| Arts & Culture
Style Why Your Grandma’s Housecoat is the Perfect Work-From-Home Outfit
We fall prey to letting writing become a passion, cooking a hobby, teaching a service. We must rethink how we value labor.
I’m hunting for the perfect work outfit. It needs to be loose, natural fiber, and long enough that my thighs wouldn’t stick to my desk chair. It cannot be white. Sleeves are preferred. Pockets, required. I tend toward neutral colors, but would consider a fun print—something ’70s-inspired with a lot of orange and green, maybe.
As a freelance writer and adjunct professor, I mostly work from home. I’m not interested in business casual and I’ve never liked athleisure; it wears out too fast, attracts cat fur, and is bad for the environment . When I say work clothes, I mean something that functions equally well whether I’m grading essays, on a video call, or cleaning the litter box.
I was recently in a dressing room, hunting for this elusive garment in a stack of tunics and trapeze dresses. One of them—a minimalist rectangle of indigo cotton—was almost right, but seeing myself in the mirror caused a shock of recognition: I looked like my grandmother. It turns out the magic work-at-home wear I sought was just a housecoat.
My grandma Norah spent a good portion of her life in housecoats of the floral, snap-up variety. As much as I loved her, I thought they were tacky. Norah was a working-class housewife who raised two daughters, had a gift for inventing fairy tales, and an unrivaled lemon meringue pie. I’m raising two cats, have a PhD, a half dozen part-time jobs, and a partner who splits the housework and bills. Despite all the ways our lives are different, I find myself spending most days at home, like millions of other women in the “gig economy,” and grandma Norah’s uniform is making a new kind of sense to me.
Once I embraced the idea, I started seeing housecoats everywhere. I don’t know what summer fashion looks like where you are, but Portland favors a style I call “all the women from Three’s Company .” Basically, Chrissy’s tube top and Janet’s short shorts worn beneath a billowy Mrs. Roper-esque caftan, kimono, or vintage housecoat. Tunics and smocks? Those are housecoats. Tiered maxis and whatever this is ? My grandma would feel right at home. Apron dresses? It’s in the name. Because they’re unstructured, comfortable, and fashionable, I saw all these styles as leisurewear. In fact, they’re actually perfect for the kind of work a lot of women do now.
This category confusion has accompanied house dresses for over a century. “Women’s work” (i.e. domestic and care work, or “ reproductive labor ”) has historically been perceived as not real work. So, of course, what women wore to do it weren’t considered work clothes, but were usually sold as fashionable loungewear . Before women were “liberated” from domestic servitude, indoor daywear was a staple that crossed class, racial, and age boundaries.
The Victorian tea gown , for example, was a relatively unstructured style that came in silk for the wealthy; in flannel and wool for folks who needed washable garments that could withstand housework. Tea gowns were a product of nineteenth-century dress reform movements, but they were also very much in line with the ideology of “ separate spheres ”—the old story that men are naturally suited to hunting money in the public sphere while women manage the home. The connection between dress and house work was often euphemistic, though. Tea gown sounds nicer than “laundry dress.”
This obfuscation of what women did in their indoor clothes continued into the twentieth century. According to Dr. Elise Chatelain, an independent scholar whose dissertation focused on representations of domestic labor in the US, “Household technologies meant to make life easier actually increased women’s isolation without decreasing the amount of labor they had to do.” She explained, “Previously, all but the poorest families usually hired someone to help with housework. But, as Americans were pushed the idea of the nuclear family and home, more women were expected to ‘keep house’ themselves.”
In response, the indoor-wear market boomed, producing housecoats (worn over “day dresses” or on their own), kitchen smocks, hostess gowns, and more. A lot of this nomenclature was invented to avoid association with the humble house dress. As early as 1923, buyers complained that “house dress” implied something “old-fashioned and unattractive,” according to Women’s Wear Daily . Housecoats , on the other hand, could be glamorous. In the 1930s , they were floor length, full-sleeved, and sold alongside negligees. People probably were ironing and doing dishes in 1930s housecoats, but, in advertisements, they were only for lounging.
