As recently as sixty years ago, it was conventional thinking that a woman’s place was in the home, tending to the chores and children. The official wardrobe staple of a 1950’s housewife was the house dress. Think June Cleaver from Leave It To Beaver or Lucille Ball from I Love Lucy. You may be even lucky enough to remember your grandmother wearing dresses around the house and recall old family photos of women in colorful pattern dresses.
We’ve Come A Long Way.
Pants were not an acceptable everyday clothing option for women until the mid-20th century. It was even common for women to be arrested for wearing pants in public as recently as the turn of the century. Clothing for women during this time was all dresses, skirts, and corsets– and loungewear was no exception.
In its first incarnation, the house dress was generally lightweight cotton, often in fun patterns, and used for chores and simple errands. The sleeves came in all sorts of styles. A short cap sleeve or sleeves that hit right above the elbow were typical in warmer months. In winter months, the house dress was commonly 3/4 long sleeves, nothing longer as to not get in the way of washing dishes or cleaning. In the 1950s, the house dress needed to be stylish and feminine as well as serviceable. The house dress skirt hit just below the knee and was a full swing skirt. It could be belted and came in many collar styles. According to vintagedancer.com, “The 1950s were not a time to look like a domestic servant, even if she acted like one. Fashion was fashionable even when no one would see her in it.”
Our 1950’s sisters took the dress for yourself, not for others to heart.
It was in this decade that many household appliances became mainstream, which meant the typical housewife could cook and clean in a simple dress without looking disheveled. New inventions in cleaning and cooking appliances made her day easier on one hand, but at the same time society was setting a high bar for new standards for what a modern woman was supposed to be. Women were not only busy being the dutiful wife, mother, and caretaker of the house but were also expected to be attractive and well kept at all times. These standards were imposed everywhere from women’s magazines to how-to manuals and echoed by a burgeoning advertising industry. Think Mad Men and The Stepford Wives if you need a mental representation of what your grandmothers went through. (although maybe that does explain why they drank so many martini’s during the day and chain-smoked?)
In an exert from a popular book of the day, The Art of Being a Well-Dressed Wife:
“Remember it’s your husband for whom you’re dressing. Think pretty when making your nightwear selections, and please, no safety pins or missing buttons. Fastidiousness is essential when it comes to sleepwear. For morning you need a warm, tailored dressing gown, slim in cut and ankle-length. This length is best because short dressing gowns can expose the unattractive sight of a rumpled nightie or pajama bottoms — or bare white legs — protruding underneath.”
The horror of a rumpled nightie or bare white legs was a real thing. If you have ever seen the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and watched her morning and nighttime routine, you are familiar with the lengths women went to for their husbands to be ‘perfect’ at all times.
As the 1950s gave way to the ’60s and ’70s, pants became socially acceptable for women thanks to our bra-burning feminist sisters who championed feminism and pushed the boundaries of what a woman could or couldn’t be. Fast forward to modern times, and the house dress is all but extinct. This generation’s version of a house dress is an old comfy t-shirt and lounge pants.
Is A House Dress Comeback On The Horizon?
The 21st-century woman works both in and out of the house, and the days of wide-ranging societal dress codes are a thing of the past. Women wear skirts, dresses, and pantsuits to work. In casual offices, even jeans are standard. Most stay-at-home moms wear whatever they please, and aren’t required to meet their husband in pearls at the door every day at 5 p.m.
Enter a global pandemic. Surely there will long term effects felt for years across many different sectors in American life, but what will the lasting effects of the current pandemic mean for everyday fashion? Now that most of the workforce is working from home, does the popular staple from a bygone era have a chance at a comeback? After all, fashion is cyclical. Think about how many times have trends gone in and out of style in your lifetime. Tie-dye, for example, is currently a massive fashion trend in 2020, as it was in the 1970s and early 1990s. Animal print is another excellent example, where this year it is cheetah print and last year it was snakeskin. Why hasn’t the iconic everyday dress from the ’40s and ’50s come back around?
When we started sheltering in place, athleisure and sweats were the fashion du jour. The first few weeks, working all day in your sweats and PJ’s was fun and novel. Now it just feels icky– but not enough to start wearing jeans or getting all dressed up with nowhere to go. The thought of slipping into a lightweight dress each day sounds like a refreshing change, and as it turns out these dresses are still reasonably easy to find. If you are on the lookout for the real thing, vintage shops are usually full of house dresses. If second-hand isn’t your thing, sites like Dwell & Slumber, Modcloth, and Nesting Olive offer the classic staple in stretchy materials and fashion-forward patterns. Or, check out my newest obsession from amazon here.
Now that we are entering our third month working remotely, it seems more likely that this might be the future of the workplace. If there has ever been a case to bring back an easy to wear, lightweight dress for around the house, the time is now.