Simple 1950s house dresses were the daytime uniform of the dutiful housewife. Complete with coordinated handmade apron, she set about her day running her home. There was no need to fancy fabrics, big collars or elaborate trim on a house dress covered up by an apron most of the day. Instead, 1950s house dresses were simplified versions of “going out” dresses in easy to wash and wear cotton.
TV wives from Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, I love Lucy and even The Dick Van Dyke show all donned house dresses and aprons as part of their uniform. She wore them from the time she started her day to just before dinner when she would slip into something nicer, add a pair of heels and maybe a simple pearl necklace and earrings before greeting her husband at the door.
1950s House Dress History
1950s house dresses were fancier than previous decades that favored the plain wrap around dress. A 1950s woman had to look elegant and clean, not exhausted by endless labor. New inventions in house cleaning and cooking appliances made her day easier. Looking like a hot mess was not acceptable, or so she was told over and over again by TV, radio ads and newspapers.
Comfort was key. The full skirt (5 yards at least) of gathered fabric with a thin petticoat underneath made it easy to move in, change bed sheets, make dinner and tend to children. The button down bodice, known as a shirtwaist, was the prime style of house dress. Easy to put on and take off by oneself, it had been around for years, but the 1950s woman made it her signature day dress.
1950s house dress colors and patterns followed the trends of the year. Gingham check prints were all the rage in 1950. Pastels came next in the middle of the decade. Plaid was everywhere by the end. In between these years were small polka dots, big and small stripes, and floral of all sizes and colors mixed in the remainder of the years. Fabric prints were subtle and solid plain colors were acceptable although rather uncommon. Trim was also minimal. Self fabric details such as small pleats were preferred over large add on trims. The exception to this was wide lace applique, small rickrack trim on collars and pockets, and big buttons in white or black. A coordinated belt was optional.
1950s house dresses usually had two patch pockets on the front of the dress or slit pockets built into the sides. These held all kinds of useful things such as clothes pins or a handkerchief. The collar on the shirtwaist dress was usually pointed or a round peter pan collar. Some had no collars, just a round boat-neck or sweetheart opening. There are too many varieties to list them all.
Sleeve types also came in all sorts of shapes. The short cap sleeve was common in summer, especially with a turned up cuff. Mid arm sleeves were nice year round, and 3/4 long sleeves kept warm in winter yet didn’t get wet while washing dishes.
The house dress skirt was a full swing skirt. It was less full than party dresses and worn with multiple layers of petticoats. All that extra fluff would just be in the way. Instead, 1950s house dresses still created a wasp waist with full hip silhouette but on a more streamlined scale. The straight skirt fitting sheath dress was not a common house dress. There were some, of course, but only women who embraced fashion over comfort choose to do chores in a tight dress.
For running errands or visiting friends outside the home, a woman did not need to change dresses. The house dress was nice enough. Simply adding jewelry, gloves, a belt, a cardigan sweater, or bolero jacket was enough to transition her dress out of the house. The 1950s were not a time to look like a domestic servant even if she acted like one. Fashion was fashionable even when no one would see you in it.
Buy or Sew 1950s House Dresses
Vintage 1950s house dresses are still easy to buy today but not always in a size or condition you need. Most reproduction 1950s dresses are sleeveless summer dresses or nicer afternoon styles. The house dress style is less common. These are some options I have found online:
Shop for new 1950s style house dress and day dresses here.
Sew your own house dress with a 1950s pattern here.
1950s Apron History
Aprons took on a new role in the 1950s. Many were still practical, designed for a woman keep clean while cooking or maintaining the home. However, 1950s aprons were also becoming prettier with decorative details that had little if any use. The apron was a mandatory part of the housewife’s uniform. She had to look like she slaved away in the kitchen all day in her best dress and prettiest apron to welcome her husband or house guests to dinner. Having girl children wear matching aprons with mom was a sign she was fulfilling her role, training the next generation to be perfect housewives (In reality, I hear most mothers preferred having their children stay out of the kitchen as much as possible).
The 1950s apron became a novelty item, one that came in a new version for every chore, every season and every holiday. Most women had a drawer full of aprons she wore only a few times a year. Newspapers printed easy patterns for women and children to sew at home. More complicated patterns were sold by McCalls or Simplicity. They featured the latest color trends and designs. Plain aprons were out of fashion. Novelty prints were in style. Themes of food, travel and holidays reflected the trends of the day and personality of the wearer. Stripes, plaids and polka dots were equally common. They often matched the house dress too- blurring the distinction between dress and skirt.
The apron was the first thing girls learned to make in home economics classes. Mothers continued to sew aprons at home or as part of a church group raising money at a craft bazaar. Adding decorations added to the value and price of the garment. Fine embroidery, smocking, applique, and stenciling were new(er) ways to add embellishment. Sewing rickrack around edges and pockets was an easy, frugal and fast way to spice up a plain apron.
Even men wore aprons but only when barbecuing in the backyard. Naturally, they had themes of barbecuing and bartending.
Types of 1950s Aprons
The most practical, all use design came from the 1940s. It had a full front bib with straight or ruffles shoulder straps and an a-line skirt. As dress skirt widths grew during the decade, so did the skirt of the apron. Most aprons had two large pockets in the front, shaped into a novelty shape such as hearts, diamonds and triangles.
Half Apron. Bib front aprons were practical but half aprons or skirt aprons were the most common. Made of cotton, linen, rayon, or other absorbing materials they were pleated or gathered (or cut like a circle skirt) and tied almost all the way around the waist. They had to fit over full swing skirts and hand long enough to protect the dress but hardly ever to the hemline. Some were smaller, more dainty, half aprons that served other purposes.
Plastic Apron. For extra wet duties, a plastic front or half skirt apron protected dresses best. They became very popular when plastic linens, curtains, and place settings also boomed. Very practical, they almost never needed to be washed — only wiped away.
Cobbler Apron. This smock style fully covered the top half of the body but only part of the skirt. It looked like a dress bodice with side ties that brought in the wasp waist. Two or three large pockets lined the front to hold a lot of items. Cobbler aprons were especially useful on laundry day. They became very popular around 1955. Plastic versions were especially popular for messy chores such as canning fruit.
Party Apron. The fanciest half apron was the party apron made of organdy, chinz or net. They were also called dress aprons, hostess aprons, cocktail aprons, or glamour aprons. The fabric absorbed nothing but stains, so it was only worn after a meal was ready to be served. They were half aprons, rarely full length, with decorative small pockets, if any. Many had ruffles and layers to add volume and drama to the look. These were not worn over house dresses. Women would change into a party dress or at least a nicer day dress to wear with a party apron.
New 1950s Aprons & Patterns
In the past 10 years, along with an interest in 1950s fashion, came about a revival of the apron. Feminine prints, ruffle straps and novelty themes exploded into mainstream collectibles. Making aprons from vintage patterns has become a new crafty activity for many women. Retailers jumped on the trend and are now selling vintage style aprons, oven mitts, rubber gloves, and matching kids’ aprons, too.
You can either buy a ready made vintage apron or sew one of your own and relive the past. They are very practical today, too. Perhaps not the party aprons, but a good half apron is handy in the kitchen, the garden and taking care of a baby (big pockets hold burp clothes, pacifiers, bottles and toys really well).
Shop for new 1950s aprons and sewing patterns here:
Do you have some vintage 1950s aprons in your collection?