The Return of the House Dress

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Whether working from home, taking online classes from the couch, or taking care of kids, the ebb and flow of quarantine leaves lots of comfort to be desired. Social media has become a hotbed for experimental quarantine looks, with entire Instagram accounts dedicated to maximum sartorial comfort. Amidst the search, a new garment has made a resurgence as the self-isolator’s best friend: the house dress.

Celebrities and Internet users alike have ditched pants altogether and opted for the flexibility of the one-and-done outfit. Sans restrictions such as elastic waists or zippers, wearers of the house dress are able to sit through Zoom calls or renovate their kitchens in comfort.

Though the house dress today takes on many different forms–from floral maxis to caftans to bathing suit cover-ups–its more formulaic origins date back to the late Victorian era. The house dress descended directly from the Mother Hubbard dress, which upended the corsets, crinolines, and bustles that characterized women’s fashion in the 19th century. Named after a children’s book which illustrated the smock-like style, the dress was soon adopted by women of various age groups and social classes. Instead of tight garments that showed off a woman’s small waistline, Mother Hubbard dresses featured a freely flowing silhouette and provided the kind of mobility women needed as they went about their daily chores.

By the 1920s, house dresses became a standard style worn by women at home. Fashion designer Nell Donnelly Reed sought to create a stylish dress that women could wear while doing housework, and founded her own brand, Nelly Don, that was known for producing attractive dresses made from washable, durable fabrics. Instead of the Mother Hubbard silhouette, they had a fit and flare shape and often buttoned up the front or had pockets. Reed’s house dresses were popular throughout the first half of the 20th century and provided a model for other styles that balanced utility and fashion.

In 1942 Claire McCardell introduced the “popover” wrap dress, which came with a matching oven mitt. The house dress also found its way into pop culture, with television shows such as I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show reflecting the domestic values that audiences connected with. Women looked to Lucille Ball and Donna Reed as on-screen style icons and the house dress was at the center of the craze.

The style evolved with the changing political climate of the ’60s, as hemlines rose and designers at the forefront of the Swinging Sixties, such as Mary Quant, changed the fashion landscape. Dresses adopted a more childlike, boxy silhouette and featured bright colors inspired by the pop art movement. Barbra Streisand sported a yellow babydoll dress in the 1968 film Funny Girl, where her character Fanny Brice sang the song “Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady” about her ideal life as a housewife.

Although the ’60s and ’70s saw more women going out in the workforce and abandoning the traditional housewife role, the house dress persisted as a symbol of status and leisure. In 1974, Belgian fashion designer Diane Von Fürstenburg created the iconic wrap dress, which quickly became a household staple for women. The dress, which crosses at the chest and cinches at the waist, was comfortable enough to lounge in at home, but also stylish enough to be donned in public.

The house dress took a backseat in the ’80s and ’90s as high-waisted jeans and the grunge movement took center stage, but nostalgia for the full-skirted, pin-curled look of the ’50s was at an all-time high in cinema. Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998) tells the story of siblings who get trapped in the black-and-white world of a ’50s television sitcom, and their subsequent attempts to reform the outdated, “peachy-keen” attitudes of the characters in the show. Ross’ film raises questions about gender stereotypes and social roles, and took a then-nuanced approach at reflecting on the 20th century.

Today, the house dress is defined more informally as any dress worn around the house, for running errands, or during leisure time. Designers have caught onto the trend, with brands like Marc Jacobs, Marni, and Molly Goddard offering easy silhouettes on their Spring/Summer 2020 runways. The style has come full circle since its heyday in the ’50s, popular yet again for the very same reasons: mobility, flexibility, and practicality. However, gender politics have shifted immensely since the origins of the house dress, and the coronavirus pandemic has left everyone at home and in search of something comfortable to wear. Stripped of its traditional associations, the house dress resurgence of 2020 has proved that the garment has truly stood the test of time.

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createdAt:Thu, 28 May 2020 16:44:58 +0000
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