Thursday, January 29, 2015

Life's Lost Little Luxuries #8: The Housedress

Salesman's samples, not doll clothes

What? Consider something purposefully worn to clean the house a luxury? Think about it. Do you spend your hard-earned fashion dollars on a dress in which to dust? You might have an apron or two, if you're particularly strenuous in the kitchen and/or bake a lot. When was the last time you saw a housedress for sale? Even maids in the rich part of my town wear "business casual".

Wrap predating Diane von Furstenberg
 by about 40 years

My mother wore a house dress every day until she took up stenography and went back to work. I never remember her leaving home in one. A trip to the grocery store was considered an outing and one dressed accordingly. Her housedresses were very tailored, like she was. Light blue shirtdresses that buttoned or snapped down the front with short sleeves and an a-line skirt. Pockets. I can still see her handkerchief in the breast pocket. Her dresses couldn't all have been light blue, but that's what I remember.

And yes, there was a difference between a housedress and a housecoat. A housecoat was what we'd call a bathrobe today sans terry fabric, and it was just as slothful to spend your day in one then as now. A major difference between a housedress and a housecoat would be the length.

Dress left, coat right

My mother meant business too. Taking care of a house was an enormous undertaking in the '50s. Yes, we had a washing machine, but for many years it was a wringer type and the clothesline was outside. My sister and I were the automatic dishwasher (but only for dinner). Meals didn't prepare themselves either. Like anyone wearing a uniform, she was "on duty" and thus did not stop for breaks to check her emails like her house-cleaning daughter in 2015.

I just can't bring myself to wear anything nice to clean house, unless it were a Claire McCardell Popover. The legendary Miss Claire designed her first "popover" in 1942. It could be manufactured cheaply and sold for a reasonable price as it was considered a "utility" garment under WWII clothes rationing. The idea was to "pop" this "over" your work outfit when you got home to whip up dinner. This one sold for $6.95 including rather Neanderthal-like oven mitt.

She carried the idea throughout her career and reached perfection with this little number from 1956.

Top of the pops


  1. I have been thinking along the same lines -- about housedresses (never worn to the store) and how hard housework was (laundry, especially). I have a theory that the thing women loved about wrap housedresses was that they opened flat for ironing (starched, of course) -- one easier job among all the harder ones. I've also noticed that housedresses in the 1910s and 20s had big, practical pockets instead of decorative ones -- pockets that would hold a dustcloth or small items picked up off the floor while cleaning. The early pop-over looks a bit warm over clothing (and a hot stove); maybe most people took off their office dress & popped them over their slip, etc. Great pictures! Love the salesman's samples. Thanks!

  2. I love this post. It brings back memories of my mother,too. She probably sewed her own with a Simplicity pattern. The pictures are wonderful. I wear an apron everyday when cooking, and I collect them on my travels. Your posts remind me of my age !
    My friend just wrote an article about "wax paper". My married children don't even know what to do with it. I always have a roll in the house.

    1. Me too, though I rarely use wax paper. It's funny— the things we surround ourselves with— because they were always there. I could compile quite a list! Thanks for reading.