Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The House Dress: a Humble History

When I think of house dresses, I usually think of cheap, matronly, brightly-printed sack dresses sold on the sidewalk outside the dollar stores in my neighborhood. But I've recently begun an inexplicable obsession with vintage house dress patterns that has completely turned around my thinking on the matter. Having now looked at every single entry in the this category of the vintage pattern wiki, I think it's safe to say that I've spent more time thinking about house dresses than I ever could have imagined.

First off, what is a house dress? Basically any relatively loose-fitting day dress with easy closures (usually in the front) that was worn to do household chores in. They seem to have started out as simple wrap shapes, like this one:
But you'll also see lots with zip-fronts (my personal fave), as well as more day-dress attributes: buttons, interesting collars, sashes, etc.

But aside from all the cool design features, I've found myself pondering the history and symbolism of the house dress, and I was fascinated to learn that an entire book has been published on the subject. The House Dress: a Story of Eroticism and Fashion looks at the evolution of this garment and goes on to suggest that Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses are direct descendants of the humble house dress. (In this interview with the author, that theory seems a little foggy, but it's still an interesting idea.) But this piece of copy is what really caught my eye:
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.
In other words, there's a whole lot of gender, class, and race stuff all wrapped up into one seemingly innocuous garment. Women were relegated to domestic work, but there were varying statuses of this kind of work. To be a housekeeper in a hotel would be on the low end of the status spectrum, while being a housewife would carry great status. And yet the clothes were generally quite similar, as the author of the book above points out. See how closely the house dress silhouette resembles a waitress or maid uniform?

And the theory that fabric choice and decoration were the distinguishing factors in this complicated minefield of utilitarian garb is a fascinating one, especially when you look at the ubiquity of trims and appliques in these patterns. Ric rac was very prevalent on house dresses, as were lace and ruffles. But then other trims were more creative. Look at the heart pocket on this late 1930s pattern! I die.

Or perhaps you'd like your pattern with carrot embroidery transfers included?

A matching oven mitt? (Apparently you hook the oven mitt into your dress's belt, so it never leaves your side! Better go get that pie out of the oven!)

Another interesting class signifier is the variations in each pattern. House dress patterns were often sold in two lengths, with the floor length being called a "brunch coat" or "hostess gown." How glam! And doesn't it just scream "Sadie, Married Lady" rather than housemaid?

Over time, the house dress morphed into the more matronly silhouette that we now associate it with.

Silhouettes became more boxy, with gathers over the bust, creating a more tent-like shape.

But I'd prefer to remember the house dresses of earlier days, with their cute pockets and such.

In fact, I'm pretty dead set on making some house dresses for the summer. I think it could be an interesting experiment. How wearable are these dresses today? Do they still scream HOUSEWIFE! or MAID! depending on your fabric and trim choices?

What do you think, dear readers? Are you with me on the house dress love?


  1. I am with you on the house dress love! They're totally wearable today. How much more fun would it be to throw on a little shirtdress or wrap dress on the weekend, instead of sweats and a tank top? Especially the one with the heart pocket - love it! To me, they don't scream housewife or maid, the look isn't 'uniform' unless you purposely make it so (black with white trim, etc).
    Look forward to seeing what you come up with.. and what other people think!

  2. Oh my gracious! Right now I have no comments on your post because I noticed that the first pattern pic that you selected has been reproduced as a pattern by Decades of Style (I have no affiliation). The illustration is even the same! :) I believe that DoS selects patterns that are out of print, so that there are no copyright problems. I bought the 4002 dress pattern last autumn with the idea that I can make it up as a dress for work! :) Right now, it's still in the envelope.

    Rose in SV

  3. Thanks for linking to that Decades of Style pattern, Rose! I had meant to, but it slipped my mind. :)

  4. I LOVE house dresses! It's actually the main thing I sew and wear. I am a big fan of dressing in the vintage style that reflects who you are in "real" life, and being that I am - well, not a housewife, but a very average woman who works hard for living, the house dress seems like the most logical and practical thing for me to wear. And on weekends, I most definitely AM a housewife and I find the loose fit and roomy pockets are so helpful with doing chores or shopping.

    I also have a fondness for zip fronts (great for sewing days when you need to constantly undress and try on your project for fitting). My current favorite pattern is actually that first one your posted (the Decades of Style reprint). I modified it to make it zipper front as that just seems more practical. Plus, snaps down the front just ask to bust open and humiliate.

