I hope everyone enjoyed puzzling through yesterday’s vintage item what-is-it. There were some really good educated guesses. As I pointed out, this item has more than one use, and all of them were actually brought up in your comments.
from the March, 1898 Glass of Fashion
This is indeed a dickey, or as it was sometimes called, a shield, to go under a child’s sailor dress. I love what Christina wrote in the comments, so I’m just going to copy her explanation:
I think this is a dickie or shield to be worn as part of a sailor suit for boys and girls. The sailor suits were worn by boys from c1840′s but became very popular later in the era after Prince Edward dressed his sons in sailor suits. I don’t know exactly when this style of dickie or shield was first seen but this example might be from the early 1900′s. So, for girls they are often seen being worn under a middy blouse with a skirt and the boys outfit originally copied the seaman’s uniform of the Royal Navy and they wore trousers.
This is a shield, and it was not only worn by children, but by women as well. Becca found this excellent page from an early 20th century catalog in Google books. These sailor suits for women relaxed into the middy, so I’m going to count Hollis’s answer as correct as well.
Many of the bathing suits before 1920 were sailing inspired, and often the top was very much like a middy. Yes, these were used as modesty panels on bathing suits, so Mod Betty gets a nice pat on the back as well!
Here again, you see the same anchor with a rope motif embroidered onto a shield. Sailing motifs in general were quite popular. Most middies have one either embroidered to the fabric, or attached as an applique or a patch. I’ve seen the appliques advertised for sale for women who sewed their own middies or bathing suits.
I really thought all the medical guesses were interesting, so I went looking for some vintage photos of nurses. Nurses before 1920 or so did often wear a collar of this type, but it was attached to their apron. Funny, I had not thought of a nurse’s dress at all until so many of you mentioned it, and then I began to wonder if there wasn’t something to it!