Linda Przybyszewski is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame as well as an author and an award-winning seamstress. In her book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish (Basic Books, 2014) she discusses what she calls the Dress Doctors, women in the first half of the twentieth century who taught young girls and women how to dress well. In Home Economics classes and women’s clubs, in magazines and on the radio, the Dress Doctors, armed with basic fashion knowledge and some serious sewing skills, imparted their wisdom on what was appropriate attire for home, school, work, daytime and evening.
Ms. Przybyszewski became interested in these remarkable women when she stumbled upon a 1950s Home Economics textbook in a used bookstore. Clothes for You taught that beauty in dress is achieved by applying the five principles of art to clothing. In other words, when creating an outfit one should keep in mind – harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis. Ms. Przybyszewski writes: The art principles capture truths sensed even by people who have never heard of them … For any woman who has realized that a certain outfit looks terrific, the principles will tell her why it does.
Intrigued, Ms. Przybyszewski went on to search for other books on the subject and discovered a whole movement in dressing well headed by the Dress Doctors – accomplished women who were teachers, authors, and saleswomen – and supported by the USDA and the WPA. Young girls and women in cities or working the farm were taught how to sew as well how to be thrifty about fashion (farm women learned how to make dresses from feed bags, which came in surprisingly attractive fabrics). Following the guidance of the Dress Doctors everyone could and did look their very best.
At a recent reading in San Francisco Ms. Przybyszewski commented that while collecting and reading over 700 pamphlets written by the Dress Doctors and published by Bureau of Home Economics (a subdivision of the USDA) she started to recognize that these women had good ideas. “… they knew some valuable things,” she explained. “Things that have been lost and things that I hope to bring back to American culture by writing this book.”
Dense with information yet accessible, The Lost Art of Dress takes readers on the most interesting of adventures describing the rise of the Dress Doctors at the turn of the twentieth century and their eventual decline in the 1960s (due to casual-wear in the suburbs, the youth craze, and designers’ simplification of their fashions). In addition to discussing the women themselves, Ms. Przybyszewski goes into great detail about what they taught including a description of the five art principles and appropriate dress for occasions. A nice addition to the text are quite a lot of illustrations, a rarity in books these days. The Lost Art of Dress is a useful history of 20th century American fashion, making it required reading for all fashion design students.
I really enjoyed The Lost Art of Dress and I recommend it to anyone interested in fashion history, vintage fashions, and women’s history. Although one may not subscribe to everything the Dress Doctors had to say, there is still much to learn from them and apply to our modern fashion sense. What these women were doing and how they influenced society is quite impressive and worth knowing.