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A Working from Home (Historical) Style Guide
by Lucinda Gosling March 27, 2020

Lady on Couch, Phone

Even if you’re just a little bit interested in fashion, it’s very likely that, at present, you’re getting inundated with emails from clothing companies suggesting ways to be stylish in self-isolation, offering hand-picked suggestions for your WFH (working from home) wardrobe. Pity the poor fashion content writer who has to try to flog midi dresses in the midst of a pandemic. We’ve all got other things on our minds. And yet clothes can be an uplifting distraction in tricky times. In fact, some people on Twitter are using Friday as an excuse to properly dress up for work (see#distancebutmakeitfashion) even if the commute only takes thirty seconds – to the kitchen table, the garden shed, or a desk in that alcove in the dining room. Whether or not you’re planning to join the Twittersphere, we thought a trawl through history might provide some inspiration for navigating those difficult WFH outfits.

‘At home’ tea gown

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a well-heeled lady would spend a considerable amount of her day changing from one outfit to another, in accordance with the time of day and activity. Tea gowns became a ‘thing’ designed to be worn when women would gather together for afternoon tea and ‘at home’ occasions. The dresses were light, delicate, feminine, frivolous and frothy with lace, in other words, not intended for outdoor wear, but were just the thing for pouring out a cup of Earl Grey and gossiping about Lady Darrington’s halitosis. Of course, any tea parties today would need to be virtual, but if you want to impress the girls, may we suggest a lovely gown from somewhere like Redfearns or Lucile?

Three elegant ladies modelling tea dresses and boudoir gowns from the World War I period. Date: February 1916

Rational dress

If you’re hunched over a laptop, the last thing you want is a whalebone corset digging into your ribs. Three cheers then, for the rational dress movement. Rational, or artistic dress, favoured looser styles in a palette of tasteful colours and allowed greater freedom, not only of movement but of artistic expression. It was sort of the hipster equivalent of the tea gown. Popular with arty, bohemian types such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Emilie Floge, Gustav Klimt’s other half, followers of dress reform even had their own magazine, Aglaia, edited by the stained glass designer Henry Holiday and with contributions from G. F. Watts, Walter Crane and Arthur Liberty.

A depiction of Winter: a woman in a reform style dress with uncorseted high waistline, fur-trimmed tunic & a skirt with embroidery. The back is reflected in the mirror. Date: 1903

Laura Ashley

A century on from the rational dress movement, Laura Ashley took inspiration from Victorian style and put a generation of romantic, whimsical types into ditsy print maxi dresses with puffed sleeves and pin tucks intended to channel your inner Tess of the D’Urbervilles. If your WFH vibe is to spend your lunch hour making daisy chains, milking your pet goat, or staring dreamily out of the window as you compose that marketing email, Laura Ashley is for you. Unfortunately, the company has failed to capitalise on this rich heritage and recently called in the administrators so you’ll need to visit ebay to find your Ashley fix. That’s if the millennials haven’t beaten you to it.

Fashion -- a woman and a girl, both wearing full-length Laura Ashley style dresses in floral fabric, looking out of a window. Date: circa 1970s

Homespun style

In between working a full day, queueing round the block just to get into Sainsbury’s and home schooling your kids, you will apparently have acres of time on your hands. Great! An opportunity to create your own make do and mend creations in order to keep up appearances. Have no fear, we have oodles of knitting and sewing ideas to keep idle hands busy during the long weeks of self-isolation. All eventualities covered, including knitting your own knickers.

Warm wool lies. . . Vest and pants for the long winter evenings. A 1940s knitting pattern providing instructions on how to make a woman's vest and pants. With the onset of World War Two and the introduction of rationing, many chose to knit their own clothes as a cheaper alternative. 1943

Blitz Inspiration

On the subject of wartime dressing, if you find a utilitarian approach is more your thing, so you can go straight from desk to allotment, kids’ bathtime or dog walking, then the First and Second World Wars might be where you’ll find your wardrobe solutions. Try a siren suit like Winston Churchill, the forerunner of the modern-day jumpsuit, or a natty turban so that nobody will notice during that video conference call that you’ve failed to wash your hair. Land girl jumpers and breeches are another practical choice for the busy multi-tasker.

