Homage to the humble house dress

house_dress_fixedI know you’re out there, laughing derisively at the topic of today’s post but I kind of, sort of, only halfway care. And maybe today’s entry is proof positive I’ve taken leave of my senses but you never know, I could be on to the next big thing. Namely, house dresses.

On Sunday, better half and I went to an estate sale around the corner from our house. I used to be addicted to these to the extent I needed professional help but these days, my occasional foray amounts to prurient nosiness. Riffling through my former neighbor’s things amounts to a social survey of where we were and how far we’ve progressed -or not as the case may be. I was oddly attracted to a house dress which I didn’t even buy at the time. I liked the cheerful print, the sorts of prints quilters buy but I never have a use for. It had a full facing that folded into a revers neckline in front. The pockets were trimmed to the same effect. I woke up from my nap later in the afternoon knowing I had to have it and dashed off to get it for a token fifty cents.

I wore it for the rest of the day, convinced it was a superior garment for being so practical. Comfy, loose and with iphone sized pockets, what else could a girl want? To be sure it had problems. The armhole was too low, it was horizontal to the fullest part of the bust meaning I could scarce raise my arms. I pinned it at the shoulders and it was better. Then I brought it to work and threw it on a dress form, how would it look with a bit of shaping? Nothing drastically form fitting, just a little darting to make it look less a maternity top. Shown at right is the improved version with the shoulder line raised. Now it’s almost sporty looking.

Now this is my big idea and secret so don’t tell anyone. With the dramatic increase in retro apron popularity with SAHMs, maybe house dresses are the next big thing? I can envision all kinds of vintage details (cute and cuter!) used in these dresses that I wouldn’t have the guts to wear normally. I don’t have the personality to wear these well but I could enjoy them in a house dress. It would also give me an excuse to do more than sigh when walking by all those gorgeous quilting fabrics at the store. I could actually buy some yardage! And sew it into something! This would be a radical departure from my usual policy. Namely, purchasing motivated by pity; I give homeless fabric a nice place to live where it can remain safely intact but I wouldn’t go so far to say that buying would necessarily imply sewing but it could be a start.

Curious about this mainstay of Americana housewife apparel, I did a search. Housedress.com was taken since 1998, forward thinking that one, but hip house dress was available (panderous appeal to hip SAHMs who love retro aprons). It turns out there’s a book about them, The House Dress: A Story of Eroticism and Fashion. The text description reads:

The idea of the house dress is closely related to the concept of housework and domesticity. At the same time, it is distinguished by not being a uniform, thanks in particular to the decorations of the fabric. Starting in the late 1940s, a whole series of movies contributed to its image through a gallery of remarkable female characters, the latest of which is Pedro Almodovar’s film Volver, with a female lead who is equipped with a wardrobe full of beautifully ornamented house dresses. After taking into account its distinctive and expressive features, author Elda Danese traces the circumstances that led to the success and the worldwide use of the house dress over a period spanning from the 1920s to the present.

I also looked for a few samples online and priced them. It seems I’m the only one who suspects these are the next hot fashion item. Has no one considered that with the economy as it is, these could be big? Big I tell you! Prices here range from $36-$48. Another site, nursing home apparel has them for $24 and the styles were about as appealing as the url. Continuing with my search, I discovered that house dresses have even been used in the commission of crime, perish the thought. Mom? Stealing beer smuggled out under her house dress between her thighs? It happened. The horror of it all. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t publicise that. It wouldn’t help the image of my soon to be burgeoning retro house dress empire.

House dress has a younger kid sister. Her name is patio dress. Many look exactly like house dresses but judging from styles online, she’s usually a bit longer. Apparently, patio dress has been rumored to be the next fashion item. Even Neiman’s sells them. In addition, these are also called dusters and were -get this- patented in 1964. Amazing. I thought it was only recently that people attempted to file frivolous patents.

So maybe I’m being silly or showing my age that such things are starting to appeal to me -my mother’s clothes are looking better to me every year- but who knows? Seriously, considering the economy and a resurgence of interest in home making and dressing the part, these could become more popular. They might even leave the house to be worn on the street. I can’t imagine anyone could make a go of selling finished dresses at existing price points but maybe people would buy the patterns to make them. Done well, would you make and wear one? What do you think?

