What’s in a name: Housecoat, House Dress, Dressing Robe, or Bathrobe?

Posted by Bella Coeur on

One of the many things I find so enjoyable about vintage fashion is coming across something I’ve never seen before and then learning about it.  Of course, part of that comes from needing to know as much as possible about an item in order to properly describe and sell it.  But really, I enjoy placing vintage clothing in its context.  It’s really amazing how understanding the clothing people wore at different periods in time tells one so much about HOW life was lived.  It’s history, yes, but with everyday people in their everyday lives.  I could yap on this subject forever but I’d never get to the point I was originally trying to make. 

My latest “whatzit” is a delightful late 1930s / early 1940s house dress.  To be honest, when I first laid eyes on it I thought it was just Depression era cotton fabric yardage.  That is, until I discovered the metal zipper down the front that led from the bodice with the poufy sleeves and scoop neckline to the billowing bias cut full-length skirt.


Vintage 1930s Hostess Gown


To say I was stymied, is an understatement.  To my modern eyes and modern mindset, this looks to me to be almost an evening gown.  But in cotton calico?  With a metal zipper at center front?  And it’s so simply constructed that it could easily have been homemade except for the size tag and the manufacturer’s label – Modely.

Modely label in 1930s Hostess Gown


Putting on my Sherlock Holmes detective hat and secret decoder ring, I made a list of things I knew about the dress:  1)  Cotton fabric in Depression era colors and pattern.  2)  Large metal zipper on cotton twill.  3)  Bias cut fabric in the voluminous skirt.  4)  Label.

Numbers 1,2, and 3 all scream 1930s to me.  An internet search brought absolutely nothing on the manufacturer.  I tried searching on 1930s dress, 1930s fashion, 1930s gown … some similarities but the cotton fabric kept tripping me up.

After exhausting my own resources, a quick turn of my decoder ring (aka a yelp for help from my buddies at the Vintage Fashion Guild)  brought me loads of information once I knew what this item is actually called!  It’s a house dress from 1939 – 1941, sometimes called a housecoat.  Proper terminology really helps, especially with internet searches.

Now after doing more research, it occurs to me that the words “house dress” bring the image to mind of an old, cotton, rumbled, frumpy dress that some old auntie wore around the house while cleaning and doing laundry.  Something I would not be caught dead wearing.  And the word “housecoat” makes me think of a shapeless, quilted nylon knee-length piece of “lingerie” (bathrobe) that covers up jammies and goes nicely with those vile, bristle hair rollers with the pink plastic picks sticking out everywhere.  You know, the hair rollers from h*ll.   (Have you ever tried to SLEEP in those things??!!) Ok, so maybe I come from a family of hillbillies but also, I’m thinking of things I saw back in the 60s and 70s.

Obviously, the meaning of the words “house dress” and “housecoat” in the early 1940s has changed.  A page from a Sears Catalog from 1934 is titled “House Wear and Uniforms” and includes a “house frock” (a cute gingham dress) and aprons as well as nurse and waitress uniforms.  The house dress, at that time, was still nice enough that one could have a friend over for a cup of coffee, clean house, and run to the grocery without having to change to a day dress in order to be seen in public.  (This reminds me of a Letter to the Editor of our local newspaper that made a comment about how it’s nice that people wear their pajama pants anywhere now, especially when they get “dressed up to go to Walmart”.  Oooookay.  But I digress.)

After some thinking, I’ve been wishing for something to wear around the house in the evening that isn’t as frumpy as my nightshirt and bunny slippers.  I think I just might sew one of these pretty little frocks for myself – this one isn’t quite my size, or a color that could ever conceivably look attractive anywhere near my body.  It’s time to feel just a bit more feminine and fancy at home, in my house dress.  I might even ditch the bunny slippers.

Nooo … let’s get real!

Originally posted 12/10/09

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  • I came upon your post while doing a little research of my own for a blog post! As a child of the ‘70s, I saw my grandmother in housecoats and pin curls more often than not. I never understood the desire to wear a quilted polyester over-sized robe every day.
    However, since the start of the pandemic, I’ve collected a number of what I consider “house dresses” in my closet — sundresses or sweatshirt dresses that aren’t necessarily something I’d wear to dinner, but definitely can be dressed up quickly to run errands or meet someone for a drink.
    Great blog post!

    Tina G. on

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