    I've made three of these dresses so far and I love them! I highly recommend that pattern.

  5. I have two dresses that I've designated house dresses, though they are just made from a simple princess seam strappy pattern. I think it's a great way to put something on easily without having to worry about bras and whatnot. Last summer I probably wore one of those dresses at least a small bit almost every day.

  6. Being of a certain "ahem" age, I remember my mother vacuuming in her house dress and pearls.....complete with high heels. House dresses did not necessarily look "workmanlike". Some were quite pretty, as I remember. By the time I was doing housework, we wore jeans and all manner of pants. Dresses were for church and dress up.

  7. My grandmother used to make housedresses. I definitely associate them with being shapeless, so its nice to see the smart lines of much earlier dresses. I found this post really interesting.

    I think I could be persuaded to wear one, especially having recently embraced the apron. They must be close relatives in many ways .... utilitarian in function, but varied in design?

  8. These are great. My understanding is that a house dress is what you'd wear when you came home and wanted to save your street clothes, invariably of finer stuff.

    By today's standards, however, I think most of these would be perfectly suitable for an evening out at Le Cirque. Without the oven mitt, of course!

  9. I have a made vintage house dresses. They are much cooler to wear in the summer heat. The comment I get "on the street" is "Oh you look nice. Where are you going? To church?" Sew away. The old dress look great and feel great too!

  10. I hate the concept of the house dress. I prefer the apron, which can be worn to do house chores by BOTH men and women, on top of your regular clothes.

  11. I love house dresses! Plus the front closure makes it easy to do pincurls and to do your hair up and change without messing it up!

  12. House dresses are the best! I live in them Spring - Fall here in sunny southern Cali when at home. I used to have one that snapped down the front and wore that thing (literally) to death. I agree with Moe on the usefulness of snaps...hadn't thought about the zipper front but that is a great idea. I also have several of the sheath type that I can throw on over my head, but I think the traditional styles are better, and of course, more stylish.

  13. I think house dresses are lovely and oh so comfortable and feminine when putting around the house. I think whether it's nice or not depends on your fabric choice. I prefer the earlier house dresses versus the boxy ones. I adore the heart pocket.

    I think when we are home, we want to be comfortable and pretty at the same time. The housedress certainly beats a muu muu any day as far as style goes, but affords the same comfort.

    A zip front or shirt dress is perfect to wear if you have a nursing baby; so keep that in mind for the future.

  14. You totally read my mind. I've never post here but today I felt obligued. Yesterday I got in the mail a wonderful house dress from the 40's I'd say & I started thinking about those kind of dresses. And today you just make a fantastic entry on them. Great! Thanks!
    Link to the house dress-->

  15. Completely with you on that one! I've found myself acquiring quite a few house dress patterns recently and after a six month hiatus from sewing, I finally got round to making Simplicity 2842 (listed in the wiki). I used a cute little retro cactus fabric and... I'm almost really pleased with the result. The illustration on the pattern makes it look like a full wrap dress however the finished result is rather more, well, 'house-dressy' I guess... I can wear it in the summer if the weather isn't too blustery, but chances are I'll be revealing rather more leg than I intend to as the foldover wrap isn't quite as pronounced in real-life as it is on the envelope (despite all my measurements being spot on for the pattern). I fully intend to be making more house-dresses, but that's something I'll be watching out for next time (guess if I'd made a muslin, I'd have been forewarned... but that was yesterday's conversation!).

  16. I have a couple of cracking house dress patterns that I inherited from an elderly aunt, that I intend to start working on this spring/summer... between the pleating details and the pockets, they're certainly not plain-looking dresses! Great post, Gertie, inspiring as always...

    Moe: I know what you mean, constantly trying on - though don't you find you often end up just sewing in your pants and vest* to make it easier? It's the only time Mr RG really appreciates my sewing...!

    *this being 'knickers and a vest top' in non-US english, I guess?

  17. What a very cool post!! I've never felt the house dress love. Kind of like aprons, I don't get the nostalgia, but that's just me. But I do really like the brunch coat - go figure. I had never thought of the DVF wrap as a descendant of the house dress. So cool!

  18. The house dress is infinitely more glamorous than its equally utilitarian modern equivalents -- T-shirt and jeans or yoga pants -- but it is, like so many other appealing wardrobe options, out of the question for about 9 months of the cold, damp, foggy British year. I spent most of the winter in my uninsulated flat dressed more like Scott of the Antarctic than June Cleaver. Any insights into how to be both feminine and warm at home would be welcomed.