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  1. Diane S. says:

    I’ve been more attracted to loose comfortable skirts lately. I hadn’t thought of a house dress. I’m definately considering it after this post. I’m going to dig out some old patterns and see what I have. I’m also attracted by quilting cottons, but more often pass by them.
    Diane :D

  2. Jan says:

    Hi Kathleen. I wear a house dress every day. I make them myself, but I always use a good cotton such as Liberty or dotted Swiss because I want them to last through many washings and ironings and I find that cheap cottons aren’t worth my time. I make them so that they are easy to slip in and out of, usually over the head with a placket. I also wear a bib apron. I like to use pique cotton for my aprons because it does not require ironing and has some substance. I cut these on the bias so that they have a bit of shape. I change if I leave the house to put on something a bit more formal. As far as fashion goes, don’t forget Claire McCardell and her Popover Dress. I also find that nothing is as comfortable as a dress, hanging from the shoulders and skimming the body.

  3. I’ve been thinking lately about what I’m going to wear when I’m home on maternity leave and have family in the house. I bought two half-sleeve rib knit knee length dresses/gowns, but would feel more modest in a house dress. Maybe this will inspire me to sew a couple!

  4. Tiffany says:

    I’m 32 and single, and I adore the housedress. I have quite a few, and prefer them with pockets. I work at home, so I just throw one on after my morning shower. My favorite is a purple confection my grandmother gave me (because i would get it out of her closet and put it on everytime I visited).

  5. Thomas Cunningham says:

    Kathleen – I think this is a good idea. You would have to market it the right way — get it into the hands of the girls in brooklyn (and other hipster enclaves) that are all knitting like crazy these days — I think it could work . . .

  6. Becky says:

    I too adore the housedress, though a little more hip with fitting like Kathleen has done to her new treasure. And of course they must have pockets. I haven’t worn pants for seven years, prefering the dress, jumper or skirt. I even do gardening in them. The housedress idea is comfortable, cool in summer, and feminine. With the right fabrics they can even be worn outside the house. You could be onto something Kathleen. :)

  7. I love this idea! I work at home and have 4 children. I am tired of the “tried-to-look-like-I-got-dressed-tracksuit” I really think a cute dress in a fun print is the way to go! I may have to grab myself a pattern while they are still cheap!

  8. Grace says:

    Funny, I just bought Vogue 8577, which looks like a housedress with capacious pockets.

    Even bad moms like myself who work outside the home wear retro aprons.
    Here I am heading off to work in an apron.
    On this morning, I remembered to take it off on the way out the door. I don’t always remember.

    I posted a free pattern and pix of 3 samples here:
    They are made with quilting cottons.

    I don’t think I want to make a housedress out of quilting cottons. I want a softer cotton for a housedress. I made one out of rayon challis, but that was too soft. Liberty lawn (I bought 2 bolts in a fit of temporary insanity) would be too sheer. Suggestions?

    Call me on my cell tomorrow to hear about the latest skirmish in the working mommy vs SAHM war. How do I keep stepping into these?

  9. Sylvia says:

    I am wearing a house dress right now. I love them. I am even wearing crew socks with sandals which reminds me of my mother in the 40’s. She would wear my dad’s socks. I think I am turning into my mother. House dresses are the coming craze. We can all “feel” it. All of these sexy, form-fitting, fashions are becoming passé for me. I like innocence nowdays.

  10. BethLT says:

    I don’t know what distinguishes a housedress from another kind of dress, but I can say that I’ve recently decided (as a SAHM) that I’m finished with shorts and jeans and tops, and I want to wear only dresses from now on. I’m looking for the perfect pattern, having decided that a flattering dress shape is more important to me than variety in my wardrobe. I’ve decided this for comfort reasons, and also because I think that dresses are more flattering – the break in color at the waist doesn’t appeal to me. My dresses wouldn’t be just HOUSEdresses, though – I’d expect for them to be wearable outside the house, and to look better than my shorts usually do. (Yes, I am wearing a dress right now, and I’m not planning on going anywhere today.) But I’m not exactly the typical consumer.

  11. Deanna Tanner says:

    I would add to Karen’s definition:
    must have several pockets. My older aunt also stitched a similar coloured facecloth to hang from the waistband, because you always need a towel to dry your hands. It is really handy, and just washes with the dress. I like the idea of the pocket for the recipe card, not for cooking because I keep mine in photo albums because I am a spilly cook, but to keep your to do list handy. And a pocket for the cell phone, and a couple of large pockets for placing things that are in the wrong room.
    And I think something wrap around with a middrift band that would give a little bust support, then around home you could ditch the bra. Market to new Mom’s who want to feel pretty, but don’t have the same body anymore. Dress to impress yourself. (I write as I shoo the kids out the door, and sit down in my frumpy bathrobe. I will NEVER get a web cam)

  12. Kathleen,

    You are on to something, I’m sure. I like “cute” but not “cuter” and forget the muu-muu style. The dress you bought and updated is cute. I think with some style and comfort, you’ll appeal to all ages.


