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The Distinct Pleasure of the House Dress

Why a loose-fitting, shapeless sack is the best form of self care

One of life’s greatest pleasures is coming home from a long day and taking off all of your clothes. Unbuttoning the top button of your pants the minute you step onto the subway feels wonderful but it’s a small consolation prize to closing the door to your home, unhooking your bra and freeing your bosom from its underwire prison. Changing out of your pencil skirt and slipping into a pair of grubby sweatpants and that weird shirt you stole out of the free pile at work is a daily act of self-care that we do without thinking about it. But for me, I skip the sweatpant, and go straight for a house dress.

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The purpose of real clothes — the clothes one wears outside of the house to work or to play or both — is clear, but I shy away from anything that feels too form-fitting or stiff or tailored. Every item of clothing I wear is an attempt to get back to the kind of clothing I wear when I’m at home — soft, loose, floaty, and free. The drawer that comprises my "house clothes" is the fullest in my home. Routine shopping trips to Old Navy during which I intend to purchase a power blouse and maybe some jeans devolve into a frantic scramble through the sale section as I clutch armfuls of floaty, shapeless dresses marked down on deep discount.

A good house dress lacks anything constricting about the midsection and should slip over the head with ease. Pockets, useful for storing snacks or the remote or your phone and a half-eaten bag of Tropical Skittles, are helpful. The length of the dress doesn’t matter. I’ve experimented with longer house dresses, swanning about my apartment like the rich eccentric I aspire to become, but feeling the stale air on my legs as I watch TV is much more enjoyable and so I’ve phased those items out of my wardrobe. Above all, a house dress is comfortable and, if you’re lucky, doesn’t require a bra — but even if it really does, you should feel free to go without. You’re at home! It’s a house dress. You’re not going very far outside of your house in it, so why bother?

Photo: Trio Images/Getty

A house dress is the antidote to slovenliness and an effective way of making you feel dressed when you’re really not. Waking up, taking a shower and putting the pajamas you just removed back on your body feels wrong. Slipping a dumb dress you picked up at a thrift store while killing time because you liked the way it felt against your skin is very, very right. Bopping downstairs to smoke a cigarette on the street to say hi to your old roommate and their brand new puppy can be done in your sleep clothes if necessary. But, letting the entirety of your neighborhood see the grubby shorts and stretched out tank top you wear to bed feels wrong. If you’re wearing a house dress and something on your feet, you could and should feel comfortable enough to grab a late-night beer without feeling like you need to put on a bra. The beauty of the house dress is the promise of presentability.

I sleep in whatever is readily available, but never a house dress A pair of leggings made into shorts and a tank top I got for free somewhere usually does the trick. For the hours I am still awake when I’m home, I reach for a house dress.

A garment rooted in practicality, the house dress was intended for housewives to wear while doing their chores and running errands.

My collection has grown over the years, but they’re not quite the housedress of yore. Stiff cotton with a nipped waist and a Peter Pan collar worked well in an era when women were relegated to scrubbing floors and whipping up pot roasts and dry martinis for their waiting husbands. For my needs, as a contemporary adult with three roommates and a tendency to dip out late night while stoned for ice cream, a modern interpretation is just what I need.

A garment rooted in practicality, the house dress was intended for housewives to wear while doing their chores and running errands. Nell Donnelly Reed, an enterprising businesswoman, saw a need in the market and started manufacturing house dresses prettier and more decorated than the plain cotton sacks most women wore, so that she could "make women look pretty when they are washing dishes." The house dress had its place. In a day and age when women’s roles were contained to house and home, the opportunity to be able to dress like something other than a dirty laundry hamper proved to be quite popular. Donnelly’s house dresses looked and felt fancier than the previous options available. Priced at a modest $1 each, they were slightly more expensive than what was on the market, but their design and more importantly the way they made women feel was worth it.

Photo: Jag Images/Getty

Sadly, there are no sections for this in a store. A modern house dress is never billed as such because the trick is that you rarely buy them new. All the clothing one owns goes through various stages from NWT to Goodwill. Your favorite dress from three summers’ ago is no longer a favorite now, so it inhabits a new life as a beach cover-up, to be stuffed in tote bags and stiffened with saltwater. After one season of barbecues and beach beers, that same dress fits wrong. It’s sheer where you wish it wasn’t, sack-like in a way that’s less Eileen Fisher and more ill-fitting rag. The elastic of the empire waist has worn out, leaving the dress to hang around your midsection, but the scoop neck still flatters. If there are no discernible holes and the dress still covers everything you want it to, congratulations. You’ve found a new house dress.

My current house dress was purchased in 2009 after a disastrous work holiday party that found me sleeping in my tights and a bathrobe on the floor of a suite in the Ace Hotel. I stumbled through the haze of a vicious hangover the next morning to a nearby H&M and purchased the first thing I saw that was under $20: a blue and white micro-striped baby doll dress, with three quarter length sleeves and a neckline low enough to hopefully distract everyone from the fact that I was wearing lipstick from the night before. That dress is still with me, though I’ve cut off the sleeves and burned a hole in the hem from a cigarette ash. It spent the summer of 2015 as my favorite beach cover up. This year, it is my house dress. Its cycle is complete.

A pair of sandals, or the Adidas shower slides you wear around the house and a bag and you’re good to go.

The sleep short and tee shirt set is the modern equivalent for college students and people who primarily drive cars to get where they need to go, but hardly superior to the house dress. Leaving my apartment in the clothes I sleep in, even if just for a brief jaunt to the Duane Reade for a magazine and light bulbs, feels like stumbling to a freshmen year seminar in the early morning hours, clutching an extra-large iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts and pretending to take notes. But a house dress is an actual item of clothing. It’s a complete outfit. A pair of sandals, or the Adidas shower slides you wear around the house and a bag and you’re good to go. The possibilities, as they say, are endless.

All of my house dresses spent the first part of their lives as real, actual dresses that I once wore. My favorite in rotation is a hideously patterned sundress, splashed with sunflowers and weird, vaguely problematic Aztec-inspired designs that blows up around my neck in a gust of wind. I bought it on an aimless Saturday browsing the sale rack at Buffalo Exchange, envisioning it in my head paired with a clean, white sneaker and maybe some lipstick. In the light of the dressing room, I looked like an erstwhile festival enthusiast one flash tattoo short of Coachella. Still, I bought it, probably because it was $7.50 and I was consumed with that very specific urge to buy something, anything, despite whether or not I actually needed it. When I brought it home and tried it on, I saw it for what it was: the ultimate house dress, floppy, comfortable and almost like I’m wearing nothing at all.


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