Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Classic House Dress

The Outfit That’s Fallen By The Wayside

House Dress


There was a time when women never wore pants and only wore dresses. For formal occasions there were fine designs in silk, rayon, or wool. But, for everyday wear no woman would have been caught dead without her ubiquitous house dress. Today women can wear anything they want, but back then pants and shorts were only for beach vacations at best. Have a look at the evolution of the humble house dress below.

As highly functional garments, house dresses had to fulfill variety of qualifications. They were usually lightweight (in cotton- though later designs saw polyester and rayon in the mix). They often had pockets- and if it didn’t then a woman’s apron certainly did. They were easy to launder and often had a print – something which made hiding stains and repairs a cinch. In later years house dresses had a zipper for ease of use.

Some iconic designs came out of the tradition of house dresses, like the popular Swirl dress which had originally been marketed as a wrap apron. These and other other wrap dress of the 1940s onward were often copied at home since they were so easy to sew up and looked great with a frilly apron over top.

Many of the old time house dresses featured a loose waistline, something which gained widespread popularity following World War I. Once the corset had fallen out of fashion in the 1920s, the Great Depression sealed the deal on these looser and less-structured dresses. They had the added benefit of being useable throughout a pregnancy, provided they were cut generously to start. Staying at home to do the cooking, cleaning, and childrearing was the life for most women so it makes sense that maternity wear was sort of built into the features of this style of dress.

Many women from the 1930s onward chose to wear their house dresses to do the daily errands, often with gloves and a hat. But, for formal or special occasions, if she had other (more expensive) dresses she would have worn those instead. (See below)

The house dress style came from the modest, yet liberating “Mother Hubbard dress” as first envisioned after artist, Kate Greenaway, illustrated her nursery rhyme books showing women and girls in smock dresses in the 1880s. These dresses let women be fully covered, yet had no structure and did not require a corset, bustle, or complicated underskirts like other fashions of the 19th century. It was the Victorian fight between fashion and purpose embodied in garment form.

Buttrick Vintage Patterns 

The style didn’t fully catch on for women’s clothing, but was the predecessor of the house dresses which would become a must-have for any housewife in the interwar period. The Mother Hubbard dress was not considered fit to wear in public during the 19th century. Later generations of women in their house dresses enjoyed a modest amount of fashion thanks to machine printing of fabrics and the advance of the sewing machine. However, the conflict between clothing which was useful and those which were fashionable still plagued the housewife well into the atomic era.

In 1942 designer Claire McCardell came out with the Popover dress which became one of the industry standards in house dresses that women flocked to. From then on some clothing companies became known for their house dress designs.

It was only with the complete change in fashion and job status of women in the 1970s and 1980s that the house dress became outmoded in favor of jeans or knits. However, we remember these bastions of home life as something every woman would have owned once upon a time.

There are more vintage photos and illustration at the site "Dusty Old Things" 


My Note:  I remembers well my mother and grandmother wearing the ubiquitous "House Dress".  If you were raised in the 50's or early 60's then I am sure you do also. I am sure one of the first dresses I ever commandeered from my mother's cloths hamper was just that. Why! Because it was there.  How about you?


  1. Those of us of a certain vintage grew up watching Donna Reed, Ozzie & Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, etc. The house dressed mother was a staple both at home and on the tube. I have always liked the style and have a few in my closet

  2. My mother was professional seamstress and dress maker and work on 5th Avenue in NYC working for designers doing mock-ups.

    She sewed all of her own dresses and did alterations and often sewed bridesmaid dresses formal dresses for others.

    Her closet was filled with house dresses, however I was drawn to the more glamours ones in her sewing room.

    I'd always feign protest when she'd have me model a dress so she could pin it

    One time she remarked, "you's make a pretty girl" I turned beet red and she laughed. I always wondered why she said that and what she was thinking.

  3. One of the leading house dress makers during the depression era and beyond was a woman by the name of Nell Donnelly Reed. She was her in my neck of the country, Kansas City Mo. She became quite wealthy in her own right. She was even kidnapped at one point, big mistake for the kidnappers as she had friends in mob places. Her motto was that "women want to look pretty, even while doing dishes." Very interesting woman, especially for me and hat she is from my home town. Her line was Nelly Don Dresses.