  13. shelly says:

    You must really be on to something by the amount of posts on the house dress subject. I immediately had fond visions of my mom in them., thanks. Looking forward to seeing you in one!

  14. Kim says:

    I think you have to be a certain age to remember the heyday of the housedress. I fondly remember seeing my mother in housedresses.

    Don’t forget about the housedress’ cousin, the housecoat.

  15. Kathleen says:

    Re: definition of a house dress. I agree with Karen’s comment except maybe a collar isn’t required but it should have some kind of neckline design treatment or even a yoke if it doesn’t have a collar. Also, I agree that pockets are a definite must.

    I’m not sure I understand the concept of attaching a face cloth but it gave me the idea that a feature to add would be a little loop through which one could pull the end of dish cloth or dust rag.

    To Shelly whose name isn’t really Shelly: I know what you’re getting for christmas. I think ruffles hemmed with ric rac (big ones, maybe pinafore style) would be charming on you so we’ll see who has the last laugh.

  16. Robyn says:

    I really enjoyed this post because I have been into vintage linens and embroidery and such things lately. (I really liked “The Kitchen Linens Book” after attending a recent book-signing.)

    Frankly, I can’t imagine wearing a housedress every day. I think I’d feel really frumpy. Also, I hate nothing more than changing clothes. Once I take a shower, I do my hair and makeup and put on whatever I will wear all day. When I worked at a restaurant, I’d put on my uniform hours before I had to be there — anything to avoid changing clothes. I’m not sure why.

    Then again, if I stayed home and cooked and cleaned and cared for children (which I think sounds quite nice after years in the work force), I might find a housedress to be really useful.

    Still, it’s a fun topic to explore. I love looking back on the eras of women that came before me. I love developing a new-found appreciation for the things they did/had that I dismissed before.

  17. Linda says:

    I’ve been wearing ‘housedresses’ at home since mmmm years. I live in Maui, so my dresses are short A-lines with pockets, 1″ straps and no sleeves.

  18. dosfashionistas says:

    Wow, look at all these comments! I am weighing in to say that this does indeed sound like an idea that has legs. Just think of all the great 50’s details you could work into the patterns…sleeve gussets, yokes, decorative pocket details. There were lots of things worked into dresses in that era that were there because they made it possible for women to move and get their work done while trying to have waistlines that rivaled Scarlott O’Hara (19″).

    I have no problem with the muu-muu version either. Texas is hot and I am large. Muu-muus are easy and comfortable. Caftans too.

    Question…Is this in any way connected to the fashion for long dresses for informal evenings that I see every time I go out to a restaurant? So far these are always semi-dressy. I have been waiting for them to get less dressy and move to daytime, but so far the only thing I have seen is a revival of longer skirts. And, idea for someone here, I have not seen a one of these for plus sizes. Neither dresses or skirts.

  19. dosfashionistas says:

    Actually, I am looking for something easy, comfortable, and cotton (in Plus Sizes) to sell. But it has to be cheap too. Haven’t found it yet.

    And I have to stand corrected. I looked at the link above for patio dresses and the first thing I saw was a plus size maxi-dress. Trust K….. to be right on style.

  20. Arnikka says:

    The only problem with the idea of the housedress as being the new hot item is that we are leaving the important ingredient of history out. Even though there has been a return in the 21st century towards domesticity, it seems to be one borne out of a nostalgic desire to briefly visit a by-gone era. Overall our society is not as formal as the era when house dresses were a staple.