  19. The thing about is... Back when day dresses were popular, a lot of wmen didn't work outside the home. So this was their 'work' ensemble. Women had clothes for evening, church and such, but since homemaking was their job, this is what was needed.

    I have a few 'day dresses.' I call them house dresses. I wear them when I'm in the house doing all the happy frivolity of domesticity. I only have a few and they are sacks that I would have to kill anyone who saw me in them.


  20. My grandmother (back in the 70's in Venezuela) used house dresses, but not my mom. In Venezuela they were called "fustan" (I guess from the french fustian or maybe arabic). For me it was always very funny to see grandma in those boxy dresses!!!!

  21. I am totally with you on the housedress love, especially that last one with the little collar and the tulip pockets. I think I might have to track that down.

  22. I'd totally wear some of those as casual summer dresses. I really like the wrap ones.

  23. I'm a big fan of houses dresses, as I have different levels of clothing - house, street and work.

    Some house clothes can be street clothes, and some street clothes can be work clothes. Most work clothes get nudged down to street and house after a while too.

    For me though, a house dress is something comfy to wear that I may not necessarily feel comfortable walking outside in. For the most part, in the summer, this means simple cotton dresses that I can't wear a bra with. OK for the house, not OK for the street!

    I'm totally in love with some of the older vantage ones, but considering I can buy a dress at old navy for like, $15, I just can't picture myself making one...

  24. I like the more tailored house dresses. They look comfortable without being over the top. In the summer I would think they would be more comfortable then a shirt with a pair of shorts or skirt.

  25. My mother taught me the art of "reclining" and she loved caftans, and muu muus. But my aunt and one cousin wore thier house dresses with girdles, slips, stockings and al a Donna Reed; earrings.
    I love cool cotton dresses. I live on the beach in Southern Baja.
    a few months back I had an "aha Baja" moment!
    I was stepping out of the afetrnoon shower ( after sunning, sewing and swimming all day) it was hot, I had nothing light and cool to wear, so I have started making "afeter shower dresses" . I cannot bring myself to call them house dresses.
    I rent my guest house, and want to look presentable for my guests, so I use bright colors and lots of style. They always ask where i found my dresses. They would like to run to town and get one or two!
    My latest project, after the black dress for the formal wedding I am attending on Saturday, is a fine white cotton batiste embroiderred in cool colors. It will be a short-sleeve wrap. Since it is really heating up I am making it knee length.

  26. I love the house dress! I have fond memories of my grandmother doing her housework/cooking/baking in a housedress that she most likely made herself. She had all kinds... button up, zip up, but always worthy of leaving the house, too.

    I would totally wear one!

  27. I am *so* with you on the house-dress love! Can't wait to see what you make!

    I've been dying to make a bathrobe similar to the buttoned floor length dress - only with long sleeves of course.

    Why can't all aspects of life be glamorous? :)

  28. All feminist notions aside for one moment, guys dig house dresses! I have 2 house type dresses and I get much more respect (and lovin:))when I wear them. I cringe AND laugh as I say this. It kind of pisses me off that a piece of clothing would make my job seem more legit, but I really do love the comfort and style of the house dress. I love dresses in general because you don't have to pair anything, you just put it on and you're instantly more glamorous. Woo-hoo!

  29. I love house dresses! Most of my day dresses are made from house dress patterns. In today's fashion climate, any dress is considered dressy, so a vintage house dress can go from housework to shopping and even lunch with the ladies.

  30. I ADORE them! The floor length one is FABULOUS! I have been lusting over making them for a couple of months...even more I love the pinafore dress! You should do an entry on those too!- Backseat Betty

  31. Ha ha - just had to laught at repurposed girl - my boy LOVES it when I'm in the try on and sew phase... I prance around in a robe in the middle of the day!

    I've been totally thinking on making some house dresses. I'm part of the great layoff and living the life of a stay-at-home-puppy mom while perfecting all of my handwork skills. And vacuumining a lot! I've been very aware in the last year of NOT falling into the trap of 'I'm not working so lipstick's not required.' I like to look good - it makes me feel better and it keeps it fun for when the boy gets home after work. I was a total suit wearer in my work life and since being laid off, I've been living in jeans, camis, turtle necks and capris with lots of snaps and ties - I'm missing the girly in my wardrobe!

