Tag Archives: Katharine Hepburn

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

Italy Was Amazing, and So Were We

Have you ever watched the TV reality game show, “The Amazing Race”? It features a fast-paced race to destinations around the world.
Competitors are teams of two people who share the tension and the mishaps they encounter along the way, hoping to be the first team to reach the final destination. The teams must be in some sort of relationship, including friends and relatives, and almost every season includes one team composed of a parent and an adult child. The competition is tough, but the reward is great: the winning team shares one million dollars.
I never considered competing on the show myself, but my daughter Leslie and I lived our own version of “The Amazing Race” during our recent trip to Italy. Time and again, we went zooming from one place to another in an attempt to reach our destination on time. Hair flying, clothes flapping, our wheelies spinning behind us at a furious pace, we always got where we needed to go…but it wasn’t always clear that we would.
It all started when we arrived in Rome early on a Monday morning in October. We’d reserved online (with Trenitalia) two seats on the fast train between Rome and Florence scheduled to depart Termini, Rome’s central train station, at 2:30 p.m. Worried that our flight might be delayed, we allowed a long layover between our arriving flight and the train reservation. An Italian friend also warned us that the fast train would be packed with business travelers going to Florence from Rome on a Monday. Hence the reservation.
As things turned out, our flight arrived on time at Fiumicino, the Rome airport, around 8:30 a.m., leaving us six hours to connect with our train. We weren’t upset about the six hours—yet—because we weren’t sure how long it would take to get from the airport to Termini. A taxi would be expensive. Luckily, one of our guidebooks mentioned a new shuttle bus between Fiumicino and Termini, and hustling past passport control, we ran to find the shuttle. It was still boarding, with only a few minutes to spare, and out of breath and sweaty, we found seats across the aisle from each other.
The shuttle bus moved slowly through rush-hour traffic and stopped outside Termini at about 10 a.m. We retrieved our suitcases and entered through the door closest to the shuttle bus drop-off. We knew we had loads of time to kill, and we didn’t want to waste any of our precious hours in Italy sitting around Termini. So, hoping to learn how to get on an earlier train to Florence, we searched for a helpful employee. The first employee we encountered—in a surprisingly uncrowded part of the station–was rude and dismissive, making clear we had to keep our reservation because we had a special price we got online.
Disheartened, we envisioned a long wait at Termini, and the two of us set off in search of food and a restroom.
We walked down a narrow hallway and discovered a small snack shop, where we took turns using the few euros we’d brought from home to get something to eat. While Leslie ate, I headed for a nearby restroom. Employing the very useful phrase “Dov’è …?”, I followed the route described by a friendly clerk and was startled to discover an enormous and busy part of the station we hadn’t known existed. Hundreds of travelers were milling around, eyes focused on a huge arrivals-departures board on the wall above some ticket windows.
I went back for Leslie, and we quickly saw that several trains would be leaving Rome for Florence well before 2:30. But how to exchange our reserved tickets for tickets on one of those? Hopeful travelers like us were grabbing numbers to talk to a ticket agent, and we grabbed a number, too. But the numbers being served were hundreds away from new numbers like ours.
Even more disheartened, we resigned ourselves to hours in Termini, probably never getting on any train earlier than the 2:30 we’d reserved. Just then, an older Italian man suddenly appeared at my elbow. “Can I help you?” he asked.
Who was this stranger offering help? My first thought was that he was a con man hoping to take advantage of a pair of vulnerable American tourists. He seemed to focus especially on me, a woman of a certain age, rather than my attractive younger daughter. Hmmm…was he hoping to be Rossano Brazzi to my Katharine Hepburn?
I must have looked dubious, but I quickly explained our situation, and his English was good enough to grasp the problem. He instantly offered us real help, escorting us out of the enormous room to a Trenitalia office where a clerk immediately exchanged our tickets (for a fee I was happy to pay) and reserved seats for us on the 11:30 fast train to Florence.
But by this time it was nearly 11:25! We had to RUN. So moving even faster than we did to catch the shuttle from Fiumicino, we began running to the platform where the train was about to leave. The kind stranger grabbed one of my wheelies, and the three of us set off. Our wheelies spinning, our hearts racing, Leslie and I boarded the train just in time.
