Sometimes, to see how far you’ve come, you have to take a glance in the rearview mirror.
Often we think of the mainstream fashion industry in terms of its negative impacts on individuals and the environment, but we also want to acknowledge the opportunities we have as modern consumers to make informed and thoughtful choices. These opportunities have come about after many years of advocacy, struggle and hard work from revolutionary thinkers and designers in the fashion industry, as well as consumers who demand more.
Let’s take a look at some of the shifts in women’s styles, and dig into what they signal for the changing roles of women in the world.
The Evolution of the House Dress
Last week, we profiled Kate Goldman McDonald, founder of House Dress, about her slow approach to design. Her beautifully draped and generously proportioned garments got us thinking about the evolution of the house dress and, on a larger scale, the roles of the women who have worn them through the years.
Originating in the late nineteenth century, house dresses were intended to be worn at home as a relaxed yet fashionable alternative to the restrictive garments worn outside. The house dress went in and out of style until the 1950s, where came back into fashion with the rise of the American homemaker. Some of the most nostalgic artwork from that period portrayed a perfectly coiffed mother serving dinner in a light floral dress, cinched becomingly with an apron.
Some may associate the house dress with a retro lifestyle: To them, this dress is nothing but a shapeless, Rockwellian relic from to a less relevant time. But the house dress is a bit more revolutionary than that.
It reached peak popularity with the demise of the petticoat. No longer were heavy, form-concealing layers the norm. Women found freedom in house dresses and were able to celebrate a new sense of intimacy with their clothing.
Though the house dress declined in popularity after the 1950s as women entered the workforce, it’s made a bit of a comeback in recent years. Brands like Kate Goldman McDonald’s House Dress are embracing the carefree and empowering possibilities of the house dress. No longer worn only inside the home, the new wave of house dress wearers combine their roles and contexts, becoming hybrid wives, mothers, professionals, creatives and so much more.
Restrictive Garments in History
For many years, fashions were often dictated by clothing that shaped women’s body into specific silhouettes perceived as feminine and desirable. From suffocating whale-bone corsets (who else remembers Scarlett O’Hara’s 17” waist from Gone with the Wind?) to hoop skirts that went up in flames when they brushed up against fireplaces, these oppressive and often dangerous items of clothing nevertheless conformed women’s bodies into exaggerated shapes — ample busts, narrow waists and billowing skirts. They catered to an ideal that simply didn’t exist in real life.
Bras — the symbol of restrictive fashion — have been around since the 14th century, though back then they were bandeau-shaped and used more as athletic wear. The bra as we’ve come to know it emerged in Paris in the late 19th century, around the time of the house dress, as a “separated” corset. In the 1920s, flappers wore bras to flatten their silhouette, so that they could achieve the boyish look, while aspiring pinups of the 1950s and 1960s relied on push-up bras to enhance their chests and sex appeal.
Shoes also played a large part in shaping women’s bodies. Venetian nobles wore impossibly high-heeled shoes called chopines, elevating women above the mud-caked streets and signifying their class. Cone-shaped lotus shoes from China necessitated that the wearer bind her feet to fit into them. Foot-binding wasn’t outlawed in China until 1911.
For centuries across the world, comfort was not part of the agenda for designing women’s clothing. Even now, as we comb the racks for a dress to wear to a wedding or the perfect pair of everyday flats, it can be tough to find something that feels as good as it looks, or vice versa. Comfort registers differently for each person, but the underlying message many brands send sounds pretty similar to the messages we’ve heard historically: Conform to a beauty standard that doesn’t prioritize your well-being.
Popular Modern Silhouettes
Though the fashion industry has a way to go, we find inspiration in the independent brands and designers who have taken a new approach to clothing, honoring men and women’s bodies for what they are. These brands take the opportunity to celebrate all that bodies can do, rather than molding them into roles that may not be a natural fit.
Some of our favorite brands, like Zero Waste Daniel and Querencia Studio, have removed the division between men and women’s clothing altogether, adopting a unisex model. It’s no surprise that these brands are also focusing on comfortable fit and pared-down style over fast-fashion trends.
On the whole, there are more options than ever that flatter your natural shape. Beauty ideals are more diverse, though still problematic. Women are eschewing bras and lingerie when they feel like it, and choosing clothing that isn’t specifically designed for the male gaze. We are crossing and redefining boundaries in many ways, and it is reflected in our freedom of choice when it comes to clothing.
Empowering Yourself through Your Clothing
At Pildora, we believe in making thoughtful choices that reflect your lifestyle and values. What’s important to you? What makes you feel empowered throughout your day?
If you’d like a flowing house dress of your own, check out a store like House Dress or your local vintage store. You may find retro patterns that add some color to your wardrobe. Perhaps you may prefer a house dress-inspired wrap dress or a loose-fitting tunic that creates a similar sense of ease.
Maybe it’s not a house dress that captures your lifestyle at all, but a pair of linen culottes or worn-in vintage jeans. We are so fortunate to live in a time where we have more agency over what feels stylish and right. You will likely find your fashion soulmates out there somewhere, whether in an independent brand or in an online community (or both!).
Whatever you love to wear has likely been in style at some point in history and will be back in style again in the future. The cyclical nature of fashion is one of its most compelling qualities, and we look forward to tracing those trends as we consider the evolution of our collective values.
For now, we can celebrate how far we have all come and be inspired to make even more positive changes in our community.