    I DO garden a lot, and have a dog, and I've found that as I've built a 'casual' wardrobe (I only had one pair of jeans before I was laid off, no casual clothes to speak of) I've really gravitated towards the capris with, you know, cargo pockets, ties to make them different lengths - something that I will have lots of storage for gardening tools, dog bags, treats, phones, ipods, money, etc. Plus, in the summer, it's nice to have something that will cover my knees for crawling around in the garden, but also be cool.

    Of course a housedress can't do all those things, but with some pockets, I can TOTALLY see those for the summer when I'm NOT out in the yard!

    Interestingly, I just saw another post on a different blog the other day re. housedresses ( and I was surprised. My grandmother LIVED in the type of shapeless housedress popular in the 70's, in current big 4 large size patterns, and in the super lame lane bryant catalog (all you larger girls totally know what I'm talking about...) I hadn't really realized the older, cute shape with a waist style of dress was also a housedress!

    I'll be looking to find a pattern to grade up or a contemporary pattern to convert to this style! I love it!

  32. Ok, this is going to be a long comment, but I hope you all will find it interesting.

    First off, I too feel the love of house dresses. I trease my Vogue pattern of one from the early 50s. It's a wrap style with cap sleeves and comes in a long and short option. I made the long one and use it as a house-coat-ey dress and I lurrrv it! Thanks for helping to remind me that I want to make the short version for doing housework (and wearing out of the house too!). Who says you have to look like a drudge when doing housework? Or that's it's impractical to wear something nice looking, you just need easy-care fabric!

    Secondly, your comments regarding the similar styles of housedresses between classes, and how fabric was used to distinguish struck me. While my sewing is mostly modern (which to me means mid-20th c to the present), as a dress historian I currently study primarily 18th century clothing. Your observations exactly mirror the situation of clothing at that time as well. Clothing styles in the 18th century were, in general, homogenous between classes with the fabric and trimming choices acting as distinguishers. There was a house dress equivalent then as well, known as the 'bed gown' which was actually a jacket very simple in cut and fairly loose.

    It was worn by women of many social ranks, however it was used differently between them. Similarly to what you observed yourself, labouring women wore them for working in, they were inexpensive, serviceable, and comfortable. More elite women had them made in costlier fabrics and wore them exlusively inside the home as a form of deshabille (undress). Elite women would never have worn them in public as labouring women did.

    I had thought the same-style-different-fabric-between-classes phenomenon was mostly particular to the 18th century, apparently I was mistaken! Thanks so much for this post!

  33. First off, I am totally with you on the love. Even my very non-dress-wearing partner wants me to make her one for kicking around the house this summer, after she jokingly tried on a dress of mine and was like, whoa this is way more cool and comfortable than shorts and a tee shirt.
    It's interesting, though, to look at what a complex and varied wardrobe-for-home womenfolk have had, looking at the 1930s anyway. You've got the swanky pyjamas, your morning frock, then the housecoat, the bathrobe, your nightgown and bedjacket, and I guess a negligee or kimono if you're feeling saucy. My opinion has always been that if you're going to be a homebody, do it in style.

  34. Just wanted to add - I have always been under the impression - right up until the last time I was in Joanns flipping through patterns (like, yesterday) that the housedress of the shapeless variety was a sort of nightgown/bathrobe, unsuitable for wearing outdoors! I actually commented to a friend that some of the simplicity patterns were ridiculous to term "dresses" becasue they were nightgowns!

  35. I'm so glad you wrote this! I have been recently searching for a good 30's, 40's or 50's house dress pattern. Something you might see a farmer's wife wear. I'm seeing it in a sweet cotton lawn or voile. Really lightweight and breezy for the Florida heat.

    You always have something interesting to say and I love that.

  36. Last year I bought 7 house dress patterns with the intention of making them for everyday wear. The earlier ones have the charm I was looking for where as I stayed away from the "Mrs Roper" style from the recent past.

    As for fabric choices, go with what you love and keep a close eye on the trim to prevent the housemaid style. Mind you it is practical at home for the domestic duties!

    My favorites are a 50's Butterick 6418 for everyday and a 50's Vogue 7212 for leisure. Now if only I could make a final fabric decision and start cutting.

