The Pandemic is Making House Dresses Hot Again - Antique Trader

A wardrobe staple that was big from Victorian times through the 1950s has been making a comeback amid the pandemic: the house dress.

With COVID-19 causing more people to work from home and stay at home in general, house dresses are emerging as the top fashion trend of 2020. Appropriate for Zoom calls, video work chats, chores around the house, quick errands, virtual brunches with friends or just sitting on the couch and bingeing a favorite show, house dresses are hot again with people who want their comfort to be more stylish than a T-shirt and sweatpants.

While fashion stylists, retail brands like Target and Instagram influencers have been currently touting new versions of the house dress, the Antique Trader crowd knows vintage is where it’s at. You can find vintage house dresses at thrift stores, auction houses that specialize in historic fashions including Augusta Auctions and Kerry Taylor Auctions and online sites including Ruby Lane, Etsy, eBay and LiveAuctioneers.

A house dress is just that: a simple dress worn informally at home for household chores and quick errands, and made of lightweight and inexpensive fabric, and usually cotton. Though the house dress today takes on many different forms – from floral maxis to caftans – its more conventional origins date back to the late Victorian era. The house dress descended from the Mother Hubbard dress, which was named after a children’s book that illustrated the smock-like style. Instead of a tight garment that showed off a woman’s small waistline, Mother Hubbard dresses had a free-flowing silhouette that upended the bustles, corsets and crinolines that characterized women’s fashion in the 19th century. Women of various age groups and social classes embraced the dress, which provided the kind of mobility they needed as they went about their daily chores. While Mother Hubbard dresses were acceptable as a house dress, they were considered indecent to wear in public for the very reason women found them appealing: they were worn with little or no corseting.

The blue cotton calico Mother Hubbard dress of Elizabeth Hinterleiter Keesacker, a Virginia native who moved to St. Louis in the early 1800s. The Mother Hubbard was acceptable as a house dress, but considered indecent to wear in public because it was worn with little or no corseting.

The blue cotton calico Mother Hubbard dress of Elizabeth Hinterleiter Keesacker, a Virginia native who moved to St. Louis in the early 1800s. 

A 19th century Victorian vibrant paisley print wool house dress with full button front, dark brown velvet piping, collar and cuffs, large single pocket, and brown chintz lining; $275.

A little fancier than the typical Mother Hubbard dress is this 19th century Victorian vibrant paisley print wool house dress with full button front, dark brown velvet piping, collar and cuffs, large single pocket, and brown chintz lining; $275.

House dresses were a bit more stylish for royalty. This one is the house dress of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, 1905-1907, by the House of Nicaud and made of silk and chiffon.

House dresses were a bit more stylish for royalty. This one is the house dress of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, 1905-1907, by the House of Nicaud and made of silk and chiffon.

By the 1920s, house dresses became a standard style worn by women at home. Fashion designer Nell Donnelly Reed sought to create a stylish dress that women could wear while doing housework, and founded her own brand, Nelly Don, that was known for producing attractive dresses made from washable, durable fabrics. Instead of the Mother Hubbard silhouette, they had a fit and flare shape and often buttoned up the front or had pockets. Reed's house dresses were popular throughout the first half of the 20th century and provided a model for other styles that balanced utility and fashion.

Five house dresses made by Nelly Don, 1922.

Five house dresses made by Nelly Don, 1922.

Some house dresses advertised in the Sears Roebuck and Co. Catalog, 1922.

Some house dresses advertised in the Sears Roebuck and Co. Catalog, 1922.

A housewife in the 1930s spent the majority of her time in house dresses, which were usually handmade with re-purposed or leftover scraps from other garments. Styles had more color, trim and fun elements to them. With pockets appearing on most dresses, they were also practical for housework. Although 1930s house dresses were generally more simple than most daywear of the decade, the day-to-day clothing of the average woman followed the same general fit and shape as most clothing at the time, which included puff or fluttery caplet sleeves, wide collars with lace, ruffles, or embroidery and a mid-calf hemline. 

Two cotton houses dresses, 1930s: a yellow with black and white geometric print and double-ruffle sleeves, circa 1933, and the other with printed floral squares on a purple dot pattern with two spaghetti twisted buttons, circa 1935; $150.

Two cotton houses dresses, 1930s: a yellow with black and white geometric print and double-ruffle sleeves, circa 1933, and the other with printed floral squares on a purple dot pattern with two spaghetti twisted buttons, circa 1935; $150.