During the ’40s and ’50s, my grandma Norah was a young woman in Northern England who married an American soldier named Joe, moved with him to the United States, and started a family. These were the peak years of house dresses and they played a complex role in defining American femininity. During the war, manufacturers fought against textile rationing , arguing that a pretty housecoat boosted morale after a day building warships. The wartime focus on thrift began a trend away from multiple, time- and place-specific outfits. Women now wanted (or were told to want, anyway) dresses that could move from kitchen to cocktail party.
In 1942, Claire McCardell introduced her pop-over dress with attached oven mitt. Cut in a wraparound style with a large patch pocket, it was inexpensive and easy for home sewers to replicate. It became the template for daytime indoor clothes because, as the Costume Institute catalog says, “the modern woman could both be chic and do the cooking.” The connection to domestic labor became increasingly explicit (hence the oven mitt), but that association was always paired with images of leisure and style.
Women wanted (or were told to want, anyway) dresses that could move from kitchen to cocktail party.
In the mid-twentieth century that created my grandmother, housework was simultaneously glamorized and dismissed . As the natural vocation of women, it wasn’t really work. But women also needed complex technology and instructions on how to do it better. And they were obsessed with appearances and needed repeated exhortations not to look slovenly . As women were hustled out of the workplace to make room for returning veterans, indoor styles proliferated , with names that were as confusing as housework itself. There were breakfast coats, brunch coats, popovers, wraparounds, dusters—all marketed as loungewear because housework was meant to appear effortless.
If white women’s labor was fraught territory, the work of paid “domestics”— overwhelmingly women of color —was doubly so. Black women were as likely as any other demographic to wear fashionable housecoats in their own homes, but usually donned uniforms to clean someone else’s. By making paid domestic workers invisible in blue-grey dresses and aprons , white women used women of color to reinforce the absurd belief that femininity means simultaneously doing housework and not doing housework.
My grandmother favored the duster, which was popular in the ’50s. It fell out of style by the mid-’60s as pants became normalized, but Norah stuck with it. By the 1970s, as “women’s lib” took off, housecoats were officially old lady clothes. It’s not a coincidence that the women’s movement went mainstream during a recession. Yes, women were fighting for equality, but it was also harder to sustain the dream of the single-income family—especially for the working-classes.
During this time, many second wave feminists called attention to housework as a form of gendered oppression , without which capitalism couldn’t function. As Kristin Swinth argued , this political movement filtered into pop culture as essentially the same old message, but even less attainable; “ bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan ,” and always look sexy.
Housecoats were not sexy. As a child in the late ’70s and ’80s, I only saw the garment on grandmothers or caricatures like the lazy, sexually frustrated Mrs. Roper, or Divine’s Edna Turnblad, a sweaty drudge in curlers in Hairspray .
Throughout the twentieth century, women’s progress was supposed to involve leaving the home; of course, poor women and women of color have historically worked outside the home or in the homes of others. Visibility and participation in capitalist production was supposed to close the wage gap. House and care work were supposed to be shared equally among genders. Yet, here we are: The Equal Rights Amendment hasn’t been ratified , reproductive and labor rights are being rolled back at alarming rates, and more of us are going back home to work.
I don’t think that last bit, in itself, is a bad thing. Most women I know work from home at least part of the time, and, honestly, most of us like it. Not unlike mid-century housewives, remote and freelance workers are imagined as both working and kind of not really working. In reality, while some of us have stable, well-paid remote careers, for a lot of us, working from home isn’t optional. Childcare costs have reached a crisis point . Freelancers and adjuncts work in fields that have shifted almost entirely to low-paying contract employment.
I asked friends—freelancers, professors, IT workers—what they wear to work at home. Their answers confirmed my suspicion that a larger trend is afoot. For example, Amy, a systems analyst who works remotely part of the week, described “a beautiful linen dress that I spent too much money on, but is also extremely comfortable for working at home.”
Cameo works in sales and has given this subject a lot of thought: “I often work from home in the morning and then go out for meetings . . . I like to do everything to get ready; hair and makeup, etc., but I don’t put on a nice outfit until I’m ready to go out the door.” Her preferred housedress is a “dog hair-friendly” heather grey jersey with long sleeves.
And Katie, an academic book editor, likes dresses because they’re one-piece outfits that can leave the home if necessary. “And they avoid the whole ‘can serious people wear elastic-waist pants’ question.”
