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Growing up in the 70s and 80s my mother would often talk about the way housewives from her mother’s generation were treated unfairly and how the only job my grandmother could get outside of the home was as a waitress. My mom also had books like The Cinderella Complex and early editions of Cosmopolitan magazine on her nightstand.

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In the 70s and 80s it was considered old fashioned to be domestic. Cooking, cleaning and sewing were reminders of a time when women didn’t have many choices and girls were forced to take home economics classes in high school. Sadly you would be hard pressed to find a school today that still has sewing in the curriculum, as most of these programs (and arts programs in general) have been cut due to tight budgets.

It was during this era that society at large preached for women to get out of the house and pursue more “satisfying” work. Sewing machines were left in the closet to gather dust and the housedress was a relic of an earlier time when women didn’t have any other choice but to be housewives. Now young women wanted to be like Mary Tyler Moore in her career world filled with stylish pantsuits and scarves, making her way in what used to be a man’s world.

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It would be awhile before businesswomen like Martha Stewart would usher in the return of the domestic arts and actually make these pursuits fashionable again. My image of the housewife was formed by TV shows like The Brady Bunch but I certainly never saw Carol Brady in a housedress, she didn’t need one when she had Alice to do all the cleaning for her! Someone who DID wear housedresses was the busybody Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company, always getting into the business of the cool, liberated folks downstairs and quickly tying my association of the housedress to the muumuu and nosy old women. Speaking of muumuus, who would have thought that style would ever make a comeback?

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Mrs Roper, everyone’s favorite busybody. A Butterick muumuu pattern.

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BurdaStyle’s Batwing Sleeve Dress pattern, a much more fashionable take on the muumuu dress.

Thankfully, women can now pick and choose their lifestyles and we have those earlier feminists to thank for that – even if they did tip a bit to the other side of the pendulum. To be honest, I actually feel fortunate that I can afford to be a stay at home mom. The modern DIY movement has adopted practices from our self-sufficient grandparents like sewing, canning, and maintaining food gardens and I believe that the return to the ways of the past are a reaction to our consumerist and disposable culture. Of course, many people never stopped doing these things in the first place, but now they seem to be fashionable again. All you have to do is look at bookstores packed with titles about self-sufficient and sustainable living, not to mention all the blogs out there masterminded by people who are literally taking things into their own hands.

So what about the poor misunderstood housedress? It really never went away and designers like Diane Von Furstenberg have updated the style for the modern woman. Her wrap dress was actually a housedress disguised for the modern woman: a utilitarian design closing with a wrap tie, and comfortable enough to wear while doing things around the house.

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The classic Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress, first designed in 1975 and still being made by her (and widely copied) today. My version of the wrap dress sewn from Burda Pattern 7828.

On the other hand, some housedresses from the 60s or later morphed into the shapeless style worn by Mrs. Roper or became the zippered robe. Positively depressing, darling! Housedress patterns from the past are still relatively easy to find and would be a fun venture into the realm of vintage sewing since many of them are pretty simply constructed. Below are some examples of housedress patterns from the 40s through the 50s:

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Isn’t it funny how these patterns were once considered only suitable for wearing at home, while if you would wear one out now you would be considered dressed up? In today’s super casual culture where people wear flannel pajamas to the grocery store, the humble housedress now seems positively elegant!

So of the five housedress patterns shown, which is YOUR favorite?

~Justine

After moving from Los Angeles to an old farmhouse in the country with her husband and four children, Justine Abbitt (a trained fashion designer) found shopping outside the city rather uninspiring and difficult. So, she decided to get busy with her needle and thread to start making things for herself and her family. Looking to get in touch with other DIYers she started her sewing blog, Sewcountrychick, which is also about country living through an ex-urbanists perspective.

20 Comments

  • Meg_large

    Sep 1, 2011, 05.11 AMby madebymeg

    very interesting post! i like the history

  • Robyn_-_2hawaii_large

    Aug 26, 2011, 04.07 AMby elaineren

    After a long day at work I love a hot shower, and a muumuu! I think people who make fun of the muumuu have never worn one. House work is usually done in the morning wearing my pajamas.

  • Imga0163_2__large

    Aug 25, 2011, 10.35 PMby JOYFULDELIGHT

    I like the muumuu/caftan and I have one for every day of the week, but the wrap dress is also a favorite of mine.

  • Missing

    Aug 25, 2011, 06.39 PMby gralo

    I make housedresses out of vintage fabric or sheets (with louder prints then I usually wear) when I practice simple dress patterns. The plan is to work out the kinks and then make it in a nice fabric for the outside world version. My current favorite is a Mrs. Roper mumu- I hate when it’s in the laundry. I also have a vintage pattern for a zippered robe that I plan to make- oh no I’ve turned into my mother AND my M-I-L. I don’t wear them any further than the curb to put out the garbage. I like the blue wrap at the bottom of the article; the burda batwing sleeve dress looks like I’d go up in flames if I tried to make a cup of tea.

    1 Reply
  • 6e3656aa7036783b3e4bbc29f34d1029385afafe_large

    Aug 25, 2011, 04.50 PMby wzrdreams

    I love my candy muumuu and wear it often. I love the idea of a comfy dress to wear at home instead of flannel pajama pants and t shirt (not that there is anythign wrong with flannel and tshirts!). Dresses make me feel femine and like I’m not a total slob, even when comfort and ease is my number one priority.

