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?