For Lynette Gabriel, it started with a dressed-up Zoom brunch with girlfriends. She called in from her home in Oakland, Calif., in a leopard-print long-sleeve gown from the back of her closet. Snacking on smoked-salmon potato hash and sipping on a glass of rosé, Gabriel found her new house fashion.
“We actually now call ourselves ‘The Real Housewives of Quarantine’ in our house dresses,” Gabriel says and chuckles.
Billowing linen. Cozy cotton. Floating silk. The house dress is having a 2020 renaissance. Flowy tunics, chic kimonos and muumuus, and ankle-length T-shirts are floating into more and more shopping carts — a sartorial coping mechanism for the modern pandemic age.
Clothes and mood are intertwined, argues fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen, author of Dress Your Best Life. And so, the house dress is a perfect fit for this moment: a small expression of control during the uncontrollable, a taste of free-flowing freedom in a time rife with restrictions, a sense of structure and style on the days that feel hazy and dull.
“I’ve actually gotten rid of some fancier dresses to make room for more house dresses because … I would say I’m wearing a house dress at least three times a week,” says Preeti Chaulk, a data manager from Cincinnati. House dresses followed her around Instagram — worn by influencers, advertised by brands — soon leaving a trail of striking floral designs on her own feed.
For decades, the house dress got a bad rep — a throwback to the times when women’s sway was confined to housework. Its origin is said to trace to a Victorian gown that freed women of corsets but clad them instead in a baggy matronly smock named after “Mother Hubbard” from old nursery rhymes.
Even as the house dress got more shapely and stylish, its focus was chicness during chores — some in the 1940s and ’50s even came with matching oven mitts. Then, the house dress loosened up, made most famous by the flamboyant caftans of Helen Roper on the ’70s sitcom Three’s Company. Still, a stigma trailed the garment: an artifact that’s dowdy, dated and perhaps involves “laying on your couch eating bonbons,” Chaulk jokes.
“We’re all busy women, we’re doing things [in house dresses],” she exclaims. And OK, that might still involve some errands or a nap on the couch. Is it so wrong to crave an occasional bonbon? The 2020 house dress is not here to judge or cast expectations.
“I have to say — linen, comfortable clothes — it’s actually very contagious. … It’s addictive,” says Malgosia Archer, a Polish and British designer who sells lounge dresses through her Etsy shop, GoshYaga.
“Ghost” is how her teenage daughters have dubbed her most popular item: a billowing cloud of white linen, with pockets. Back before the pandemic, Archer had worried her airy fabrics wouldn’t be in demand until the summer. Now, even her daughters are sporting versions of the “ghost” dress.
Across the world in Arizona, Jade Banner can relate. Her online store Dwell & Slumber — known especially for its caftans — is having difficulty keeping up with demand. Most notably, Banner’s designs have finally won over her most elusive customer: her mother.
“She would not wear my dresses,” Banner says. “She likes clothes to be more fitted, more tailored. She just didn’t get it.”
But on Banner’s recent visits to her parents, there was her mother, lounging in a spacious Dwell & Slumber special — converted into a house-dress believer during the pandemic.
“My dad says, ‘She won’t wear anything else — what have you done?’ ” Banner says with a laugh. “I do finally feel victorious.”
Fashion psychologist Karen says an outfit can serve a higher purpose if it helps you express your mood, lift your spirits or save you the need for extra decisions. In the hamster wheel of housebound life — with all the mask-wearing and hand sanitizing and social distancing — maybe the house dress is a triple promise:
It might comfort you if you’re down, hold you up if you’re content and ease choice with a single look that can take you from a nap to a business call, to the backyard, to a nice dinner.
“I put it on and … had some work to do, and I sat outside on a screened-in porch and just felt like finally some peace had rolled over me after many months of not being at peace,” says Lauren Niimi, a school administrator, baker, artist and mom to three boys from Chicago.
She’d bought her embroidered house dress on a whim, pining for a missed summer trip to wine country, looking at outfits she might have worn there: easy, effortless, relaxed. Thirty dollars, she says, was a small price to pay for a little bit of happiness.