Posts Tagged ‘The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish.’

Housedresses of the 1930s. Image from The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish.

Made of cotton, housedresses were both washable and less expensive than business wear or clothing intended for social occasions. A woman could easily afford more than one. In fact, the average American middle-class woman in 1959 owned five housedresses, one for each weekday.

Linda Przybyszewski, history professor and author of The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish (Basic Books, 2014).

It’s Housedress Week on ODFL. Come back tomorrow and read more.

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Imagine – a standard house dress c.1950. Today this is a dress someone might wear to a special occasion.  Ha! Image from Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume & Style, DK, 2012. 

We’re not going out and showing off what we’re wearing the same way. Things like stiletto shoes, skinny jeans, corset dresses feel unimaginable for a long time in terms of not having reasons to wear them. Soft, drapey things were already a place we were heading toward, but now they’re a psychological comfort for people. There’s been a comeback of things like house dresses and flats for home. We’re looking for security blankets in what we’re wearing.

Sarah Liller, San Francisco based fashion designer.

This quote is from an article in the Datebook section of the SF Chronicle, The Coronavirus and Social Movements Gives Fashion a Reality Check, July 3, 2020 by Tony Bravo. Click here for full article. 

Yes! Let’s bring back the house dress.

What is the pandemic’s effect on fashion? We were already pretty casual and if there’s any shift it will be toward even more casual. Picking up takeout food a few weeks back I noticed a guy getting out of his car in shabby shorts and slippers. Clearly he rolled out of his house and into his car in what he’d probably been wearing for days. As we spend more and more time at home, we’re getting out of the habit of dressing and the additional stress of moving about in public is taking a toll on what little desire some of us had in making any effort at all.

I agree with Ms. Liller that people now more than ever want comfort and a feeling of security, which can be found in loose-fitting draped clothing in soft fabrics. So long anything tailored. I see cotton knit unstructured jackets, large scarves, slouchy hats, baggy pants, oversized t-shirts, chunky sweaters … silhouettes that we can snuggle into and feel protected. What I will look for is different takes on these standard items of clothing. Perhaps textured fabrics, creative layering, interesting use of accessories.

What I hope to see is masks everywhere on everybody. Fashionable people will get creative with their masks, but any mask is a positive statement in my book.




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Adult attire by Dior, Fall 2019.

For so long, we’ve idolized Facetuned Instagram teens and off-duty models. The course correction is dressing up, looking like an adult, and incorporating a little mystery while we’re at it. 

Veronique Hyland, fashion features director at Elle magazine.

Yes! But there’s a problem. No one knows anymore how to dress up or look like an adult.

I’m reminded of the book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish (Basic Books, 2014). Written by Professor Linda Przybyszewski, The Lost Art of Dress tells the tale of The Dress Doctors, women who in the early 20th century taught Americans how to dress well through newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and classes.  There were rules – suitable attire for every occasion, from work to weddings. Then in the 1960s the whole idea of even being an adult, much less dress like one, was thrown out the window, and out too went the Dress Doctors and their advice.

Here we are today in a perpetual state of athleisure.


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Image courtesy of Basic Books.

Image courtesy of Basic Books.

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.


It was a pleasure to meet Linda Przybyszewski at Book Passage in SF. I wonder what the Dress Docs would think of my outfit.

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.







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As amusing as slang fashion is, it is not a complete language. I think women should dress as they talk: a basis of grammar, lightened here and there with a sprinkling of argot.

– Main Rousseau Bocher, American couturier from 1929 to 1971, as quoted in The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski.

Mr. Bocher was speaking about the youthful and less sophisticated fashions in the 1960s.

Ms. Przybszewski will be reading from her book this evening, Thursday, May 15th at 6pm. Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, SF.

I’ll be there!

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untitledThe shape of a garment expresses harmony by following the lines of a living, moving human body. The lines of the body are naturally beautiful and its movement naturally graceful, so any clothing that impedes that movement is, by definition, ugly.

From The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, by Linda Przybyszewski.

Check in tomorrow for Quote of the Week #4.

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9780465036714Fashion is ever-changing, but the Dress Doctors’ advice transcends their own time and its now vintage looks. Their principles offer a way to achieve the art of dress today and into the future.

– Linda Przybyszewski, history professor and author of The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish.

In the run-up to Linda Przybyszewski’s visit to Book Passage in San Francisco on Thursday May 15, every day this week I will publish a different quote from her book.

Stay tuned.


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