    1.) Housedresses were never actually “in vogue”, they were a utilitarian fashion. They were an extension of the more formal suite of day apparel that a lady wore pre-WW2. Morning gowns, walking dresses, afternoon gowns…what a relief to have one simple house dress. Kathleen, you wrote that they stood in contrast to other garments constructed for the purposes of work because they were not a formal uniform. I respectfully disagree because the social & gender constructs of yesteryear indicate that they were indeed a uniform. What you end up with first is a garment that serves a purpose and then secondary to that purpose is the ensuing desire in the retail market to “pretty up” something that first and foremost serves as a functional tool. Picture oven mitts: they come in a variety of colors/patterns/styles…but their primary reason for existing is one of function.
    2.) The need for the house dress came about as a response to a much more formal society with rigid rules about appropriate dress for both genders with an emphasis on women. An appropriately clothed lady of the mid 20th century(when housedresses were a mainstay) just going out for a day of errands was expected to not only wear a dress and heels, but a full armor of undergarments, a hat, and even gloves. Every area of clothing had its own rigid set of guidelines. When was the last time that your average woman in the 21st century wore gloves? Kid gloves or lace gloves? What about gloves purely for driving? Your average woman in 2009 is not worrying about this on a run to the Quickie mart, I would guess. Women in those times also did not wear pants in general, certainly not in any public sphere. It was considered disrespectful and unfeminine. The lines between the genders was much more opaque, one would no more desire to wear pants as a full grown woman than a man would want to wear a dress. The majority of women stayed at home and the cult of the domestic goddess said that not only should a woman’s home sparkle but the woman as well. A house dress meant that the lady of the house could look decent while attending to the rigorous care of the home.

    3.) As such, house dresses were affordably priced in comparison to the dresses expected to be worn in public. They were as disposable a garment as a society pre-globalization could have. An accident with bleach while doing the laundry was okay because it was just the house dress that was ruined.

    In the Walmart era that we live in there is simply not enough of a dividing line in a woman’s closet or in our collective retail landscape to allocate a special place for a dress that may cost as much as the same shift that she purchased for work wear BUT that’s only meant for the house. It lacks the clear cut function of other apparel niche markets such as pajamas(comfort) or lingerie(seduction/personal likes). In a modern woman’s closet a house dress just becomes a dress…and not even the best house dress could stand up to that type of competition without losing the flavor that makes it a house dress.

    4.) Last but not least, the house dress was a class conscious piece of clothing. House dresses were worn by the middle and lower classes as they did work around their home. Women in the upper class, not so much. The upper class woman had an entirely different niche of lounge apparel. The profitability of the house dress rode the shoulders of the suburban middle class mom, the working class mom. Now–both of those moms have jobs generally. Yes, SAHMs are on the increase(I am one myself) but I can tell you that its still rare judging from the playgrounds that I take my children too that are filled with nannies…not other mommies. In terms of domestic splendor, DH is just as likely to clean toilets as the wife is these days.

    Re: the house dress as a fashion trend, I believe that we’ve already had that: the boho look.
    Re: Italian house dresses & Elda Danese’s book: casual fashion, of course the Italians then as now do it better!

    The apron is a different animal altogether as it still serves a function. No matter how modern we become, no matter how liberal our attitudes about gender, clothing, and the like become–we will still want to keep whatever we’re wearing clean while cooking. As always, you posed a wonderful topic though, the house dress is an apt symbol of so many things. This particular post reminds me of a portion of recommended reading for an apparel construction course that I took, it’s been awhile and I forgot the name of the book. The book devoted one of its chapters to the house dress as an example of the merge between fashion and society, as well as presenting issues regarding garment production & retail. Oh wow…I write too much!

  21. Kathleen says:

    Arnikka wrote

    Kathleen, you wrote that they stood in contrast to other garments constructed for the purposes of work because they were not a formal uniform.

    I printed but did not write that. That was a quote from the text description of the house dress book. Fwiw, I agree with you. I’d call it a uniform too.

    When you said this:

    The only problem with the idea of the housedress as being the new hot item is that we are leaving the important ingredient of history out. Even though there has been a return in the 21st century towards domesticity, it seems to be one borne out of a nostalgic desire to briefly visit a by-gone era. Overall our society is not as formal as the era when house dresses were a staple.

    …were you saying my super duper secret great idea is a dog? Wah! No need to justify your opinion (altho the info you provided was quite interesting) just say “woof”! Seriously, I enjoyed your comment very much. Don’t word economize in the future or we’ll all be the worse for it.

    I’m unlikely to pursue it but in the event I did, I think most consumers (your comments notwithstanding) aren’t going to think about wal-mart, history, domesticity, change in women’s roles or social class. I think they’ll look at it and think it’s either cute and worth the price or they’ll think it’s a dog and will go on to something else. Distilled, the costs amounts to the time to make a pattern, some money for cotton fabric and a web page. There’s very little risk involved. The only risk lies when people take themselves or their ideas too seriously.