  37. These are so cute! One of the iconic house dresses was the Popover that Claire McCardell designed during WWII. That one also came with an oven mitt! I think they're adorable, and as long as they are done up in more modern material and colors that they could be very wearable! :)

  38. You read my mind! I was just thinking that I needed a housedress. Getting dressed is a way of saying I am up and I don't really feel awake still in my jim jams but some days I don't really need to get dressed.
    I like the older ones with the cute pockets and such better than the muu muu type as well. interesting that there is a book and interesting about same dress different fabric and function too. Thanks Gertie!

  39. I too share your love for all things retro, especially clothing. Last weekend I was flipping through my vintage patterns wanting to make some new threads for myself for a change and was drawn to my house dress patterns. I've started the muslins and can't wait to begin the actual pieces. I'll be sure to share the finished garments with you!

  40. Your post brought memories of my childhood of the 40's and 50's. We lived on a farm and ALL the women in the town and farm (were housewivesalmost all did not work outside the home except for those who were clerks in stores and a few office workers). The women wore housedresses to do their houserwork--no one wore slacks or jeans. Many of the dresses were made from colorful, printed feedsacks or inexpensive calico. There were no drip-dry fabrics and all had to be washed, using wringer washer machines, hung on the line to dry and starched and ironed for the next week's wearing. My mother, along with all her friends, also had a large wardrobe of aprons (cobbler type with large pockets) to keep their clothes clean. If someone would drop by unexpectedly, the apron could be whipped off and the wearer could greet the guest wearing a clean dress.

    The boxy version that you showed was called a housecoat (ie robe) and was never worn past 7:30 AM. My mother never wore slacks or jeans until the 60's and then never to do housework. She still wore her beloved housedresses.

    I, her daughter, have never owned a housedress and will never. I do not see the charm in these little
    "frocks" as I associate the housedress with hard work.

  41. I really appreciate your deconstruction here! I think it's always useful to remember that the class of fifties housewives, in particular, were not just women who'd "always been at home" - they were members of a class that had only just been invented with the rise of suburbia, a lot of whom had had jobs outside the home that involved overalls just a few years previously. I always find it interesting to look at these very retro patterns and consider that when they were printed this was how a modern, futuristic person dressed.

  42. Mary in Winston-Salem, NCApril 8, 2010 at 11:39 AM

    I am thrilled to find your blog while searching for housedress sewing patterns. I would prefer to wear a housedress while working in my kitchen garden and doing cleaning rather than ruining my shorts and tops! I love the wrap-style dress that "Ethel" wore in many I Love Lucy episodes. It wrapped and closed in the back (wish I knew where one of those sewing patterns is)!

  43. I personally am not as into the house dress as you are, though the first one you posted is very cute! I'm more into vintage aprons, but I can see how that could cross further into "housemaid" than "housewife".

  44. I *am* a housewife... and a housedress is a practical little piece of clothing. Something cute enough to be not a schmub and comfortable and practical too? Sign me up!

    My grandma used to wear the matronly version... I remember they were made of the thinnest possible cotton. How nice that would be to wear to work on a hot day - much nicer than even a tshirt.

    I'm thinking of making a quick cotton version of Butterick 4790 as a housedress for m'self. There was this darling fabric.... :)

  45. As a child of the 1950s, I remember my mother wearing some of those housedresses. It seems to me that the change from fitted to boxy shape can be partially traced to the baby boom. Pregnancy=lost waistlines, thus the need for a roomier cut.

    It wasn't just the housewives who had different clothes for different occasions. I strongly recall coming home from school and changing into my "play clothes." Girls did not wear pants to school and we sure didn't want to mess up our dresses. For many years my mom used a wringer washer and did not have a dryer so it was laborious to do the laundry. Clothes didn't get popped into the laundry pile willy nilly.

    Now that everyday wear has swung waaaay past casual, it's ironic that some of your posters get asked if they are dressed up when wearing a garment once meant for dirty work!

  46. Such great patterns! I have a vintage zip front housedress I bought years ago that I live in in the summer. It's a riot of bright turquoise flowers -- great for wearing out or for gardening and wiping my dirty hands on. There's something nice about having a dress that you don't have to treat as "dressy."