In return for his help, our kind Italian stranger asked only that I look for him at Termini when I returned from Florence and have a drink with him. I’d have gladly done that had I returned to Termini at a time when that might have worked. But I never did, and I departed Termini hoping he knew how very grateful we were for his help.
Our seats on the train were excellent, and our arrival in Florence went smoothly. A taxi took us to our hotel, where we settled in for four wonderful days and nights in that extraordinary city. On our last day, we were hoping to travel by bus to Siena. The weather forecast the night before predicted heavy rain, so we figured we’d stay in Florence instead and hit some museums we’d so far missed.
We left our hotel at nearly 11 a.m., prepared for rain, and were instead greeted by sunshine and wet pavements. The rain had come and gone. We instantly decided to head for Siena and set out on foot for the bus station. We knew it was very close to the train station, so, consulting our map, we aimed for the train station, assuming we could find the bus station from there.
We made tracks and quickly arrived at the train station. But where exactly was the bus station? Its location was NOT obvious, and we frantically searched the area till we found it. We then rushed to the ticket window and somehow managed to explain what we wanted. Cash was required. Did we have it? Rummaging through our wallets, we came up with enough cash to buy the tickets.
The next bus was scheduled to leave within a few minutes, so we tracked down the right bus and clambered on, finding seats just in time. If we’d missed this bus, we’d have been stuck at the bus station for over an hour, losing all that time in Siena. Once again, we barely made our connection. Once again, I felt like the parent in an Amazing Race parent-child team.
The hours we spent in Siena were joyful. Lunch outside, on the terrace of a restaurant facing Il Campo (where the famed horse race, the Palio, takes place every summer), was delightful, and our trek uphill to see Siena’s cathedral was worth every arduous step. But when we checked the bus schedule, hoping to get back to Florence before dark, we found we had to get to our bus stop within minutes. Quickly making our way downhill, relishing the Siena street-scene as we went, we arrived at the bus stop and discovered we had to buy tickets at an underground location beneath it. Down the stairs we went, and again cash was required. I’d used an ATM so cash was no longer a problem. But the adjoining restroom, which we both needed by this time, required not merely cash but correct change! More rummaging, more frantic glances at our watches, till we came up with the right coins and made our triumphal entrance into the restroom. Finally we emerged into the sunlight and climbed onto the bus just in time for our ride back to Florence.
The next morning we were off to the Amalfi Coast by way of Naples. We’d planned to take a fast train from Florence to Naples, then get to the port in Naples to catch a ferry to our destination, Sorrento. The fast train arrived late, but we weren’t worried about making our connection in Naples. Surely there would be more than one ferry going from the port of Naples to Sorrento. Or would there?
Arriving at the Naples train station, we tracked down a tourist office where we were assured that ferries would leave from the port to Sorrento that afternoon. So off we went in a taxi through the chaotic streets of Naples, arriving at the port and eventually finding a ticket window to purchase tickets for the ferry to Sorrento. This time we were actually early and found ourselves waiting outside on the dock. The weather was beautiful, so we didn’t mind a bit. When the ferry arrived, however, we were disappointed to find that we had to sit inside instead of outside on a deck. So we sat inside, defeating the real purpose of taking the ferry instead of the more convenient, and cheaper, train from Naples to Sorrento. Oh well….
The ferry arrived at the port of Sorrento, and we emerged to discover another setback. We had to drag our suitcases uphill to get to the taxi stand. But we made it, and our taxi deposited us at our hotel, a delightful place where we spent four wonderful nights before taking off for Rome.
We ran two fairly frantic “races” before leaving Sorrento. First, we left our hotel early one morning and walked downhill to the port to catch a ferry to Capri. The ferries didn’t leave very often, and we wanted to get an early start. Down by the water, a crowd had gathered, waiting in a long line to board the ferry. We got in line and patiently began to wait. But we soon noticed that everyone else in line was already clutching a ticket for the ferry. We queried others and learned that the ticket booth was a long distance behind us, near the stairs we’d descended a long time before. I stayed in line while Leslie ran back to buy our tickets. Nervously, I watched for her till just about everyone else had boarded the ferry and departure time was only a few minutes away. At last I saw Leslie running toward me, waving our tickets, and at the last possible moment, we boarded the ferry. It left the dock a minute later. An Amazing-Race minute? You bet!