  22. Arnikka says:

    I was absolutely NOT saying that your idea was a dog, lol! In the way that you mentioned approaching it in your response to me, it sounded quite profitable on the micro level. I do believe that there is a strong niche for that kind of thing. My response was more along the lines of answering the question of whether an entire industry category could spring up from it like there once was. I always love your ideas and your blog, I’m just one of those people–give me a lemonade stand and I’m going to think about a way to make a lemon empire…if only I had endless capital to go with my endless strategies!

  23. dosfashionistas says:

    Kids, Fashion always comes around again, but it is never the same, right? Don’t think cutsy cotton and retro details. Think dresses that are functional, in modern fabrics, OK maybe modern cottons, or knits. Maybe short, with tights for modesty. I’d wear it. And I’m 67. We have just had fashion very similar to this, only not functional in focus. And the longer top look just keeps gaining. There is a look here, just waiting to be born.

    There was an article in Threads about a decade or so back. A young woman living in a rural area up North designed and made herself some functional clothes for working outside in cold weather. I remember some great looking form fitting overalls with almost molded shaping for the bust and rounded pockets, very futuristic looking. But all very functional. It was a winter issue, if anyone wants to go look.

    I know I am taking this a different direction. But form follows function…basic Bauhaus principle. The original housedresses were made the way they were for function. For any 2000’s housedress to succeed, the form should arise out of natural function. And if it does, and meets a need, you will not be able to stop the buyers….and the knockoffs.

    I write too much too.

  24. Arnikka, I love your comment. Very well thought-out.

    What that says to me is that the housedress is what you wear when you aren’t wearing something expensive (in cash, in personal effort). These days, clothes aren’t expensive so there’s no point. And everything gets washed daily, so there’s no attempt to preserve clothes so they won’t need washing.

    Someone a little while ago was posting about children needing eight sets of pyjamas each, which I imagine means that they are changed nightly and the whole batch washed weekly. Someone else mentioned her children needing six pairs of pants plus two pairs of jeans each per season, which, again, I imagine means that the pants are changed daily.

    When I was a kid my clothes didn’t get changed that often and I think I only ever had one nightie at a time. My parents were young — my mother was still a student when I was born — and poor, and when I was little I had exactly two outfits to get me through each summer.

    Back in the days of housecoats, men and boys wore undershirts and women wore dress shields, which meant that shirts and dresses would not need to be washed daily. One changed into play clothes, a dressing gown or a housedress when at home to prevent the good clothes from getting dirty.

    Washing was a big deal, because not only was it hard on the clothes, it was hard to do. By the mid-sixties my mother didn’t have to wash clothes by hand, she could take them to the laundromat. She would bring home the wet clothes, carry them up to our second-floor apartment and hang them out on the line. (Remember, this included her babies’ diapers.) When my parents got their own washing machine in the early seventies, it was a wringer-washer and lived in the basement; the wet clothes still to be lugged up two flights of narrow back stairs to be hung out on the line.

    I asked my grandmother how she washed clothes in England during the war. She can’t really remember, but she imagines she washed them in the sink, though she would have sent the baby’s nappies out to a washerwoman for the first few months.

    This was a step up from when clothes really were expensive and most people only had two sets of clothes: their everyday clothes (worn six days a week) and their Sunday best. (Though it had to be more complicated than that, because you would have to have something to wear on wash day, which was Monday.)

    Well, what with peak oil, the uncertain economy and a water crunch, it looks like we’ll eventually be getting back to being careful with clothes and washing — though without the girdling of yore. I still don’t wash my clothes that often: I wear close-fitting t-shirts (that get washed relatively frequently) and a suit, jumper or sweater over them (that don’t). A silk scarf around the neck further protects suits. Similarly, underpants protect my pants so they don’t need to be washed daily either. At least, that’s my logic — though in these days of cheap clothes and laundry rooms with washers and dryers in every home, I am sure most people reading this are shrieking in disgust. (Note that I have a washer and dryer and a clothesline. I just don’t think things need to be washed that often.) (Though perhaps I’m not as exceptional as I think: when I wrote a blog post about bedmaking and mentioned that I change my fitted sheet weekly, I got a bunch of comments about how extraordinarily clean I am.)

