Growing up in the 70's and 80's my mother would often talk about the way housewives from her mother's generation were treated unfairly and how the only job my grandmother could get outside of the home was that of a waitress. Mom had books like The Cinderella Complex on her nightstand and early editions of Cosmopolitan magazine.
In the seventies and eighties it was considered old fashioned to be domestic and cooking, cleaning and sewing were reminders of a time when women didn't have many choices and were forced to take home economics classes in high school. Sadly enough, today you will be lucky to still find a school that has sewing on the curriculum. Most of these programs have been cut and I have just found out that our local community college is also cutting its clothing construction course. Society at large in this era preached for women to get out of the house and pursue more satisfying work. Sewing machines were left in closets to gather dust and the housedress was a relic of an earlier time when most women didn't have a choice but to be housewives.Young women wanted to be like Mary Tyler Moore with her stylish pantsuits and scarves, making her way in what used to be a mans world.
It would be awhile before businesswomen like Martha Stewart would usher in the return of the domestic arts and actually make domestic pursuits fashionable again.
My image of the housewife was formed by TV shows like The Brady Bunch and I certainly never saw Carol Brady in a housedress. She didn't need one when she had Alice to do all the cleaning for her! Someone who DID wear house dresses was the busybody Mrs. Roper from Three's Company, always getting into the business of the cool liberated folks downstairs! So my association with the housedress was that of the Mu- Mu, which I forever associate with Mrs. Roper. Who would have thought the Mu mu style would make a comeback as you can see below?
Mrs Roper, everyone's favorite busybody.
A fashionable version of the mu-mu or caftan.
Women can now pick and choose their lifestyles and we have those earlier feminists to thank for that, even if they did tip to the other side of the pendulum. I actually feel fortunate that I can afford to be a stay at home mom. The modern DIY movement has readopted practices from our self-sufficient grandparents like sewing, canning, and maintaining food gardens. The return to ways of the past are a reaction to our consumerist and disposable culture where things are discarded without a thought of the work that may have been put into making them. Of course, many people never stopped doing these things in the first place but now they seem to be fashionable again, to look at all the books on self-sufficient living in any bookstore.
So what about the poor misundertood housedress? It actually never went away and designers like Diane Von Furstenburg adapted the style for the modern woman. Her wrap dress was actually a housedress in disguise for the modern woman, being utilitarian, closing with a wrap tie, and comfortable enough to wear while doing things around the house.
The classic Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress, first designed in 1975 and still being made by her today, as well as being widely copied.
My version of the wrap dress sewn from Burda Pattern 7828
On the other hand, some housedresses from the 60's or later morphed into the shapeless style worn by Mrs. Roper or became the zippered robe. Positively depressing darling !
Housedress patterns from the past are still relatively easy to find and would be a fun venture into the realm of vintage sewing since many of them have a pretty simple construction compared to the complicated day and evening dress patterns of the time. Below are some examples of housedress patterns from the forties through the fifties :
Isn't it funny how these patterns were considered only suitable for wearing at home back when they were released while if you would wear one out now you would be considered dressed up? In our super casual culture today where people wear flannel pajamas to the grocery store these are positively elegant!
So of the five housedress patterns shown, which is YOUR favorite?
Well, I wouldn't go this far...
And here I am in the dress I chose to make, Simplicity 2171 from 1947.