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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Humble Housedress

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.


  1. Ahahaha great article. I agree these dresses are amazing looking, and finding dresses in general is a nightmare, there isn't a large amount of choice usually because material have the magic word "stretch" in it which means tailoring has gone out the window. I fel the patterns you are showing are very versatile too, so can be adapted to warmer or cooler fabrics, longer or shorter sleeves.

  2. good post. I like being at home, I have done it all in terms of a career and feel lots more freedom at home, without the politics of being an employee. L don't even miss the money. We live about like we did when I was working, weird. Anyway, a housedress would be great. We need some warm weather to go a long with that!

  3. I had a stay at home mom, and she didn't go back to work until I was 18. She did wear those housedresses, still does (in the 60's and early 70's an a-line gingham shift, later the duster versions). She never acted "oppressed". I have both worked full time and have stayed home as a mom, I work part-time now. I prefer the part-time - gives me some out of the house, no kids time and then more definition to my stay at home time. Funny, we have talked about that before, yesteryear's housedresses are nicer than todays dressy-wear at times. My fave is a 1952 wrap dress, based on Swirl housedresses - I wear it to church and people think I am so dressed up.

  4. I just picked up a pattern the other day for a 40s "brunch coat," which is essentially a pretty robe that looks like a modern wrap dress. I have to sew a few of these up!
    I am not currently working outside the home. I am home with my girl and consider it such a blessing. It can be hard at times- I worked my rear off to get through college, and I sometimes feel less than stimulated, but there will be time for other things. Right now, I am enjoying time with my little baby. It's funny how that flips back and forth- whether working is a right or a chore, being home a right or a chore. I guess it comes down to what you said about having choices. Things aren't so bad when you know you have options.

  5. My favorite is Simplicity 2171, the yellow printed one with short sleeves. The style could double as a shirt dress. Plus the short sleeves look loose and drapey. I wonder if they are or if this is an artifact of the illustration.

  6. I've been contemplating making one myself, would be simply soooo practical, but have been put off by those muumuu-memories too...:) Anyways, I think I just fell in love with the Simplicity 2275 in that flowery sort of lilac (?) color.


  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. I think I will try the last one in purple because I wont have to do buttons which I hate doing! I love the yellow one with ruffled sleeves but I am still nursing my almost two year old and I don't think back buttons would work. How the heck are you supposed to open a dress that buttons in the back without help anyway?

  8. Hey, congrats on getting to almost the second birthday nursing! I am still nursing my 13 1/2 month old, and I am always conscious of what to wear- it means some things have been hanging in the closet a while!

  9. I know I try not to nurse when I am out with her if I'm wearing a dress but sometimes we have to go to the car because the windows are dark. Wrap dresses are your best friend when nursing!


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