  25. Wacky Hermit says:

    The housedress is way cute, but I couldn’t wear a housedress around the house. I do too much work sitting on the floor to make any kind of dress anything but an underwear show for me. Still, it sounds like a good fashion. It can be worn by both skinny ladies and fatties like me without showing everyone my rolls and buns (and I’m not talking about the ones I’m taking out of the oven!).

  26. Stormy says:

    Interesting post and comments. I stumbled across some vintage patterns at our local thrift shop recently and snapped them up. There are a few that fall into the house dress category. I also bought the more modern Vogue pattern that Grace mentioned. Have just been waiting for a lull to work on a new project. I love wearing dresses like this when I work on things at home – they are comfortable, have pockets to store things in, and, if made in a pretty enough fabric, they make me feel more elegant than shorts and a t-shirt do if I have to pop out to the store for a minute. The market might be small, but I’m sure you’d find a following if you started selling house dresses, Kathleen.

  27. Grace says:

    A garment with yards of nice cotton fabric won’t be cheap. But I love a good dress. I have worn my favorite dresses once a week or so for years. I live in SoCal so I wear the same clothes year-round. That makes my cost per wearing for a $150 dress reasonable.

    Like Alison, I don’t wash everything every wearing. When I worked as a wardrobe mistress, the costume director taught me to wash everything that touched the actors’ skin between each performance. But the rest of the stuff were washed only as needed.

    My kid rotates between a couple of nightgowns (as do I). Jeans get washed when they are dirty, about every 3 wearings. Shirts, underwear, socks get washed every wearing. We have relatively large wardrobes because we love color and variety and we hang on to our clothes a long time. We are not big shoppers and I don’t have time to make more than 1-2 garments per month.

    The decision about how often to wash, and how we wash, has more environmental impact than whether a shirt is made of polyester or organic bamboo. I wrote about that in

  28. Amy says:

    Hi Kathleen, I’ve been reading your blog for some time–it’s great.

    Seriously, considering the economy and a resurgence of interest in home making and dressing the part, these could become more popular.

    I recently got interested in house dresses and house coats – albeit a little more elegant and more sort of 40s hostess gown and less aprony. (I can’t do cutesy.) The vintage floor-length house dress patterns are going like hotcakes on ebay. I have friends in their 30s and 40s with similar lifestyles who work at home–graphic designers, illustrators, therapists–who are fashiony and don’t want to slump around in their yoga pants at home. There is definitely something to this idea of romantic but easy to wear house clothing–and not jeans. My 20-something friend wears a vintage house dress just like yours all day when she is painting. (Yeah, so it gets paint on it, too.) So it’s definitely got an appeal with younger women, too.

    Grace, I just bought that exact same Vogue pattern–hoping for a modern house dress. I’m redoing the top.

    Someone mentioned gardening in them. Seriously, there is another niche. I work in the garden quite often and there is a serious lack of durable but funky feminine clothes for gardening–with lots of pockets. Jeans are too hot for Texas. (I went hunting for a garden apron to hold all my pruners last year and they were all so borrring–i.e., solid-colored canvas, overly utilitarian-looking.)

  29. Kate in England says:

    I picked up that book – the Italian language version – on holiday in Florence early this year (it was in the museum gift shop) and I would have bought it only I wanted to be able to understand the words and my Italian ain’t that good… It was pretty fascinating, from what I remember, and there is a lot of stuff in there that looks pretty sexy.

  30. Joanna says:

    A housedress was an ordinary cotton dress with sleeves and a fitted bodice that women wore to do housekeeping, cooking, gardening, domestic chores. My paternal grandmother was born in 1887 and, I’m pretty sure, NEVER wore pants in her life. She wore starched and ironed cotton housedresses, bib aprons, an all-in-one corset undergarment, service-weight hose, lace-up oxfords with 2″ cuban heels, and a hairnet! My other grandmother was 16 years younger, didn’t wear housedresses, did wear pedal pushers and saddle shoes with anklets, and used “spray net.”

    The waistless garments with zippers or gripper snaps, yokes, and patch pockets were called housecoats, and they were worn over nightclothes, as in the morning while preparing and eating breakfast, or over undies and hose (and shoes) while getting dressed up or fixing your hair. They were always kind of like pajamas or bathrobes, so not worn out of the house.

  31. Nadine says:

    I love your housecoat, Kathleen! I’m addicted to my pinnies (bib-aprons) and wear them for cleaning and gardening as well as cooking. But I’m not into the cutesy-retro look – mine are dark cafe-waitstaff-style ones.