  47. My grandmother in Tennessee would wear house dresses (very much like the ones in the first envelope-- and btw, I did make the Decades of Style reproduction out of squirrel fabric! I'll have to wait to post a pic, since I'm seven months pregnant). She lived on a farm; so for her, the house dresses were practical in comfort (no worries if you got dirty doing farm chores, or the cooking/cleaning/raising children that she did so well in the 30s) and frugality (gingham or the cotton prints were cheaper then the "nice" clothes she would wear to church or when she went to town, so it was not such a hardship to replace what she wore daily, even in the Depression). So to say I have fond memories of this outfit is an understatement :)

  48. Sorry about this, but I couldn't help myself -- I hope you like it Gertie!

    (To the tune of "Just a Housewife, from the musical "Working" with apologies to Stephen Sondheim)

    All I am is... just a housedress.
    Nothing special, nothing great
    Wear me when you mop the kitchen
    Shop for groceries, clean a plate.

    Wear me if you’re someone’s mother.
    Wear me if you’re someone’s wife.
    In fashion I seem unimportant
    I’ve just clothed a million lives.

    Made of cotton, maybe linen.
    Zipper closure, maybe snaps
    Heart shaped pockets, if you’re clever
    Princess styling or a wrap.
    Line the seams up, Join the pieces.
    Dropped some stitches, start again.
    Re-thread the needle, press the pedal
    Jammed the bobbin, count to ten...


    All it is is just a housedress
    Just a housedress, nothing great.
    What it is is “out of fashion”
    What it is is “out of date.”
    Will I be dressed up like my mother
    If I make this throw-back dress
    Why persist with homemade clothing
    Didn’t women’s lib free me from this awful mess

    I don’t mean to complain at all
    But they make you feel like you’re two feet tall
    When you don’t fit the clothes in the store
    (it’s just a house dress)
    All the clothes on the racks and walls
    They don’t fit my body, style or life,
    (my life)
    You’re “fab” if you fit the latest styles
    But you’re a jerk if you say you won’t
    (and wear a housedress)
    People say that they think it’s fine
    If the choice is mine
    But you know they don’t
    What I do, what I choose to do
    May seem lame to you
    But it’s not to me.
    I sew my clothes because I care
    Cause I really care
    to dress like me
    And I mean, did ya ever think,
    What it really means
    To buy Off the Rack
    And wear all the same clothes
    That everybody else does?

    So I’ll make my simple housedress.
    (It was good enough, for my mother
    nothing special)
    I will wear it,
    (I’ll wear it)
    when I cook
    (when I shop)
    And it will fit me
    (and my body)
    like a glove
    (one of a kind)
    And I will love to wear this dress I made
    (just a housedress)
    with my own two hands.
    Just for me
    (like my mother’s)
    Just my housedress.

  49. Totally with you! And thanks for the sociology lesson too.

    With a day/house dress one can pop on some smart flats, pearls and a cardigan and be ready for shopping or lunch out and about!

  50. I have a few house dress pattens and have definitely thought about making a few for summer especially. I don't like shorts, so I prefer to wear skirts when the weather is hot. On the weekends I'll pull on whatever is easiest. If I could figure out what to make these dresses out of that doesn't require ironing... Like Mrs. Strange, I have also been planning on making a "hostess gown" pattern as a robe. I have a normal wrap and tie robe, but when I'm doing anything around the house it comes loose and slips open. I'd really prefer one that closes with a button or snap made of a comfy velour. And I love the puff sleeves.

  51. I absolutely love the Simplicity 3306. I mean, does it get more feminine and lovely than that?

    Most of the early patterns are totally wearable nowadays. Great post, Gertie!

  52. Growing up I knew a lot of lovely great-spirited women who wore these things, in seersucker with rick rack trim, buttoned or zipped up the front. Even as a seven-year old I shuddered but now I remember both the ladies and their housedresses fondly. Thank you for taking the time to research this garment and I look forward to seeing your interpretation.

  53. I discovered Walmart grandma housecoats/house-dresses when I was pregnant with twins 25 years ago. Put on bed rest, there was do darn way I was going to spend all my days in a nightgown. So the housecoat became my dress of the day. And the muumuu styling let me grow and grow.

    I still love them! I don't use a robe, I have a house-dress. In it, I can go the the car or mailbox and feel like I am not transgressing.

    But, I need something that is NOT Walmart. No more muumuus! I want something pretty! Unfortunately, I am now that grandma, with Aunt Bea's figure. Sigh.

  54. I'm very torn about house dresses. Or rather wearing them as cute out of the house garments.

    When they're more fitted, or have cute pockets, or are made out of interesting fabric I kind of love house dresses. I like the idea of wearing a comfy (and cute) dress around the house, or running out to do a few errands.

