If you do a picture search for 1920s dresses online, 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 woman at some point in their day. The simple 1920s house dress or “any time of day” dress was a colorful light weight pull over frock with a single belt and minimal trim. Extremely loose and comfortable, it was ideal for the labors of house work 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 continue into the 1940s when war time encourage women to “make do and mend” with what they had on hand.
For durability, day dresses were made of cotton broadcloth, cotton chambray (similar to a light denim), cotton percale (soft like bed sheets), Indian head cloth (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 were cheerful light blues, peach, sage green, rose pink in summer and darker tones of these plus 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 scene on day dresses. As the decade progresses the size of collars and pockets reduced to a more feminine and tailored look.
Wide dress sashes also gradually were replaced by thin narrow self fabric belts. The sash band started high in the early 20’s and moved lower and lower into the mid and late 20’s.
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 but then died back down to all one fabric dresses.
Late 1920’s Day Dresses
The early and mid 30’s dresses remained mostly the same in style, colors and materials. 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.
My 1920s House Dress
I loved the 1922 blue gingham check dress featured in the top of the article so much that I just had to re-create it. It is a simple drop waist dress with 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 in. Read more about my dress here.
The House Apron
We can’t talk about house dresses without including a house apron. Always worn as a pair, the versatile apron kept your dresses clean and wearable for a week or more before washing. 1920’s 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 towel to dry off wet hands.
If you were doing dishes or wet cleaning a rubberized chintz fabric apron was the thing to wear. And if you were doing laundry the half “clothes pin” apron with one or two large pockets over the front held all your clothes pins while you hung laundry outside. See this tutorial on how to make a clothes pin apron. Or this one on making a cross strap apron (too cute!)
If you only wanted to wear one apron for all your work then the standard long apron with two large patch pockets that tied in the back was ideal. Some came in slip over models without ties. These were often made of scrap fabric.
Pretty scrap trim and hand embroidery make fancier “tea aprons” worn while serving your guests tea and sandwiches. Home magazines gave away patterns for aprons since they usually didn’t require a complex pattern to mail order although there were plenty of those too.
A few house dresses came in the “apron” style. They looked like aprons worn over dresses but were sewn all together. These were especially common for working women becoming a uniform of sorts.
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 head scarf, or crescent shape small hat. Some were wide headbands tied to keep hair back but not entirely covered.
A common kitchen cap look was a round close fitting head cap with brim folded up and attached. They looked like cloche hats without a brim and not quite as low on the head.
Day Dress & Apron Patterns
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. Shop sewing patterns too.