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The Housedress

I write a lot about jeans and boots and things I can run around in. And somehow, over the course of forty-something posts here, I have missed a pretty major subject when it comes to style. I will gloss right over any gender theory, and all the symbolism and history that might bring about a saying like "who wears the pants", and just say — I LOVE wearing a dress.

For me, it feels both feminine and feminist. I like the air on my legs, and feeling unconstrained by the rise of a pair of trousers or jeans. I like the swish of the fabric going back and forth when I walk. I like how it makes my husband smile and say "wow – you look great today" and how it used my make my girls, when they were small, look up at me and tell me how pretty I was. (The best compliment of all was when one of them said, dead serious, "Hey, when you die, can I have that dress?") I like how it's a single piece to put on in the morning, and shazam – your look is done.

When I was pregnant with Harriet, my 4th, during that funny year in southern California, I stitched up two short babydoll-style dresses, thinking they'd make an easy uniform as I got bigger. One was black, one was brown, and I literally rotated between the two of them for the 3rd through the 9th month (with a few Hanes t-shirts and sarongs in the mix.) Truly… bare legs and not a single pair of pants for six months. Total freedom. It was heaven. And now that most of us aren't going into offices, and the weather is turning warm… I am thinking of returning to that California uniform.

Because I think the idea of a housedress is so cool. Claire McCardell, who designed in the 1940s and 50s, was famous for making practical dresses that were both sturdy and feminine. Betty Friedan wrote "Claire was a feminist long before we had a name for them." Takes one to know one! Her whole idea was that women were the best architects of their own comfort, and they could design for women better than a man ever could. Her dresses were self-aware in a way that feels kind of modern when I look back on it… like elevating domesticity. Her famous Pop-over Dress was actually sold WITH a potholder. If that's not a metaphor, I don't know what is! So for me, if the dress is intended for wearing in the kitchen – or at least at home – Claire had the right idea. It needs to be wash and wear. Though I adore wearing an apron, I can't worry about something spilling on my clothes. Here are a few of my favorites right now.

The Pleated Amelie Dress is fantastic. I happen to like shapes like this dressed DOWN just as much as up, although you can certainly wear it out to dinner once this virus is over. Think of it as one of those old-school Lily Pulitzer shifts that were so easy and fantastic. Wear it with your soccer sandals or sneakers and you can bound up and down your stairs at home. If you happen to have small kids and, as a result, spend a lot on the floor… grab a pair of those little Lycra volleyball shorts. My girls used to wear these under their school skirts and they are excellent for preventing overexposure.

I love anything tie-dye, but the shape of the Short-Sleeved Popover Dress is also great… basically an oxford shirt, but longer. Same goes for the Atelier Shirtdresses. You can wear them loose, or belt them – I think these look extra cool with sneakers, flat espadrilles, the sandals you keep at the back door…

 

shot of Ann from the back in a blue and white midi-length housedress in her kitchen with a tabby cat on the kitchen island
the pool-print taffeta that dries so easily

 

The Wrap Swing Dress is basically a wraparound version of those housecoat things you see on European grandmas. I have always wondered about those. It's like a vest designed to be worn over… what? another dress? But they work as an apron, or a daytime uniform for getting work done. Ours can do the same thing. While you wait for any occasion that calls for heels… can't you envision how cool it would look at home with ballet flats, or sneakers, or even just bare feet? You can wrap the belt around your waist an extra time in a knot rather than a bow, and just grab your vacuum and go for it. Domestic goddess.

I love all of these, but the Bridget Smocking Dresses are my IDEAL when it comes to feminine practicality. They check off every single one of the Claire McCardell boxes: no zipper, no tight waistband, durable fabric, pops on and off over the head… it's stretchy at the top, too, so you can wear it off the shoulders. A woman actually DMed us asking if it was breastfeeding-friendly, which it is! Talk about having it all. That stretchy smocked waist feels SO good and gives you that great midcentury hourglass figure with a full-ish skirt. Imagine yourself sitting on the floor doing yet another farm puzzle, with that beautiful fabric all spread out around you… your toddler spills the sippy cup, or your Fresca… and instead of letting that shatter the pretty peaceable kingdom vision, you just think – no problem! I will just pop it in the wash… or like I would have, use the skirt to wipe off any face that needs it. Not really dress as dish towel – but in a pinch?

Most of these dresses are easy to care for, and pressing is always optional in my book – the taffeta ones are actually spectacular because they are light as a feather and can handle liquid as easily as a windbreaker or a pair of swim trunks. You can wash and shake and with a few minutes of airtime, it's ready to go. But truly the best part is that they ALL have pockets. When I spent a lot of time at home, pockets were essential. Where else would I put the loose change, the tiny toy pieces (back then, the Polly Pockets were really small), the hair elastics, the paperclips, and all the other miscellaneous things that would ultimately end up in the "junk drawer." I used to roam the house constantly, picking up the loose ends and dumping them at the end of the day. On any given week, I probably could have collected a week's worth of my finds and created a time capsule to bury in the backyard that would exactly capture my life at the time. One of my very favorite books is The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan. I never hear people talk about this one – his true adult books are better-known and better-loved – but there is a description of a kitchen junk drawer that has stayed with me for the last 20 years. It is worth reading the entire charming book just for this one lengthy passage, but here is the crux: "Of course there were many drawers, but when someone said 'the string is in the kitchen drawer', everyone understood. The chances were the string would not be in the drawer. It was meant to be, along with another dozen useful things that were never there: screwdrivers, scissors, sticky tape, drawing pins, pencils…" It goes on and gets even better, but I will give you something to look forward to. (Other than, of course, going out to eat again in your new housedress that can easily become a goingOUTdress with just a change of shoes and attitude and circumstances!) Anyway… pockets are key.

That's really the gist of it. Each of these can be just as comfortable and wash-and-wear as activewear. They just make staying in the house feel a little more special. I love workout wear, of course. That has its place. But when I am cooking the umpteenth meal at home, I love to imagine myself at the stone sink of a little cottage in the Loire Valley, cutting something very salt-of-the-earth like radishes to serve with delicious salted butter. And in that fantasy, I am not in Lycra leggings… I am wearing a housedress.

From Ann

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