    On the other hand, there is maid aspect to it. Many people in my father's family did housework and laundry to help support themselves and their family. Poor black women had extremely limited options for employment.

    If I were to imagine what my life would have been like in the 1940s or 1950s, it frankly would have been horrifying. Living in Jim Crow America? No thank you.

    My father's family fled the south due to racist violence, and where they ended up (Indiana) was a Klan stronghold. I mean, in many ways my grandparents and parents worked hard so I would never have to be a maid. So it's a little weird to dress like one.

    On the third hand, I do think it's possible to wear house dresses while being conscious of what they meant then, and what they mean now.

  55. I think housedresses actually evolved out of the "Bungalow Apron" which was basically a coverall for dresses. Before and after World War I, as servants became more expensive (thanks to competition from factories and offices), more strenuous housework was taken on by middle-class women who needed serviceable clothes to do those jobs. Porch dresses and morning dresses were iterations of that coverall apron, because in those days, no "respectable" female wore slacks.

    I have two patterns from 1919 for "adjustable dresses, also suitable for apron" and one from 1921 that's already called a housedress. They're all pretty sack-like but mirror the style silhouette of the times.

    I think the reason housedresses in the 60's and 70's became more smock-like is because they also mirrored the silhouette of the period - remember the tent dress?

  56. One of my favorite patterns in life is a housedress, I found a pic on an old etsy listing:
    I love how they are styled holding cooking accouterments so you know it's "supposed" to be a house dress, at least in the long-sleeved version.
    Anyway, enjoyed this post- I'm a big fan of the housedress- it's how my so-called wearable muslins often end up getting their greatest use. Also love the housedress concept especially because I have pets, and like to keep my street clothes fur & snag-free, so a la Mr Rogers, I change every day when I come home! Housedresses also an excellent excuse to use adorable quilting cottons that wouldn't necessarily work for anything else.

    I have fond memories of my grandma's ubiquitous house dresses too- in my lifetime anyway, she usually made & wore ones with snaps, smocking, and turquoise floral- and usually with ric rac somewhere! And I have one bizarro find from grandma- never, ever saw her wear it and not sure what it's really meant for- a dressing gown? But it's crazy vivid green & turquoise brocade that zips all down the front but is floor-length and fiendishly 50's-formal glamorous-- somehow doesn't seem dressing gown-y, I'm thinking brunch coat, maybe. Utilitarian with pockets, elbow-length (widish) sleeves and full zip, but the fabric is so over the top. But I don't think anyone ever wore it, we found it in a box, probably a zany "treat yourself!" gift from one of her sisters that she didn't have the heart to get rid of. I keep saying I'll use it for sewing in cooler weather since the front zip is easy-access for trying on. But absurdly, riotously gorgeous and wrong all that the same time. Too casual/too formal.

  57. I remember my grandmother's housedress- with carrots on the pocket! but the matronly shaped garments. She wore them over her slip or dress or nightgown but Never out of the house. They were to keep her warm and modest and protect her nice clothes from chores and aerosol hairspray.

  58. Great post and love wearing my house dresses during the summer. My sisters tease me about it every chance they get. Prior to sewing garments my mom would buy one herself and one for me during her shopping excursions. Now that I sew I use a new look (can not recall the #) shift dress pattern for making house dresses for my mom and I, which is bit more fashonable.

    Thanks for a great post.

  59. Repurposed Girl: Yes, I DO often end up wear just my underthings when sewing and fitting! Except on really hot days when we've got all the windows open - we live on a busy street and so it's not just my husband who gets the floor show! Those days, the old zip front house dress is priceless for retaining my dignity - ha!

  60. I have a few housedress patterns and have successfully made a wrap one into a nice day dress. So I would say, go for it!

    After reading your post, I was reminded of "The Secret Lives of Dresses" posted by Erin over at #5 and #10 are both along the line of the "housewife" dress. Check it out, it's great reading.

  61. I think that a house dress is totally appropriate. I have been dreaming about making one for years and have not got around to it, this post has inspired me to get cracking!

  62. I love your collection of house dresses and got mad for trims, hearted-pockets and all the rest. Thanks for sharing.

  63. I think interest in house dresses will increase and for a lot of reasons (cuteness not being the least of it). When I first wrote about it last summer, I was sure people would laugh and some did but you know, I'm glad to see others think this new trend is going to pan out. I prefer the vintage stuff and hope those will become available and be successful. Fwiw, summer is coming, I need clothes, it's time to make and sew up some house dress patterns.