Maybe because the people who responded are mostly in their thirties and forties, dress was an important way for them to separate home and work personas. We’re accepting that this is most likely what we’ll be doing for a while. Since we’re not on our way to some grand new adventure, we want, as Cameo put it, “a boundary between work/home life.” This task can be challenging when both pieces of your life exist in the same space, but it feels worth investing in.
Verena, a freelance writer and editor, and another tunic fan, told me, “When I moved from academia to work from home, I knew I needed to give myself structure or I’d not get anything done.” Maybe we’re not wearing gingham snap-up smocks, but there’s no reason why today’s housecoat should look like our grandmas’. 1950s housecoats didn’t look like tea gowns. Indoor work evolved. So did fashion.
Amy was happy to connect her linen dress to housecoats, because she admired her grandmother’s style. She told me, “I especially remember [she] accessorized her housecoats with gold mules. She always looked great, even cleaning the toilet.” There were obviously problems with the imperative to look great while cleaning the toilet, but we have to assume that our foremothers made informed choices and saw benefits, too.
I wish I’d had the same admiration for Norah’s style when she was still with us, but I’m learning. (My younger cousin was way ahead of me. She turned one of Norah’s dusters—a pheasant print from Woolworth’s—into an adorable top.) We think of business suits and office fashion as what people wear when they want to be taken seriously. This might be a reason our grandmas kept wearing house dresses. An outfit that combines fashion and functionality says, “I’m serious about this.” What I’m doing matters.
This is something the new housecoats can do for us now, too. When I change into my indigo tunic (yes, I bought it), I am officially working, not dabbling or hobbying. I’m doing something that matters, just like Norah was.
Opening jobs up to women and then calling them “fun side projects” or “passions” as a means of paying less is an old trick. It’s how retail went from offering viable careers in the 1920s and ’30s to predominantly de-skilled, part-time jobs. It’s how universities went from averaging thirty percent contingent faculty in the 1970s to seventy percent now . Underlying all such shifts is the weirdly tenacious idea that women don’t need to earn as much money as men—because we should be at home. And all of these shifts are strengthened by isolation and alienating workers from each other.
Underlying all such shifts is the weirdly tenacious idea that women don’t need to earn as much money as men—because we should be at home.
Here’s another reason I imagine my grandma might have liked her housecoats: While she had lots of friends and family, she was a Lancashire girl in the foreign land of Michigan. She also suffered bouts of severe depression and paranoia. And I can say from experience that working from home is lonely. For everything I love about freelance life, I do miss having colleagues. I wonder if the housecoat engendered a sense of connection with other women of her generation and class; a small kind of solidarity, maybe just a nod that said I see you and I know you.
This is why reclaiming the housecoat isn’t just a whimsical fashion choice—it’s political. The isolation of working from home during a cultural moment that demands seven-days-a-week productivity, coupled with historical associations linking femininity to both leisure and unpaid labor, make it easy to internalize beliefs that what we do isn’t valuable or that we’re never doing enough.
We fall prey to letting writing become a passion , cooking a hobby, teaching a service. Changing this mindset means rethinking how we value the labor of the home as well as labor done in the home. Norah’s dusters, Cameo’s jersey dresses, and Amy’s tunics are work clothes every bit as much as pencil skirts or blazers. The nature of our work has changed, so of course our styles have, too. But, in an economy dependent on “flexibility,” “gigs,” and “side hustles,” how women’s work is devalued is shockingly consistent.
Changing that requires fighting the isolation and obfuscation of “women’s work.” My grandma’s housecoats aligned her with an unseen generation. Adopting it today as a chic, practical uniform can help us see our connection to a century of invisibly working women. Once we see that, we can look for more connections—to each other, to women who do domestic labor for a living, and to the hidden women who make our clothes.
The stereotypical outfit of the work-from-home woman continues to be “athleisure;” a portmanteau that’s right in line with this history (it’s hardly ever worn for ath or leisure). That’s partly why some of the women I talked to don’t like it—and why they’re going “back” to housecoats. So, next time you see someone at the grocery store with a messy top-knot, dressed like an updated Mrs. Roper, give her a nod.
It’s possible she fits a leisure-class stereotype and is just—I don’t know—picking up macrame supplies for her trust-funded tiny cactus pop-up shop. But it’s much more likely she’s one of us.
Sara’s grandmother Norah; courtesy of the author