I am not a fashionista. I know nothing about women’s style or the latest clothing trends. I’m a writer. I work with words all day, every day, and though I’m very much interested in the nuances of words and their meanings, I’m not often challenged by them. There’s not a “word question” that exists that can’t be answered with a good reference book and Google search. That’s what I thought, until a few weeks ago…
I was wondering what to get my mother for her upcoming 80th birthday. Though she lives about an eight hour drive away from my home in Vermont, we talk daily on the telephone. I asked her what she wanted for her birthday, and like nearly all mothers she replied, “I don’t want anything. Don’t spend your money on me.”
Well, that’s exactly the answer I knew she’d give, but it wasn’t an acceptable one, and after a bit of prompting on my part and a lot of hee-ing and haww-ing on hers, I managed to learn that she really needed (and wanted) a new bathrobe. The end of our conversation went like this:
Mom: I need a new bathrobe.
Me: Okay. About how long do you like your bathrobe?
Mom: About as long as a duster.
Me: Okay. And how long is a duster?
Mom: Shorter than a popover.
Me: Oh? (Thankfully Mom couldn’t see me on the other end of the telephone, eyes squinting as my mind’s eye tried to imagine just how long, or short, this bathrobe should be.)
Mom: Yes. You know, just about the length of a housecoat.
Me: Ohhh-kay. (Now I was really confused.)
Mom: Thanks, honey. I’m sure whatever you pick will be perfect.
And on that note, she said good-bye and hung up.
What’s the darn difference between a bathrobe, duster, housecoat, and popover? The answer to this question is not to be found in a literary reference book. And though my husband knows most everything there is to know in the universe, he could not answer this question. So I did what any inquisitive person would do – I googled it.
In apparel history, a duster originally pertained to a long, lightweight overcoat that was worn to protect clothing in the early days of automobiles, for once upon a time autos were quite dirty affairs. Through some strange and untraceable metamorphosis (perhaps when autos became clean cars) the duster moved indoors and became a “knee-length” to “long” lightweight women’s overcoat or smock, often worn while she was dusting the house. Clearly I was off to a good start in my research!
Unlike the proper height of an edible popover, as of the year 2015 the proper length of a wearable popover is far from standardized. In fact, any garment for girls or women that can be slipped over the head can fairly be called a popover, no length parameters or restrictions required. So I was one step forward and one back…
What some folks call housecoats, we refer to as robes and/or dusters at the Vermont Country Store. Much as I expected, definitions of a housecoat varied considerably. One of the few points the many online dictionaries agreed upon was that the word housecoat is a noun. The other points: it’s an informal, loose garment that’s generally worn… you guessed – at home. Historically, a housecoat was worn over another garment, but when I asked a dozen women at work, I learned this is no longer the rule. Regarding length, most sources state that a housecoat is “long or of various lengths.”
Robes (a.k.a. Bathrobes) are worn solo for lounging or over sleepwear to take the chill off. The length of the typical robe can appropriately be compared to the typical woman’s figure: there isn’t one. Yes, you can find general categories of length, for instance: ankle-length, knee-length, full-length and short; and there are, no doubt, standards within each of these categories to which manufacturers adhere. But where the robe length my mother clearly had in mind fell within the broad spectrum of available robe lengths, I still had no idea.
Is There a Difference Between a Duster, Popover, Housecoat, and Robe?
Perhaps two. One: A popover simply slips over the head and has no functional zipper or buttons. Two: Robes are most often associated with lounging or sleeping, while housecoats and dusters are usually worn during the day over other clothing, somewhat like a glorified apron.
All of these women’s garments are available in a great variety of lengths, so I came to the conclusion that my mother’s clear distinctions of length were based on her past personal experience. Times have changed, and today one gal’s duster is another’s housecoat.
So, what length bathrobe did my mother want? Based on my research: one that was simply not too long and not too short. She wanted a practical length that offered warmth and modest coverage, as well as allow her to go up and down the stairs with ease.
After shopping around, I bought Mom the Little Princess Robe, in pink, partly because I liked the name, and partly because I loved the online description:
The queen of every castle is deserving of a robe that not only spoils her, but also makes her feel like royalty; hence this brushed-back satin robe. Silken to the touch, the floral and scrollwork print shimmers with elegance, while the soft terry lining keeps you warm and cozy. The bathrobe also features a shawl collar, side-seam pockets, and an inside tie and outer self-sash to securely buffer you from the slightest of drafts.
And last but not least, I chose it because my mother is 5’4” and the robe is about 48″ long in a size medium.
True to Mom’s word, the robe I picked was perfect!