Today’s Fashion Feature- The House Dress

For today’s fashion feature, we switch gears just a bit and present a very unique circa 1879 house dress1We do admit that you could also possibly consider this to be a tea gown but to us it read more like a house dress. Purely subjective on our part to be sure.. Even more interesting is that this dress has an accompanying picture of the dress’s original owner, something that one rarely sees:

House Dress, c. 1879; Antiquedress.com website

The dress is a princess line style and the silhouette is somewhat loose, a style that was characteristic of house dresses of the late 1870s and 1880s and in the dress has a closed front. The dress is constructed from a red wool with a gold embroidery floral design that runs down the dress front and continues along the hem.  Unfortunately, the pictures aren’t that large so it’s hard to make out details, Here’s some close-up views:

Here’s a nice view of the floral design motif at the bottom front and the corner provides a perfect opportunity to expand on the design and make it stand out. The leaves are ferns that are reminiscent of neo-classical floral motifs found in France during the Napoleonic era. Here’s another view of the lower dress front:

The sleeves are pretty simple and unadorned except on the cuffs:

Below is a good close-up view of the cuff treatment; a large gold embroidered flower and white lace at the bottom:

And here’s a close of the embroidered flower from the cuff:

And the pocket:

The back is also very interesting with it’s seam treatment running down the entire length of the back, flaring into pleats towards the bottom:

To make this dress complete here’s a picture of it being worn back around circa 1879:

This dress is definitely a finer, more upscale version of the utilitarian house dress and was clearly meant for wear when visitors came calling. This is also reinforced by that fact that the dress’ owner felt it was respectable enough to have their photograph taken while wearing it. It’s amazing, to say the least and it would be interesting to know more about the lady in the above pictures but unfortunately, the auction website that we got this from was a bit sparse on details. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the past.

The House Dress – 1878

In the course of our research, we found the term “house dress” to be somewhat confusing in that it is often used interchangeably with “morning dress.” Below, we will attempt to shed some more light on this use of terminology and what it means in practical terms. Enjoy! 🙂


In a previous post, we discussed the etiquette of what dress to wear on what occasion and in particular, the role of the “morning dress” or “house dress.” Specifically, in an article on dress etiquette from the January 1878 issue of Peterson’s Magazine (page 87), the terms “morning dress” and “house dress” are used somewhat interchangeably but they are both talking about the same dress: a relatively simple, unadorned dress that was worn at home and only seen by immediate members of the woman’s family; it was not meant to be worn out or to receive visitors. Later on into the 20th Century, the term “house dress” became applied more exclusively to a dress that one wore for cleaning chores and the like. Below are a few examples from various issues of Peterson’s for 1878:

HOuse Dress 1878_1

Dress With Cuirass Bodice

House Dress 1878_5

Polonaise Cut In Princess Shape

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Princess Line Dress

Each of the above figures demonstrate styles that were characteristic of the Mid-Bustle Era and especially with the cuirass bodice and the princess line dress.  While both of these styles are well-suited for are fairly simple and while they appear to still be elaborate by today’s standards, by Victorian standards these are restrained.

In some instances, ensemble dresses were made that combine the features of the more simple house dress with a more formal dress by means of two interchangeable bodices. Below is an excellent example of this:

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Day Dress Ensemble With “Home” Bodice, c. 1878 – 1982; Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009.300.87a-c)

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Ensemble With More Formal Bodice

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Rear View With “Home” Bodice

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Rear View With Formal Bodice

The “house bodice” (for want of a better term) is extremely simple and fairly shapeless as bodices go and fact, it basically looks like a loose coat. This is perfectly suited for working around the house but in terms of style, it is spare except for the paisley-like trim on the rear and sleeve cuffs. The formal bodice is more conventional with a closely shaped cut. Decoration in the form of ruching on the front and fringed gold-colored edging, and knife-pleating on each sleeve cuff.  The dress’ stone gray color is perfectly suited for this dress and it fits perfectly within the bounds of proper etiquette, as least as prescribed by Peterson’s.

Below is yet another example of the loose bodice and skirt combination from that could have easily been utilized as a “house” dress:

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Day Dress, 1877; Manchester City Galleries (1934.493)

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Right Side Profile (that pocket you see was NOT meant for a parasol but rather a handkerchief)

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Left Side Profile

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Rear View

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Trim Detail

Now admittedly we could be reaching in our interpretation in terms of fabric detail but it is still relatively simple in design and style. But more importantly, even it it’s not spot on, it does goes a long way towards illustrating what Peterson’s had in mind when talking about the house dress.

The princess line which was another popular dress style during the late 1870s – early 1880s and below is just one example:

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Day Dress, c. 1878; National Museum, Prague (H2-193316)

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Side Profile

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Three-Quarter Rear Profile

The princess line could be fancy or plain and anywhere in between. The relatively loose fit made it perfect for use as a “house” dress. In some ways, it could be argued that, aside from the tea dress, this was about as casual as Victorian women’s clothing could get. 🙂

The above are just a few illustrations of the house dress and its potential. We hope that you have enjoyed this small detour as we attempt to bring greater clarity to the world of Victorian fashion.