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:
- Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.