Winston Churchill in his Siren Suit at Chartwell, Kent Date: 11th July 1944

Kaftans

Kaftans originated in ancient Mesopotamia and lavishly decorated examples were worn by Ottoman sultans from the 14th to 18th centuries. Today, the term is used to describe any loose, tunic style garment, though the voluminous examples that hide a multitude of sins are closer to the abaya. Either way, the ideal option if WFH biscuit nibbling has gone beyond control.  See also, monks’ robes, hermits’ cloaks, farmer’s smocks, nun’s habits, clerical dress.

Model on the left wears a white Grecian style kaftan with silver braiding down the front, by Simon Ellis. The silver sequin sandals are from Magli and the gilt bangles is from India Craft. Model on the right wears an exotic black cotton dress lined in silk with silver embroidery in 'Tree of Life' design from Thea Porter. Date: 1966

If you’re trying to save on the heating bills

Yes, you’re saving on your £5000 annual travel card, but it’s no fun working from home when the heating’s off is it?  Try the Vickery’s silk eiderdown travelling rug with foot muff, intended for reclining on a steamer chair on an ocean liner in 1928, but just as good for alleviating shivering in the spare room.

Advertisement for the Vickery's registered silk-covered eiderdown travelling rug with foot muff, ideal for reading on deck when it's a bit chilly! 1928

Smoking Jacket

We haven’t forgotten the chaps, and indeed, you do need to be a chap (or a very smart lesbian), to pull off a smoking jacket. This is for those remote workers who retire to the library for a scotch on the rocks after the lap top lid goes down. Don’t forget Brylcreem, pipe, slippers, several witty quips and some Cole Porter or Noel Coward on the gramophone.

THE BENSON MURDER CASE, William Powell, 1930 Date: 1930

Forward young woman wears a cerise pink & red pyjama suit - the jacket has a roll collar & cuffs & fastens with frogs. She has fur trimmed mules on her feet & a cigarette holder. Date: circa 1918

Pyjama suit

Pyjamas, yes, but these aren’t just any pyjamas. The 1920s pyjama suit might just be the ultimate WFH choice. Fashionistas on the Venice Lido first started this trend for louche loungewear, with the French Riviera quickly following suit, and the trend rippled through the decade and into the 1930s. While beach pyjamas need to be reserved for a time when we can all saunter down to the sea front once more, a silky pyjama suit, accessorised with a cigarette holder and some Turkish slippers is comfortable luxe dressing for the aspirational office flapper.

A 'pyjama' suit, comprising of a loose coat of crepe satin, and a jumper and trousers also in crepe satin. 1930

Food control fancy dress

Make a real statement when you visit the shops to fill your basket (NOT trolley) with essentials. Be inspired by these ladies who took the government’s food control policy in 1917 to a whole new level with their first-class fancy dress efforts.

Rationing was introduced into Britain at the tale end of World War One - in February 1918. Rationing was introduced in response to an effective U-boat campaign and during World War One, the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was used to ensure that food shortages never occurred. 'Food Control' (another phrase for food rationing) only existed for six months (giving us a perfectly accurate date for this card!). Date: 1918

Cocktail dress

It’s been hanging in the wardrobe, glaring at you reproachfully for not giving it an outing. Go on, put it on. Go full on Mad Men for the day. Work hard and then play hard by hitting the drinks cabinet at 6pm. How about this silk taffeta dress by Neil ‘Bunny’ Roger for Fortnum & Mason, featured in The Tatler in 1956?  Chin chin.

A short sheath dress in black French silk jersey with a deep V back and d飯llet鬠and a swirling hem of black taffeta, designed by Neil (Bunny) Roger, in whose house the photograph was taken, at Fortnum and Mason. Date: 1956

Naturism

If all else fails and the washing powder runs out, then there’s always your birthday suit. Strictly for days when you’re not planning to go anywhere near Zoom. After all, one day you will have to sit in the same room as your fellow workers again. Anyway, this little book from 1930 will tell you all you need to know!

'LA CULTE DE LA NUDITE' a French book about naturism in Germany, described as 'a sensational report' Date: 1930

**The Mary Evans team are remote working at present, but we are continuing to provide our usual service, even if wearing our pyjamas. Email pictures@maryevans.com and we’ll get straight back to you. Stay safe and well.**