  64. I'm a huge fan of house dresses! I wear them everyday after work and most of the weekends. I always make them with pockets so I can sew with my ipod and cell phone handy. They're super comfy and I don't care if I make a mess while I'm cooking because it's just my house dress! I think they're much more comfy for cleaning in, and if I get cold I just put on an old cardigan. Try it, Gertie, you'll love it!

  65. My grandmother used to wear them to do housework in. They were flowered cotton coat-style dresses back in the sixties and seventies here in Oslo. The idea was to spare your "good" (expensive) clothes from wear, tear and stains. The housedresses were also very easy to wash and my grandmother did not wear any apron over them. Ah nostalgia. My grandmother sewed most of her clothes and a lot of clothes for me and my dolls as well. (Sailor dress, soft baby blue coat with glass buttons, even a flower-power dress with buttercup yellow collar and cuffs).

    I have almost the same nostalgia for housedresses as I have for flowered old-lady bathing suits and little white smocked rubber swimming caps. Oh and faded terry robes smelling of the seaside out of summers past.


  66. I loved reading all the comments on housedresses.

    @Mary in Winston-Salem, those dresses Ethel wore were from Orbach's dept store in L.A. My mom and her sister had several of them. Whenever I catch an I Love Lucy episode, it brings back memories of shopping with my mom and aunt. We'd shop at Orbach's (cheaper) and then we'd go to Bullock's (expensive) for lunch with a fashion show. They'd take copious notes and come home to knock off the fashions they liked.

  67. Simplicity 2275 was the first vintage pattern I bought and the first dress I ever made. I was insane: I chose a unidirectional print and insisted that it needed contrast piping trim. I'd never attempted matching prints, piping, or curved seams before, and there I was doing all three in one dress. I used to be in a music club that played "old-timey" music at festivals and open mic nights, and older ladies would get so excited, not only about the music, but about that dress.

    I'm a major fan of housedresses, too. They're comfortable, washable, and I can make them with huge pockets that hold everything. I can make them in bright colors with wacky trim. Woven cotton is cooler than a [knit] T-shirt in our miserable south Texas summers.

    The maid/waitress connection doesn't bother me. Whether society appreciates them enough or not, waitressing and cleaning are totally respectable and necessary occupations. Yes, they were the only work available to many women for a long time, but that wasn't the women's fault, was it?

    I'm a little amused/perplexed/dismayed by the extreme avoidance of housedresses by so many modern women. My family's version of feminism meant being who you were as a person first and foremost; that you felt like wearing a big pink dress didn't mean you had to stick to cooking and changing diapers. (Besides, I make mine myself, so they're artistic, too. Picking the fabric and trim is at least half the fun.)

    From a purely practical and aesthetic standpoint: Are we supposed to think that pajama pants and sweatshirts, while gender-neutral, are an improvement? No, thanks!

  68. Love your housedress feature. These dresses look so good I wish I could have one made! I grew up in the 40's, 50's, so the styles are all familiar to me.
    I like your blog very much - be back to read the rest of it.

  69. I love those patterns! They look so comfortable and cool! So what if maids wore them? They are pretty.

  70. What a nice and refreshing find. I will be coming back. I make vintage aprons for my girlfriends. My touch is to add my saved chinese food cookie fortunes and hide them in the pockets when I wrap them up as a gift. My friends tell me that on a blah house cleaning day, it's just so nice to reach in the pocket and pull out a fortune and giggle! I bet these house dresses could hold a ton of little slips of wisdom.

  71. I grew up in the '50s. Most moms didn't work outside the home then. My mom would put on her "housedress" and lipstick just before my father was due to arrive home. She might have busted her butt all day polishing and waxing the hardwood floors but she was supposed to look pretty for the breadwinner and make her work seem effortless. She did have dresses she wore out for shopping which had really full skirts, which could be dressed up with the additional of crinolines. (I found them very itchy!)

  72. Just found this site while looking for 1950's housedress patterns. My mom and her sister used to buy theirs at Orbach's in L.A. Most of them wrapped to the back, instead of the front, and had different trim designs on the bodice. (Watch early I Love Lucy episodes to see Ethel Mertz wearing them)

    I would love to find a sewing pattern for these.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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