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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.