  32. Vesta says:

    I’m currently in a very small town in Northern Italy, with family. House dresses and aprons are still the norm here with the over-60 crowd. Also, little house dress-like over-clothes for pre-schoolers. This coincides nicely with the laundering theory, as you CAN NOT buy a clothes dryer here. All laundry is hung outside your window to dry. My sister-in-law, who came from Mexico, via the US, was just lamenting that fact the other day, because in the winter these little stink bugs love to climb into the drying clothes. So you put your hand in your jeans pocket and crush a bug, then have to change clothes lest you stink the place up. Gack. So I agree that easy laundering would probably limit the popularity of this trend. Shame, because I’d give the housedress a go.

  33. Sarah Jacobs says:

    I have been wearing dresses and skirts for casual wear my whole life. I grew up in a religious community where no women wore pants..But despite no longer being orthodix, i stil wear dresses and skirts all of the time. They allow me to look put together with out much effort.

    Half the time I feel like I am channeling a 1962 housewife.

  34. Marie-Christine says:

    I have 2 main occasions for house dresses: 1) doing the laundry when I’m in really desperate straights 2) hanging about the house when it’s too hot to be dressed. In winter, I usually wear flannel pjs at home and lots of woolies. In summer, the plunging view many neighbors have of almost my entire current apartment make some sort of attire desirable. But I also miss the kind of outrageous prints I could get away with, even at work, in California. So my best compromise is to use them for house dresses, which works in part because I otherwise never wear dresses (so I rarely stray outside with them on). Some sort of muu-muu approach is better for climate control, right now I’m doing Japanese zakka muu-muus, they’re a bit more chic.

    By the time I was a child, house dresses were baggy nylon things with little flowery prints, worn only by the old ladies in my grandmother’s village. Eeuw! My sister and I often refer to them as the lowest point of sartorial degradation. To me, they’re strictly utilitarian things which you wear instead of dirtying your good clothes, and only in the movies are they cute little printed things you might consider being caught dead in. I agree totally with Allison that better laundry facilities made them unnecessary, and frankly when I’m going to get filthy I usually just wear something too worn to wear otherwise.

    That said, considering the vogue for cute aprons I don’t see why the idea of cute housedresses might not be perfectly successful as the next wave of fashion…

  35. Donna says:

    I read the book yesterday (The House Dress, etc. etc.) and can find no similarity between what she calls a house dress and the dusters that are being referred to here. Nor do I remember my mother of the 1950’s – 60’s ever owning a duster, though she had plenty of cotton dresses for daily wear. These were simple dresses – she made them usually with a scoop neck, a close-fitting bodice, waistline seam and gathered skirt. This was pretty much what all the moms wore and they could pick the kids up from school in it and make a trip to the grocery store. These dresses had shaping darts and pockets and some detailing, like your altered version, which I think is quite cute, btw.

    Quilting cotton, I have found, is not as smooth and soft and comfortable as non-quilting cotton and therefore I don’t use it for clothing.

    I think the wrap-around style of dress shown in The House Dress that has ties instead of zippers would catch on, especially if it had an appealing name.

  36. Christina says:

    When I saw that you were interested in housedresses, I about gagged. The whole time I was growing up (in the 80s, believe it or not), my mother wore housedresses of the exact same style as those on the nursing home wear website. She has finally moved on to Tshirts & flannel pants & such. Dresses that are fitted only at the shoulder & big everywhere else are as frumpy as can be.

    But I do think that those more fitted 50s housedresses are awesome, and I own the previously mentioned Vogue pattern with the big pockets. (I love, love, love pockets and I adore vintage style.)

  37. Jinjer says:

    My former coworker Elaine had a fabulous housedress made of a heavy cotton–maybe it was for curtains, but it had an awesome & very daring print. After several years of sewing in the interior dec industry, I can say that int. dec. cottons are much sturdier than quilting cottons & often really, really cute, but pretty expensive.

    Anyway, Elaine’s dress was loose in the front, but had a fitted BACK waist, and for that reason, was plenty pretty enough to wear to work. The loose front/fitted back was accomplished with some clever pleats from the shoulder. very cute.

