Mother Hubbard dress

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Day dress, American 1820

A Mother Hubbard dress is a long, wide, loose-fitting gown with long sleeves and a high neck. It is intended to cover as much skin as possible. It was devised in Victorian western societies to free women from the constriction of corsets that fashion imposed on better off women. It is mostly known today for its later introduction by Christian missionaries in Polynesia to "civilise" those whom they considered half-naked savages.[1]

Although this Victorian garment has disappeared in most of the world, it is still worn by Pacific women, who have altered it into a brighter and cooler garment, using cotton sheets, often printed in brightly colored floral patterns. It is today seen as smart or formal attire and is often worn to church.[2]

History[edit]

Smocked dresses worn by children in Kate Greenaway's popular books of nursery rhymes. 1881


In the 1880s the artist Kate Greenaway illustrated popular books of English nursery rhymes showing children in smock dresses. These came to be a popular style of children's dress which were given the name 'Mother Hubbard' by fashion writers at the time after the nursery rhyme character in the books.[1]

Around the same time a dress reform movement arose that sought to free western women from the tight and impracticable clothing of small waists and tight corsets that was dictated by fashion in well off society. The smock dress with full length arms proved very adaptable to both size and shape and migrated up the age groups until it became comfortable day wear for women of all ages and a wide spread of social class.

Contemporary with this in Victorian times missionary moments attempted to spread what they saw as the benefits of western religion and morals to native peoples under the rule of the imperial western countries. The Mother Hubbard garments were insisted upon by missionaries who were often horrified to find a flock of near naked people in their churches.[1] They were distributed widely in Africa, South Asia, and the Pacific. They have influenced modern dress in all these areas but particularly in the Pacific islands where they persist today.

Pacific island dress[edit]

Tahitian girls in their unadorned "grandmother's dresses" between 1880 and 1889.

Names and designs vary. In Hawaii, it is called holokū.[3] There, a derivative, the muumuu, is highly similar, but without the yoke and train, and therefore even easier to make.[4] In Tahiti, the name was ʻahu tua (empire dress, in a sense of colonial empire); now, ʻahu māmā rūʻau (grandmother's dress) is used. In Samoa and Tonga, the design has taken on a two-piece form, with classic mother hubbard blouses (long, wide, loose-fitting with puffy sleeves) over ankle-length skirts, called "puletasi" and "puletaha," respectively. In Marshallese, the name is wau ([ɒ̯ɒ͡ɑɑ̯u̯uu̯]), from the name of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The missionaries who introduced it in the Marshall Islands came from Oʻahu.[5] In New Caledonia, these dresses are referred to as robes missions (Mission Dresses). New Caledonian women wear these dresses when playing their distinctive style of cricket.[citation needed] In Papua New Guinea, the form of dress is known as meri blaus, which in Tok Pisin means women's blouse. It is considered formal local attire. In the 1960s and 1970s many women in Tarawa, Kiribati and a few i-matang women wore a garment which was referred to as a Mother Hubbard. Whilst the lower half of the body was covered with a wrap-around (lavalava) or a skirt, the top half was worn a very loose low-necked blouse short enough to expose a band of flesh at the waist. The latter was usually worn without underclothes.

Elsewhere[edit]

In India and much of South Asia, these dresses are referred to as Housecoats. Indian women wear these dresses as a convenient apparel at home, particularly around only the family members when they are not expecting company.[citation needed]

Cultural references[edit]

The author W. Somerset Maugham refers to this dress many times in his novels and short stories about the Pacific. It is also referenced by John Steinbeck in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. A reference is made to the garment in the lyrics of 1953 musical fantasy filmThe 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T a feature film written by Theodor Seuss Geisel Dr. Seuss. They are referred to in the Noel Coward song "Uncle Harry"

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Gray, Sally Helvenston. "Searching for Mother Hubbard: Function and Fashion in Nineteenth-Century Dress." Winterthur Portfolio48, no. 1 (2014): 29-74. doi:10.1086/676031. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/676031?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A0e847f7aac93d99ac0e05631122fad27&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents
  2. ^ Cummings, Maggie (2013). "Looking Good: The Cultural Politics of the Island Dress for Young Women in Vanuatu" (PDF). The Contemporary Pacific Vol 25 No 1. University of Hawai'i Press. Retrieved 2018-12-27.
  3. ^ The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary with a Concise Hawaiian Grammar by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert, and Esther T. Mookini (1975), p 30. ISBN 0-8248-0307-8
  4. ^ The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary with a Concise Hawaiian Grammar by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert, and Esther T. Mookini (1975), p 111. ISBN 0-8248-0307-8
  5. ^ Marshallese-English Dictionary: wau