Last week I was privileged to attend a small dinner at which Linda Przybyszewski briefly spoke about her new book The Lost Art of Dress. In preparation, I’d already devoured said book from cover to cover the week prior. I’m not a big history/non-fiction reader, but I read it in about four days, pulling it out at my desk over lunch breaks, and re-reading my favorite parts once I had finished.
From the inside front flap: “In the first half of the twentieth century, a remarkable group of women—the so-called Dress Doctors—taught American women how to stretch each yard of fabric and dress well on a budget.” Part American History, part Women’s Studies, part Art Foundations, and part History of Fashion, The Lost Art of Dress is just that—an in-depth overview of the rules by which people—particularly women—dressed themselves in the 20th Century. Rules which, post 1970s feminism, largely were deemed irrelevant and so were forgotten.
At first, I was a bit skeptical of the book’s message—The Dress Doctors (and Przybyszewski, seemingly) found fault with everything from the sheath dress (it’s confining) to the mixing of prints (it’s disorienting) to the shapeless silhouette of the 60s and 70s (it’s juvenile and unflattering). Other people have to look at you, so dress courteously, missy. Whereas my approach tends to be no judgement, dude. Dress for yourself.
But the more I read—and especially after listening to Przybyszewski speak (she’s very funny!)—the more I became persuaded that maybe I’ve been doing this whole Getting Dressed thing wrong all along.
So here are my key takeaways, thoughts that I’ve been mulling over this week:
- Women used to shop for (and make!) a cohesive wardrobe with an emphasis on beauty, practicality, appropriateness, economy, and quality over quantity (cough-Forever 21-cough). How many garments do I own that fit comfortably into all of those categories? Pitifully few, and most of those that do are vintage.
- As a former art/architecture student, I recognize that there are historically-established principles of beauty. As an individual born into postmodernism, I take it for granted that these principles can be ignored. But it’s not necessarily true that they should be ignored.
- I suppose this is very obvious, but it’s something I never really thought to question: there’s a serious double-standard of dress for men and women. This week Australian TV presenter Karl Stefanovic proved it—women’s appearances are under much more scrutiny than men’s. Additionally, men aren’t compelled to sex it up in order to feel and/or be perceived as attractive. Women are. For formal occasions, men don more articles of clothing—women get nakeder. Przybyszewski writes at the end of her book: “Dress for the people you love… Flesh exposed all the time has far less effect than flesh revealed for a privileged few. People who receive privileges should be appropriately grateful.” Isn’t that wise? I am resolved to bear this in mind from now on.
- The Dress Doctors embraced aging, recognizing that wisdom comes with experience, and reserving more elaborate styles for older, more sophisticated women. Again, how lovely.
- I bought copies of the book for both my mom and my grandma for Christmas—and I can’t wait to hear their personal takes on how dressing has evolved during their lifetimes. Mandatory Family Book Club! Yay!
As a (VERY) amateur seamstress, lover of
all most things vintage, and a frequent patron of used bookstores, I’ve started accumulating quite a collection of old sewing books, patterns and magazines. I enjoy looking at the retro pictures—there are some hilariously terrible diy ideas and groovy decorating tips. I also actually use them for reference if I run into any technical problems while working on a project: What’s a French seam again? How do you make a buttonhole?
But The Lost Art of Dress has given me insight into the historical context of these books—and to what these books likely meant to their former owners.
This Singer Sewing Book from 1951 was written by Mary Brooks Picken, who Przybyszewski cites as being the first of the Dress Doctors. In addition to introducing hand and machine sewing vocabulary and techniques, this volume includes a range of practical advice from color theory to how best to decorate a studio apartment.
My mom found this collection of pamphlets from the 1930s and 40s at an estate sale (I think)—some of them were produced by the US Department of Agriculture | Bureau of Home Economics (The Dress Doctors strike again!) The subject: how to buy things. Something I’ve never had a problem with, har har har,
I was amused by the idea of these pamphlets at first—how hard is it to buy hosiery?—but I hadn’t given them much of a second look due to a serious lack of pretty pictures combined with a serious lack of attention span.
But the thought that very evidently went into shopping at this time (post-depression/early WWII) is truly impressive. Clothes were an investment, something special and cherished.
For example, Better Buymanship No. 23: Fabrics, a 40-page pamphlet of goodness brought to you in 1940 by the Household Finance Corporation and Subsidiaries, takes great pains to differentiate between “worsted” and “woolen,” to detail the different qualities of cotton, to explain silk dye regulations, to talk about how different fabrics are made, how they will age and how to care for them. It’s a vocabulary that’s been all but eradicated from the life of the average consumer today.
The below spread from Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1851: Women’s Dresses and Slips, A Buying Guide, written in 1940 by Clarice Louisa Scott from the Bureau of Home Economics, illustrates the many activities you must anticipate when trying on a dress (sitting is hard sometimes, y’all). Scott also warns of sizing discrepancies: there is “no assurance that any two dresses marked the same will fit the same.” Sound familiar?
Fun fact: this particular pamphlet also at one point belonged to someone named Norma.
This article in the January 1955 issue of Ladies Home Journal details how to take a single dress (that you’ve made yourself, obvi) and style it seven different ways simply by switching out the accessories (that you’ve also made yourself, obvi).
Add a “bias fold of white pique” and a few carnations. How about a “crisp white dickey” and red cummerbund? Or “an amusing overskirt of navy organdy embroidered with white dots”? All the necessary patterns are listed for easy reference. Pinterest Shminterest.
Can you imagine any magazine—any magazine that isn’t strictly a sewing magazine, that is—including a feature like this today?
Similarly, “The Casual Look for Spring” cover photo and story from this March 1964 issue of Woman’s Day is actually a sewing lesson—”More clothes for less money: A Spring Wardrobe for Less than $70.00.” That’s right, the cover photo of a major magazine features garments “homemade” from Simplicity patterns.
Moving forward in time, Przybyszewski references—with disdain, of course—The Illustrated Hassle-Free Make Your Own Clothes Book by Sharon Rosenberg and Joan Wiener. This is pretty much exactly the opposite of the teachings of the Dress Doctors, in every way imaginable. I gleefully uncovered this in a used bookstore last summer, but at around $12, even I thought it was way overpriced. So I snapped a photo, and made a note of my favorite quote: “What this book won’t help you do is make clothing that has stuff like darts… We don’t use darts because we don’t use bras.”
Anyway, the final feeling I took from both The Lost Art of Dress and the lecture was incredibly empowering. Przybyszewski writes in her last chapter: “Dressmaking offers worlds of creation and imagination… Dressmaking is a form of engineering. And in order to make the final product look good from the outside, a dress is put together inside out. Show me a bridge builder who’s been asked to that.” Buoyed up by a message like that, I can’t wait to dig into my stockpile of vintage patterns and tackle my next sewing project, paltry skills be damned.
I have a few formal occasions coming up around the holidays, to which I was planning to wear a long, backless dress. For the sake of modesty—and warmth!—wouldn’t this jacket (Advance 6184) be a lovely addition? I think the Dress Doctors would approve.