    Someone mentioned new moms as a good target market, and I concur– I was dying for a dress after I had my kid. I ended up having to make one. And if new moms are a possible market, make it easy to nurse a baby! (That front closure thing…)

  38. LizPf says:

    I’m a SAHM (also WAHM) who would not be caught in a house dress:

    – My mom wore them, always over her nightgown and no underwear. In my mind, a house dress is a bathrobe, and looks sloppy. [I loved my mother dearly, but would not copy her personal style.] I prefer to look dressed, as if I could run outside any second.

    – My tactile sensitivities, and our climate (New England) favor pants.

    – My “house work” is very different from that of the 1950’s SAHM. My work includes repairing toilets. tracing Ethernet wires, shoveling snow and yesterday, I was up on a ladder stuffing rock wool into framing cavities. [Sweat equity on a house remodel.] None of that is housedress work.

    My “at home” clothes are a shirt (l/s tee in cool months, camp shirt in summer) and pants: fleece, jeans, or summer weight. Though I’d love an outfit like Dosfashionistas mentioned:

    “There was an article in Threads about a decade or so back. A young woman living in a rural area up North designed and made herself some functional clothes for working outside in cold weather. I remember some great looking form fitting overalls with almost molded shaping for the bust and rounded pockets, very futuristic looking. But all very functional. It was a winter issue, if anyone wants to go look.”

    I’ll have to try to find a photo and make a pair … I love overalls.

  39. Mary Ann Caret says:

    Have been searching high and low for years for house dresses ala the 1940’s and 1950’s. I had a couple when I was first married in the 50’s from my grandmother and mother….loved them. Ran across similar types in a salvage store about 7 years ago and bought 4. Mostly much too large, but, that was fine since they were just for at home wear.
    I came on line because I am now down to 2. The others just finally wore out. Even for house wear.
    I have bought a couple of sundress types, and dusters, and patio styles on line. The quality and the designs are not great , but, the only things available, so far.
    I hope you are successful…..I have thought for years that they would be a good seller. Women get tired of always wearing pants around the house….plus, the dresses are much more comfortable and cooler.

  40. Eva Girl says:

    I’ve just found your post and a house dress is what I’ve been trying to find, but an up-to-date style. I love that they’re comfortable around the house, but you can still feel feminine and pretty! I’ve just posted about my version of the shirtwaist dress: http://theopulentpoppy.blogspot.com/2010/02/shirtwaist-dress.html
    if you check it out, let me know what you think. I think every SAHM would love to have some of these! Here’s to the new house dress fashion trend!!!!

  41. Sonja says:

    I have recently been looking for “housedress” patterns, which brought me to your website, but disappointed in the styles. I think you’re right….retro is the way to go! Thanks for the article.

  42. Odile says:

    The 90 degree heat we’re having day after day makes me crave something comfortable to wear, without being shorts and a tank top. There are places where shorts and tank tops simply won’t do. I googled housedress and came across your blog.

    A few caveats: Quilting cotton will require ironing after each wash, otherwise it is a hopeless wrinkled mess. Taking out an iron and ironing board in this heat? Central air conditioning or not, it isn’t going to happen! I’ll curl up with an ice pick or a mimosa instead!

    The muumuu shapes and the zip front styles scream “nursing home,” as do cutesy appliques. Gaack!

    My current alternatives to shorts/tank tops are tee shirt dresses. However, after checking on Etsy for housedresses, some of the vintage ones are reasonably attractive, attractive enough to run to the supermarket or post office, that is, or take the kids to the park.

  43. Paula Sachs says:

    On my mind lots of the time… since, when I come home from work I want to throw on an easily worn:comfortable, non-binding: stretchy … hip… as opposed to muu muu style of thing, that I could even run out and buy a quart of milk with… THEY DO NOT EXIST. I HAVE SEARCHED EVERYWHERE.

    I like the style as above and the fabric look but alas no stretch… hummm…

  44. I want to point out that Vogue 8813 is Marcy Tilton’s version of a French woman’s housecoat. I like it because it is attractive and interesting without being revealing or sexy.

  45. KRISTIN VOGEL says:

    This was a staple clothing item for my grandmother. Fast forward to 2020 & Batsheva is selling house dresses for +$200! So now I’m looking for a good pattern and some fun fabric for my Covid (and probably post-Covid) Couture. Between the baking and gardening and this, I have turned into my P-Paw!

    • Sylvia says:

      I love the old house dresses my mother used to wear while pinning clothes to the clothesline. Batsheva’s dresses look pretty easy to make but I don’t like them as much. Check out my designs and fabric at Humpty Label. I have some old patterns I am going to re-visit. I sense a challenge here.

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