Wednesday, August 18, 2010


The cotton prints we see in mid-20th-century quilts were common for fashionable clothing, but later generations remember them primarily as aprons or house dresses, the everyday work clothing women wore before a pair of blue jeans became the smart choice for housecleaning.

Vintage aprons on display at the Vinland Fair last week.

Check out the Vinland Fair blog by clicking here:

Vinland Fair about 1950

People sometimes call these pastel florals "Apron Prints" or "Housedress Prints"

The page for "Housewear" in the 1935 Sears catalog offered several variations of inexpensive dresses that "launder easily."

Among the frocks, smocks, coverall aprons and coat dresses are three "Hooverettes", a term that seems forgotten.

 One would guess the clothing was named for Herbert Hoover who was President from 1929 to 1933. Although most of the suffering occurred after Roosevelt took over, Hoover carried the blame for the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange portrait of a woman in a California camp in the 1930s.
Library of Congress.
We empathize with her homelessness,
but she'd probably like to be remembered
 as neatly dressed in cotton clothes fashionable at the time.

"Hoover buggies" were old cars so broken down they were pulled by horses; "Hoovervilles" were camps for the homeless and "Hoover hog" was a main dish of rabbit or armadillo.

Hooverette as a name for a dress costing 47 cents might thus reflect depression frugality. However, the Dictionary of American Region English defines "Hoover Apron" as slang for a coverall or housedress with an overlapping reversible front, a name reflecting Hoover's earlier career as an effective administrator of post-WWI-relief in Europe. The wrap-front dress could be worn until the bodice was dirty and then the overlap reversed to reveal a clean area. The name Hooverette or Hoover Apron alludes to an efficient work dress.

Women photographed in the 1930s. On the back of the photo is a note: "These are the girls (maids) I work with."
Two of the women (back row left and right) seem to be wearing Hooverettes, wrap garments that can be overlapped in the other direction to show a clean dress.

For more about fabrics and quilt style from the 1930s and 1940s see my book Making History: Quilts & Fabrics 1890-1970.
Click here to see several of the pages in a Google Preview:

Another woman in a migrant labor camp in the 1930s,
 Picture from the Library of Congress


  1. When I saw the word Hooverette, I immediately thought of Hoover vacuum cleaners and thought one would wear her Hooverette while cleaning house and running the Hoover. Interesting post.

  2. I forgot about the Hoover vacuum, which has become a verb as in: "My dog has been hoovering the rug looking for crumbs."

  3. I too thought of the Hoover vac. Wow 2 for 92cents! Bargain! I have a few of these 20/30's quilts from my paternal Grandmother Hancock.Was hard times for sure for so many.

  4. Same for me. I thought vacuum cleaners.

    I still remember my grandmother explaining to me what a housedress was. She said you wear it at home while cooking and cleaning, but you wear something nicer when you go out. She didn't have much to spend, but she was always "put together" with matching shoes and pocketbook, earrings, hair curled.

    Thanks for the great post. It dusted off some nice memories for me.

  5. I loved this post. My grandmother, who would be 98 if she were still alive, wore these Hooverette style dresses daily when I was a child in the '60's. The by the late 70's those dresses turned up in quilts and aprons. I guess we were a little behind the times! LOL!

  6. Thanks! These are my very favorite prints. Probably some forgotten memories from infancy. They just feel good.

  7. What a fun and inspiring post. One can see you put a lot of thought and time into it! I love, love love the old photos! We must keep this craft of ours alive for future generations!

  8. The current thinking is that the Hoover apron was named when Hoover ran the Federal Food Administration just before WWI. Double-fronted apron dresses already existed at this time; my guess is that the Food Administration recommended them. Plenty of home sewing patterns were made for Hoover aprons, or variants on the name such as Hoover-all, Hooverette, etc; I've blogged about some of these.

  9. Thanks for the post. I have a string pieced star top from the 1930's and every time I look at those fabrics I try to imagine what kind of clothes they came from.
    In Italy some older women still wear house dresses.

  10. AH Barbara - while my own Mom was around in the 1930-40 and 50s, she did always wear a house dress - from fabrics like those you have shown. She told me the idea for the 'busy prints" and brighter colors was to hide the dirt, and stains too. Where we lived, most of the year was fairly warm weather. Her house dresses were a wonderful light weight cottons.

    Like another poster said, you always changed into a slightly dressier dress to go to town, and an ever dressier dresses for Church. Lucky if you could afford 2 Sunday-Go-To-Meetings dresses too! Matching accessories were surely the thing then.

    While I would dislike giving up my jeans LOLOL - I would love us to get back into some form dresses for around the house, and in town too. Here in East TN, dresses are about strictly for Church Functions.

    Julie in East TN

  11. Hoover got the blame for the Great Depression because, like George W. Bush, the fiscal irresponsibility that produced the depression occurred during his presidency! Read Charles Kindleberger, The World in Depression. Roosevelt, like Obama, got stuck cleaning it up.