    1 Reply
    • Meprofilebarn_large

      Aug 26, 2011, 06.32 AMby Justine of Sew Country Chick

      Yes lets bring back those sexy little nighties with bloomers women used to wear in the sixties. Or those fancy bedjackets.

  • Lulamae_large

    Aug 25, 2011, 04.45 PMby jw72085

    I love housedresses, too. I am a child of the ’70’s and ’80’s whose Mother and Grandmother and Aunts wore them all the time—at home. They were not as fashionable as some pictured here, but they served their purpose of being light and comfortable. My Mother, as I type, is constructing 1 of 3 housedresses that she will finish by this evening. They are quite stylish. She even has a pattern for one with capri pants. I have a velvet, yes, velvet, housedress that I have had for ages. On Saturday morning, when it’s my turn to get breakfast, I just put it on and go. It’s burgundy with gold trim on the neckline and the ends of the sleeves. Of course, I’m going through the drive-thru, (my hair is done and I have lipstick/stain on), so no one actually sees my entire body. Or, maybe the person at the window can tell it’s just a glorified housedress. I don’t know, but I feel no shame in it.

  • Spain_2007_065_large

    Aug 25, 2011, 04.16 PMby nellyvdb

    I have two favourite dresses, the first one, next to Mrs. Roper’s pic, and the wrap dress you made. Now let me elaborate on the wrap dress: after having a baby, and thankfully staying with him for a whole year before going back to work, the wrap dress is to me a perfect transition dress, from a pregnant belly, to a nursing dress, to work attire, this dress is flattering and comfortable at every stage.

  • Missing

    Aug 25, 2011, 04.11 PMby ceeceesmom

    I use Simplicity 3945 from the early 50’s – housedress pattern modeled on the Swirl without the ruffle – and wear it to church – very forgiving after having a baby. I receive compliments everytime I wear it. You can find it sometimes on etsy/ebay.

  • Dress0_large

    Aug 25, 2011, 03.47 PMby corinaladue

    Excellent article. I love that it’s becoming cool to sew, grow your own food, etc. I have always been interested in these things even as a kid. It’s really off-putting to me when I see people wearing PJs in public it’s just gross.

    1 Reply
    • Meprofilebarn_large

      Aug 26, 2011, 06.31 AMby Justine of Sew Country Chick

      Yes it is rather unseemly but it sometimes happens. Like when your house is on fire or something.

  • Img_8545_large

    Aug 25, 2011, 03.45 PMby asf

    After reading this I’m fairly certain I need a wrap dress. I LOVE wearing dresses at home. It makes me feel comfortably feminine and ready if the ups guy comes to the door. ….a bit more flattering than yoga pants and tank tops that show my brazier.

    I would love a Muumuu too. But they aren’t exactly practical for nursing in. And that’s something I do 12 times a day, yet.

    1 Reply
    • Meprofilebarn_large

      Aug 26, 2011, 06.30 AMby Justine of Sew Country Chick

      Ah yes, wrap dresses are the best for nursing. i’ve nursed four and they are indespensable!

  • Missing

    Aug 25, 2011, 02.36 PMby VictoriaR

    I love the one with the buttons down the side. Such a clever design.

  • Image_large

    Aug 25, 2011, 02.08 PMby metropolitanfrock

    I love these! My mother had a housedress for everyday of the week and she made most of them herself. I think I’ll try drafting the Swirl dress too. It looks fun and I would definitely wear it out.

  • Imm013_14_large

    Aug 25, 2011, 07.41 AMby Petra Vorschneider

    I love these dresses! The middle right “Simplicity 2842” would be my choice… but the one I instantly fell in love with is the Swirl House dress at the top of this post. I would love to sew this.

  • Missing

    Aug 25, 2011, 04.03 AMby Jodie St. Clair

    I really love how these all have pockets! My favorite is the one in the middle on the right.

  • Hydrangea_copy_large

    Aug 25, 2011, 12.27 AMby karne144

    I love housedresses and the domestic things of the past. I once watched at episode of I Love Lucy, where she was dressed in a very cute housedress, but had to go downtown to do some shopping and said, “I’ll get dressed and meet you there!” later coming out dressed in a suit, hat, gloves and stylish pumps. While I do admit to liking that era of clothes, I also have to admit I don’t have to get THAT dressed up to go to town! I once wore my jammie pants to the drugstore, complete accident. Forgot my prescription on the way home, had already changed my clothes, but figured I could get by with jammie pants in the drive thru. The drive thru was out of service. Of course. But that is the only time I’ve worn jammies in public. There is a line that shouldn’t be crossed and that’s one of them!

    1 Reply
    • Meprofilebarn_large

      Aug 26, 2011, 06.29 AMby Justine of Sew Country Chick

      Don’t feel bad . I wear my jammies all the time when I drop my daughter off to school! Occasionally a mom will come over and say hi and peek in at me in my slippers and we’ll have a laugh. And then once I had to get out of the car because she forgot her lunch and everyone saw me : (

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