Domestic glamour: the joy of dressing gowns

Yesterday ABC radio Brisbane invited me on the show to talk about dressing gowns with Joel Spreadborough and I may have gushed a bit because I do love them. So here’s a little about this sometimes forgotten and neglected garment type, with visual aids (sadly lacking on radio):

Dressing gowns go way back in history as we’ve always needed a domestic garment that performs the functions of warmth, protection and of course, looking good. We can see their roots in traditional middle-eastern garments and later, as the ‘Banyan’, a lush male garment. Here’s a lovely example from the NGV’s collection.

This one originates from France and is made of a wonderful silk brocade featuring floral and architectural motifs. It includes similar 18th century elements to menswear of the time with the turned back cuff, flared shape and extravagant fabric but the form is simpler and more relaxed.

Not all dressing gowns were so fancy though, but they do share common elements: a relaxed fit, which enabled a woman (or man) to dispose of wearing corsetry and other structured wear, coverage to protect (or enhance) one’s nakedness, and ease of washing. Like underwear, I consider all dressing gowns to be essentially robust and suitable for laundering although some modern versions prefer a dry clean. They’re often wrap styles (so easily adjusted for comfort) or feature centre front buttons.

So although for household wear, they were designed to be suitable for performing some social functions including meal preparation and tasks including cleaning, a little close to home shopping and even entertaining. There are few garment types that offer such a broad range of activities and yet the dressing gown is in decline and many of us no longer have a use for them.

Here are some types of dressing gown.

A good everyday style, this ’40s quilted version one is reversible and durable. It combines style with practicality and is machine washable, with matching sash. The sash is an important element of the dressing gown: sometimes it’s the only way you can tell it’s a DG and not a fancy coat like an opera or evening coat. If you want to wear them outside, you can either substitute a belt or add a buckle (I’ve done this many times, as I love to wearing dressing gowns out).

If you want something pretty and cotton for summer, you can’t go past a late ’40s-50s cotton. Often made of seersucker, with bright florals they’ll cheer up any reluctant morning. Like many, it has deep pockets. This type are also called ‘housecoats’ or ‘housedresses’ and they’re very respectable for going out into the world as they so closely resemble dresses.

If you’ve got love in mind, you might choose a sensual gown like the boudoir gown, peignoir or negligee. Here’s Becky Lou in a ’40s liquid satin version from Circa. So decadent. It features a wide shawl collar, button up cuffs and bishop sleeves with shoulder pads.

Here is Dita von Teese (who understands their possibilities well) in one of Catherine D’lish’s modern interpretations – with added maribou feathers.

It’s important to match your lipstick and shoes, if you can, for a seamless look. Find your own Catherine D’lish gown here.

Related to the dressing gown but purpose-built for breakfast, is the ‘Brunch coat’. Similar in style but shorter, often just hitting the hips or mid-thigh. Now these are rare today, although if you found one in the wild you could be forgiven for thinking they were dresses. Note the wrap style and deep pockets.

McCall’s pattern 7832, from 1965.

Another specialist version of the DG is the ‘bed jacket’. These were worn to keep warm in bed, in the days before central heating. They also came in handy during long hospital stays, perhaps after giving birth.

Like other forms of dressing gown, they usually come in soft, ‘feminine’ or pastel colours and can be quite fancy featuring decorative trims and embellishments like lace, trapunto quilting, rosettes, faggotting and embroidery. The bed jacket usually sits near the waist. This one is from the late ’40s-early ’50s, has shoulder pads and comes in the peach shade that was so popular in lingerie of the time. The rayon satin just glistens.

Kimonos also make excellent dressing gowns, and so shortened versions were made for the tourist market both in traditional and non-traditional fabrics. Older ones might feature lovely hand-embroidery. Here’s a ’30s silk crepe version with hand-painted flowers (worn by Vesper).

Here some men’s versions too: the cotton paisley (1960s) and the rayon jacquard (1930s). This type are sometimes called smoking jackets. No bathrobes, sadly: I appreciate their practicalities but I don’t really do bathrobes. Not when there are nicer options available.

So, while I won’t reach as far as the bathrobe I will include another specialisation – the Beach jacket or poncho – that also uses cotton terry towelling. A really useful thing to wear to and from the beach, it functions a bit like a towel in soaking up water from skin.

Here’s a ’60s one from my collection, worn by Clare St Clare. It features a centre front zipper with round zip pull but the neckline is generous enough, it just slips over your head. Finished with a nice length of cotton fringing.


  1. I have recently come across what I believe to be a Men’s Dressing Gown from 1930’s. It is made from a gorgeous fine crepe and is a very petite size, but my brains trust who assisted me with some possible history of the garment, advised that a lot of men were a lot smaller build back then. It looks great but unfortunately it has started to form small holes in a few places. It is a really lovely piece though. The Label is ‘Birks’ of Adelaide – which went on to become David Jones I believe. There is no other labelling.

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