We arrived at Capri and looked around the port for a short time, then purchased tickets (for cash) for a boat trip around the entire island. If weather conditions permitted, we would be able to visit “the blue grotto,” a remarkable spot where small rowboats take four people at a time into the grotto to see the astonishingly “blue” water, a natural phenomenon. So off we went on our tour around Capri. Luckily, conditions allowed us (lying perfectly flat in the rowboat) to enter the blue grotto, our rower singing “Volare” at the top of his lungs while we surveyed the very blue water surrounding us. One of the other passengers in our rowboat was quite hefty, weighing maybe 300 pounds, and I worried about capsizing, but nothing untoward happened, and we made it safely back to the larger boat for the rest of the trip around the island.
Back on the island, we spent the afternoon strolling around its sites, relishing beautiful vistas from various perches above the water. As evening approached, we decided to head back to Sorrento. That meant descending to the level of the port and taking a ferry that would return in time for dinner. As we made our way to where the ferries departed, we saw we had only a few minutes to make the next ferry. Missing it would leave us in Capri for another hour, and we’d seen all we wanted to see. So another race began, and we ran as fast as we could to catch the next ferry. No wheelies spinning behind us, but the race was frantic just the same. We made the ferry with no time to spare and got to Sorrento just as the sun was setting. We trekked back uphill to our hotel, changed for dinner, and selected a charming restaurant, followed by a stroll up and down the busy shopping streets nearby.
No other frenzied races happened during the rest of our time in Sorrento. Our boat trip to and from Amalfi went well, and we easily got to Pompeii and back on the circumvesuviana train (a local line that goes around Mt. Vesuvius on its way to Naples). We left Sorrento on the same train line, leaving lots of time to get good seats on the train (which originated in Sorrento) so we could stash all of our suitcases before anyone else could grab those seats. Arriving in Naples, we again had plenty of time to await our fast train to Rome. The train got to Termini as it was getting dark. We emerged from the train and immediately hopped into a taxi to get to our hotel.
I’ll skip the nightmarish arrival at our hotel in Rome (it’ll appear soon on TripAdvisor). Once we settled into our room, we wandered around the surrounding streets till we were hijacked into eating at a mediocre place for dinner, but we were too tired to find somewhere else. We soon felt energized enough to go elsewhere for gelato. The rest of our stay in Rome, including gelato at least once every single day, was wonderful.
We had only one “race” in Rome, but it was memorable. On our last morning, we had a reservation for the Galleria Borghese, the fabulous art museum in the Borghese Gardens. Patrons are warned that they must arrive on time and are allowed exactly two hours to see the museum before being compelled to leave. Relying on my memory (from a trip 12 years earlier), I optimistically thought we’d have enough time to walk to the museum…but we didn’t start early enough. We set out after breakfast for the Spanish Steps, a relatively short walk from our hotel, planning to make our way to the Galleria from there. But we didn’t walk as fast as we thought we would, and we kept checking the time on our watches as we approached the Spanish Steps. We climbed the seemingly endless stairs to get to the top, but by the time we arrived there, out of breath, the chances of getting to the museum on time seemed unlikely. Suspecting that we might need a taxi, we darted into the posh hotel at the very top, the Hassler, to ask for advice. A charming doorman who spoke English (of course– it was the Hassler) checked his watch and the time on our reservation, and he confirmed our suspicions. If we continued on foot, we’d never get to the museum on time. He led us, looking mighty shabby for patrons of the Hassler, to a waiting taxi, and off we went to the Borghese Gardens, arriving at the museum with only a few minutes to spare before our entry time.
The museum was worth the anguish it took to get there, and the rest of our day was filled with a multitude of wonderful sights and sounds in Rome, ending with dinner outside at a delightful restaurant in the Campo de’ Fiori. We staggered back to our hotel and headed for bed, knowing we had to be up early for our flight home. You can be sure we allowed plenty of time to get to Fiumicino without needing to race there! And we did.