A housewife working in the kitchen of her farm home, 1938.

A housewife working in the kitchen of her farm home, 1938.

A New England housewife fixing supper on a winter night in Woodstock, Vermont, 1940.

A New England housewife fixing supper on a winter night in Woodstock, Vermont, 1940.

A day in the life of a wartime housewife, London, England, 1941: Mrs. Olive Day does some housework before she leaves for work. Here she is polishing the bannisters. The large patch of missing plaster on the ceiling above her head was caused by a nearby air raid.

A day in the life of a wartime housewife, London, England, 1941: Mrs. Olive Day does some housework before she leaves for work. Here she is polishing the bannisters. The large patch of missing plaster on the ceiling above her head was caused by a nearby air raid.

In 1942, Claire McCardell, one of the most influential women's sportswear designers of the 20th century, introduced the "popover" wrap dress, which came with a matching oven mitt and was a fashion landmark. She was challenged to design something women could cook and clean in that would still look put together and presentable for guests. It was a massive hit, and became one of her staple pieces. “Clothes are for real live women," she said. "They are made to be worn, to be lived in.” The dress was priced at $6.95 and thousands were sold.

Claire McCardell's "Pop-over" dress with oven mitt, 1942. In utility achieved with ingenuity, McCardell found a synergy: the modern woman could do the cooking while looking chic. The dress was priced at $6.95 and thousands were sold.

Claire McCardell's "Pop-over" dress with oven mitt, 1942. In utility achieved with ingenuity, McCardell found a synergy: the modern woman could do the cooking while looking chic. 

Lot of four house dresses with novelty prints, 1940s; $180.

Lot of four house dresses with novelty prints, 1940s; $180.

House dresses and aprons advertised in the Montgomery Ward Fall & Winter catalog, 1941-42.

House dresses and aprons advertised in the Montgomery Ward Fall & Winter catalog, 1941-42.

The house dress also found its way into pop culture in the 1940s and 1950s, with television shows such as I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show reflecting the domestic values that audiences connected with. Women looked to Lucille Ball and Donna Reed as on-screen style icons and the house dress was at the center of the craze.

Lot of three cotton house dresses, 1940s-50s: one tan with a ribbon and bow motif, one gray and pink striped with a chevron collar, and a green and white gingham; $150.

Lot of three cotton house dresses, 1940s-50s: one tan with a ribbon and bow motif, one gray and pink striped with a chevron collar, and a green and white gingham; $150.

Donna Reed and Patty Petersen in a scene from "The Donna Reed Show," 1942.

Donna Reed and Patty Petersen in a scene from "The Donna Reed Show," 1942.

Lucille Ball in her gingham house dress.

Lucille Ball in her gingham house dress.

Actress Elizabeth Taylor helps her mother prepare hotdogs and hamburgers at home circa 1947 in Los Angeles, California.

Actress Elizabeth Taylor helps her mother prepare hotdogs and hamburgers at home circa 1947 in Los Angeles, California.

A 1950s La-Mar house dress with a blue and white berry pattern of raspberries and strawberries and also honey bees; $45.

A 1950s La-Mar house dress with a blue and white berry pattern of raspberries and strawberries and also honey bees; $45.

The style evolved with the changing political climate of the '60s, as hemlines rose and designers at the forefront of the Swinging Sixties, such as Mary Quant, changed the fashion landscape. Dresses adopted a more childlike, boxy silhouette and featured bright colors inspired by the pop art movement. 

Although the '60s and '70s saw more women going out in the workforce and abandoning the traditional role of housewife, the house dress remained a symbol of leisure. In 1974, Belgian fashion designer Diane Von Fürstenburg created the iconic wrap dress, which quickly became a household staple for women. The dress, which crosses at the chest and cinches at the waist, was comfortable enough to lounge in at home, but also stylish enough to be worn in public.

Diane von Furstenberg, in her iconic wrap dress, made the March 1976 cover of Time magazine for her design.

Diane von Fürstenburg, in her iconic wrap dress, made the March 1976 cover of Time magazine for her design.

While the house dress took a backseat in the '80s and '90s as the grunge movement and high-waisted jeans took the spotlight, today the style has come full circle since its height of popularity in the '50s. People are now wearing house dresses again for the same reasons: practicality, mobility and flexibility – proving that the garment has stood the test of time.