Sunday, July 8, 2012

Maryl comes back: To the House Dress

The house dress is making a comeback and its second life is not happening soon enough. The number of women running around town in their pajama bottoms and sweaty workout clothes is reaching embarrassing proportions. The slim jeans and casual Friday looks are also rendering a rather monotonous fashion statement lately. Our mothers and grandmothers had it right even if the house dress was a domestic uniform of sorts back then and not meant to be worn on the street. Wearing one today would look not just retro but positively elegant, much more so than a pair of drawstring pants and a tee shirt.

House dresses did have some of the same identifying features as a waitress or maid’s uniform with large pockets and the closure down the front. What distinguished them was the variety of pretty printed fabrics and trims. Some of the earlier styles wrapped around the body and tied similar to an apron. The 1950’s version of this was referred to as the Swirl dress. 
Vint Condition Swirl                                                                                                             BC Treasure Trove Swirl

Leave it to the movie industry though to glamorize the humble house dress.  Think of Sophia Loren in a number of films including “Two Women” with Jean-Paul Belmondo for which she won an Academy Award. Granted, she could wear anything and look voluptuous but you know how movie stars set trends. 
Sophia Loren in "Two Women"
A more current example is Penelope Cruz in "Volver."  And Eva Mendes favors little house dresses for running errands; she even wears some of her mothers.  There’s a variety of house dressed celebrities over the decades posted on the Child of the Moon blog and Sophia herself is on the cover of The House Dress: A Story of Eroticism and Fashion. This book covers its evolution from being practical to chic. 
                                                                            Eva Mendes

But the classic female figure went from hourglass shaped to one more rectangular and pear-shaped in the latter part of the 20th century.  And the house dress’s fitted waists and flared skirts morphed into more boxy designs with gathering above the bust line and a muumuu style that hid any body curves if there were any. 

Women’s roles and lifestyles were changing as well and becoming more demanding. The line between what one wore in the home and the more formal attire outside it was blurring as was the need to change clothes just to go to the supermarket. 

Women also started entering the workforce in record numbers even though their climb to the top had them fetching coffee and copies along the way. What they were allowed to wear to the office has its own subplot but we all remember Diane von Furstenberg’s famous wrap dress, first introduced in the 1970’s.  It is reminiscent of the apron features of the earlier house dress but is still worn by women today at home and work as a way to look both professional and feminine. J. D. Polosky noted in People magazine at the time, "Fed up with the bell-bottom jeans and sexless pantsuits of the day, she (Diane) devised a slinky, moderately priced wrap dress that turned millions of mall mothers and working women into saucy sirens virtually overnight."

There’s no lack of dress designers today to choose from and an increasing number are focusing on the simplicity and ease of the original house dress. One, Maelle Vintage Dresses, is a company with a shop in Toronto and an online store on Etsy. Sweden-born designer My Johansson-Ganjoo bases her dress designs on “an idea of renewing the past, reviving timeless looks and creating a contemporary expression with a strong vintage sensibility.” 
Maelle dresses
Inspired by the fashions from the late 50s and early 60s, Maelle dresses, including her wedding collection of vintage designs, are custom made using classic details and handpicked fabrics.

Or you can buy off-the-rack at Archerie in New York City and online.  Designer Jillian Grano is “inspired by a time when jeans were not an option and being a woman meant wearing dresses.” It’s the one article of clothing that identifies us as women and accentuates one of our best features – our legs. 

Jillian believes women became uncomfortable wearing dresses and didn’t liked the way they looked. She accredits this partially to the clothing and retail industries' need to find some economies of scale with their ready to wear fashions. They resorted to cheaper fabrics and discontinued tailoring. (Archerie provides free alterations and also does custom work.) Jillian creates her own designs and specially selects her fabrics but she professes to be selling her philosophy and not fashion. 
Archerie dresses

Even the old standby catalog company J. Peterman Company is into vintage styles.
J. Peterman Company dresses

Archerie and Maelle’s designs are simple yet unique but they’re not your mother’s house dress. If you are looking for authenticity, Blog for Better Sewing and Burda Style are two blogs that have both researched the house dress and vintage sewing patterns and some are even still available. 
Posh Girl Vintage dresses
I can help start your online search for vintage dresses with these six web sites: Rusty Zipper, Mod Cloth, Posh Girl Vintage, Belle a Coeur Treasure Trove Vintage and Etsy. Lulu’s Vintage has its own top ten list. And of course local vintage clothing stores are another option. 

I have to say there’s something very appealing about this simple and efficient approach to one-step dressing. Pluck one item from your closet and you’re ready to go, especially if that item is chic and retro all by itself. No separates to pull together into an outfit. Think of all the time we could save. 

Some of you may already have a dress or two - vintage or not - that you wear as your uniform. Share a photo of it on our Second Lives Club Facebook page and tell us a little something about it if you will.  And if you know of a store - online or offline - that sells perfect little house dresses, please share in the comments below.  Let's bring back the house/work/school/wedding/street dress.  We may need a new name.  Too bad Miracle Dress is already taken!


  1. This brings back so many memories of my mom sitting at her sewing machine making house dresses. Never thought they'd make a comeback, but your post was a wonderful reminder that some of the best ideas are inspired by the past.

    1. I have that same image, Ronnie. I've taken notice lately of women of all sizes wearing everyday dresses and of how much more feminine they look than their topped and bottomed peers. I just saw "To Rome With Love" and Italian women are still wearing house dresses - not the Penelope Cruz role of course. The Sophia Loren effect hasn't worn off! Thanks.

  2. Hi Maryl: I'd forgotten about my mother's housedresses. I do miss them. Maybe thats why I bought one of those J. Peterman shirtwaists. Mine is purple with 3/4 length sleeves. I wear it with a wide black patent leather belt and love the way it swings and swishes when I move. I feel Grace Kelly's presence when I wear this dress.

    1. I can see you in that dress, Georgia. Stunning and I bet you are/will be getting lots of those "You are so beautiful" comments re your post today on Vixen Divorcee. Thanks.

  3. The lack of tailoring in these modern iterations is what makes them hard to wear for those of us with curves. Shirtwaists make me look like a sack of potatoes with a rope around the middle. Though not what I'd call "house" dresses, the knit Karina Dresses are very figure-flattering and are washable, no ironing needed. (They're made in Brooklyn too.)

  4. Oh, and great post! Yes, Sophia Loren looked amazing in whatever she wore.

    1. I checked out Karina. There are some really nice styles although some of them looked a bit clingy. I'm thinking of doing another post on shift dressers versus sheaths. Doing some research now. Thanks for your comments.

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