Friday, April 1, 2011

In Celebration of the Simple House Dress

High end vintage dresses are far and away the stars of the market. There are books and blogs galore celebrating the work of famous couturiers and celebrity designers. I love fine vintage fashion and I spend a great deal of time reading those blogs and books but, like many hard core vintage devotees, I am also intrigued by everyday fashions from past years. I get just as excited flipping through an old Sears catalogue as I do a vintage Vogue magazine and I really have a soft spot for vintage house dresses. Imagine, living in a time, when women, rarely if ever wore pants let alone jeans. It wasn't so long ago. Before the 1970s the majority of women wore dresses almost all the time. So imagine again, you are a homemaker, running after children, scrubbing the floors, hanging the laundry... always in a dress.

Early 1900s Cotton house dress, imagine scrubbing the floor in this

For most of her life my maternal grandmother flat out refused to put on a pair of pants. Hard working and soft spoken this woman raised eight children, tended chickens and a huge garden and even went fishing (she loved to fish)... all of these things in a dress. She was no different than the majority of women from her time. Thats the way it was. According to the 1956 book Dress Smartly by Mildred Graves Ryan "clothes for housework should be practical and functional. They should allow for feedom of movement, with nicely fitted looseness placed across the shoulders and in the sleeves. Skirts should be full enough to allow one to walk quickly and with ease, but they should not be so wide or so long that a person is liable to catch a heel in the hem and fall as a result. Loose or dangling decoration, wide sleeves or big pockets which could be caught on a nail handle or a saucepan should not be worn" Ms Ryan also stated that a nicely fitted pair of slacks or overalls could be worn while gardening but "if your figure looks badly in slacks, you should refrain from wearing them". Old advertisements for house dresses often stressed easy care fabrics and thrifty prices but they also emphasized style. I am often amazed at the lovely details to be found on old house dresses. Novelty pockets, dainty ruffles, piped edgings and rick rack trim to name a few. Cheerful prints in pretty colors were most popular. The preferred fabric tended to be cotton or some sort of cotton blend. During WWll cotton was in short supply so manufacturers turned to rayon. However, the rayon house dress was less sturdy and harder to care for so after the war, the market reverted back to cotton. In the 1950s homemakers welcomed the new cotton polyester blends because they hardly wrinkled and were so easy to press. By the 1960s cotton poly blends made up a good share of the market.

Easy care and wrinkle resitant, Cotton Polyester blends

Overwhelming evidence indicates that a bonafide house dress should open in the front. Wrap dresses closed with with fabric ties and the rest with buttons or zippers. A pretty little house frock from the 1940 Fall Montgomery Ward catalogue brags about their zipper front feature "no ties to tie, no buttons to button!" Anything to make Moms day a little easier. Styles in house dresses changed slowly especially from the late 30s up to the mid 1950s. They are often found without labels which makes precise dating difficult. Often times manufacturers used the same dress pattern over a number of seasons. They might change up the fabric prints and small details for the next run but essentially it was the same dress. Although I don't have numbers to back me up, reason tells me that many millions of house dresses must have been manufactured over the years. Yet, I definately find more dressy garments on the secondary market. I'm sure that most house dresses were worn to a frazzle and mended til they couldn't be mended anymore. A "good dress" on the other hand, would have been used just occasionally and it cost a lot more so it had a better chance of being stored away. When I find an old house dress I feel like I have found a special treasure. I think about the woman that wore it and what she might have been like. Did she sing to the radio when she made the evening dinner? Did she have children... grandchildren? For some reason I never think these things when I come across a fancy party dress or an elegant gown. I appreciate their beauty but that's all. An old house dress, for me, represents a real person in time and history. Someone like me who had good days and bad and did their best with the life they had. A rare example of a late 1920s housedress in unworn condition, polished cotton with dropped waist and ties in back