If you do a picture search for 1920s dresses online, on Pinterest, or in museum collections, you get an overwhelming selection of fancy party dresses. What you don’t see are functional dresses worn by all women at some point in their day. The simple 1920s house dress or “any time of day” dress was a colorful lightweight pullover frock with a single belt and minimal trim. Extremely loose and comfortable, it was ideal for the labors of housework or paid work in the service and manufacturing industries.
It was a dress so easy to make, women often sewed their own. Too poor for fabric? Many women would up-cycle cloth flour sacks into dresses and aprons. This is a tradition that continued into the 1940s, when wartime frugality encouraged women to “make do and mend” with what they had on hand.
For durability, daytime house dresses were made of cotton broadcloth, cotton chambray (similar to light denim), cotton percale (soft like bedsheets), Indian headcloth (a smooth, sturdy muslin no longer made today), and cotton gingham (known for its check pattern). A few dresses in summer were also made of linen. In winter, a cotton/wool jersey blend was acceptable. All wool was avoided because it retained odors from the kitchen and harsh cleaning soaps. Yuck!
Gingham, with its brightly colored check pattern, was the most popular print for day dresses. Plaid was the next most popular. It came in all sorts of unique colors such as pink and green with blue, peach and blue with orange, and tan with purple and pink. Sometimes, small flowers were printed over plaids for even more “pop.” Vertical stripe dresses and solid colors rounded out the rest of the day dresses. Colors included a range of cheerful light blues, peach, sage green, rose pink in summer and darker tones of these as well as grey, brown, and even black in the cooler months.
The trimming on day dresses was a lot of what we might think of as craft trim today. White piping, colorful rick rack, and contrast binding finished sleeves, collars, pockets, and belts. Both dress collars and pockets (if the dress even had any) were over-sized. Large round “peter pan” collars, wide and long shawl and tuxedo collars, and men’s suit style notch lapel collars were all seen on day dresses. As the decade progressed, the size of collars and pockets reduced to a more feminine and tailored look.
Wide dress sashes were also gradually replaced by thin narrow self-fabric belts. The sash band started high in the early ’20s and moved lower and lower into the mid and late ’20s.
Around 1924, the day dress took on the fad of mismatching the tops and bottoms. Solid on top and print on the skirt was the most common, although vice versa was favored by many too. The trend was wildly popular for a few years, then died back down to all one-fabric dresses.
House dresses by year:
Mid to Late 1920s House and Day Dresses
The early and mid ’20s, house and day dresses remained mostly the same in style, color, and materials. The lines were blurring between house dress and daytime frock. Many house dresses were as pretty as daytime outing dresses, and daytime dresses were as casual as simple house dresses.
By 1927, the progression away from loose and comfortable and into straight and tailored was in place. The movement also reflected a shift away from women as only homemakers to women who worked, played, and volunteered outside of the home. Household chores were becoming easier thanks to modern appliances. Women spent less time at home and more time out in public. The clothing had to change to match the times. Now, the simple house frock was still colorful but classier, more fitted, more refined with narrowed belts, smaller collars, larger prints, solid colors, and more complicated designs. The look was one where a dress could be worn all day long regardless of where you were.
Aprons exploded in popularity too. For most women, wearing an Anytime of Day Dress with an apon or smock over it was enough for most household duties. By 1929, the wrap dress returned to start off the 1930s with a hybrid dress-apron style to be called the Hooverette.
The House Apron
We can’t talk about house dresses without including a house apron. Always worn as a pair, the versatile apron kept house dresses clean and wearable for a week or more before washing. 1920s aprons were as long and shapeless as the dresses underneath. Aprons served many purposes at home, making each unique to the task.
A cooking apron was almost the length of the dress or a little shorter. It usually did not have pockets and sometimes not even arm straps. The “pin on” apron pinned on to whatever dress she was wearing. Its job was to protect against food splatter and act as a towel to dry off wet hands.
If she was doing dishes or wet cleaning, a rubberized chintz fabric apron was the thing to wear. And if she was doing laundry, the half “clothespin” apron with one or two large pockets over the front held all the clothes pins while hanging laundry outside. See this tutorial on how to make a clothespin apron. Or see this one on making a cross strap apron (too cute!).
A general apron for all types of work was the standard long apron with two large patch pockets and either cross straps or ties in the back. Some came in V-neck slip over models without ties.
Pretty scrap trim and hand embroidery make fancier “tea aprons” worn while serving your guest’s tea and sandwiches. Home magazines gave away patterns for aprons since they usually didn’t require a complex paper pattern to be mailed, although there were plenty of those too. Tea aprons were often trimmed in ruffles and lace. My grandmother’s homemade half tea apron was made from scraps of dress fabrics and trimmed in rick rack.
A few house dresses came in the “apron dress” style. They looked like a dress on the front (with sleeves) but straps crossed in the back for the apron fit. These were the primary style in the early 1920s. By the mid ’20s, the smock apron with long sleeves and a button front became the new all over the apron. It was mostly used by artists and for very dusty jobs. Many working women were given smocks to wear in factories.
Some kitchen aprons came with matching kitchen caps. It was common for servants to wear caps as part of their wardrobe. Each house had its own signature uniform and cap based on job and status. They could look like traditional mop caps, a headscarf, or crescent shape small hat. Some were wide headbands tied to keep hair back but not entirely covered.
Day Dress & Apron Patterns
The 1923 One Hour Dress is also an excellent pattern to use for an early 1920s house dress. See my tips on using this basic pattern plus examples of what others have made with the pattern.
Make a 1920s House Dress
I loved the 1922 blue gingham check house dress featured in the top of the article so much so that I had to re-create it. It is a simple drop waist dress with a lightly gathered skirt. I found a new pattern for a drop waist tunic dress at my local fabric store and just adapted it a little by lengthening the skirt and moving the key hole from the back of the dress to the front. The rest was just trim (white lace and black velvet ties.) House dresses are very simple and easy to make. It is the trim that takes the longest to add on. Read more about my 1920s house dress here.
Shop 1920s Style Day Dresses:
Ready made 1920s day dresses are not easy to find. I keep my eye out for some options online. In most cases, these simple dresses just need a sash, belt, or pretty brooch to take it from modern to roaring twenties. I look for house dresses/ housecoats as well as tunic dresses and some peasant dresses in the thrift stores. Sometimes, the easiest quick house dress is to wear any simple dress underneath a ’20s style apron.
House Dress Accessories
- Once you have a house dress picked out how to you style it?
- Shoes: Mary Jane, T-strap, or Oxfords with a low 1-2 inch heel. Flats can be found here.
- Stockings: Black or dark nude. Cotton stockings were the most practical. Tights that are not sheer will create the same effect.
- Undergarments: A woman would not have worn a corset or shapewear to do housework. A slip in reasonable to help the house dress hang off the body smoothly.
- Jewelry: None.
- Hats: Optional house cap/mop cap. You could also use a wide scarf as a headband.
- Props: Mop, old fashioned clothes pins, tea cup and pot on a tray, scrub brush, etc.
Need help with your outfit? Just ask!