. It is of course a standard style - a bit of Americana, in a way, as anyone who cares to trace its roots can take it back to the Gibson Girl, as well as to Somebody's Stenog, a hardworking comic strip heroine of the 1930s.
More recently, it has been on duty as a military adaptation, complete with patch pockets and epaulets, and in similar designs derived from safari gear. Elongated shirt dresses in stone-washed denim and other hearty fabrics have also acquired currency lately. But as a full-fledged dress of fine wool or silk, the kind that once was the mainstay of workaday wardrobes, the shirt dress has been a fashion dropout.
Having put it aside until the moment seemed right to bring it back, designers have chosen this season as the logical one for a big revival. Since its near-relation, the coat dress, went over well with professional women, what better time than the present for some revised editions of a neglected classic favorite?
Rechristened ''the tailored dress,'' it is out in force looking surprisingly new. It's longer, for one thing; the skirt is often a sweeping circle, and when the dress is worn - as it was shown by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and the Anne Klein company - over a white silk shirt, it has an entirely different air from its predecessors.
Among its advantages: It offers one-step dressing as opposed to a combination of blouse, jacket, and skirt or pants that, no matter what the process of selection, involves decisions over which piece is going to be right with which.
Most tailored dresses are wool or woolen blends - soft gabardine, challis, thin flannel, and supple menswear fabrics such as chalk stripes or fine checks being the main choices. Calvin Klein carried the idea on into dressier tie silks in dark tones that are unobtrusive enough to be worn to the office yet fit neatly into this year's mode of tailored looks for after-five and onward.
Most of the new styles have the long lapels characteristic of jackets and coats; some can in fact be worn as lightweight coats layered over a dress or sweater and pants. Well-cut but always loosely fitted, the latest versions of the old favorite may button down the front, wrap to one side, or have a double-breasted treatment. Among the various details: storm flaps, buttoned pockets, and shoulder tabs, in the manner of a trench coat. But many of the tailored dresses are simon-pure in looks, with no extraneous additions except for a good-looking belt.
Another kind of simple dress that is easy to slip into and can also be worn over a silk shirt is the calf-length knit or jersey. Unlike the usual sweater dress, it is amply cut and does not outline the curves of the body. There are knitted dresses in cashmere, lambswool, and angora mixtures, and in thin jersey. Adrienne Vittadini's versions in black have a softly flared skirt. The Calvin Klein wool jerseys, some with bloused tops and gathered skirts, others based on the T-shirt form, are dark green or black, and navy is the important color for Lauren's cashmere tailored dresses. The dark colorings are a plus for anyone seeking a quiet but well-turned-out look on the job.