Book Review: The Lost Art of Dress
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Who were the “Dress Doctors” of late-19th and early-20th century America? Linda Przybyszewski’s new book “The Lost Art of Dress: the women who once made America stylish” explores their world of style, sewing, and home economics education. This book relates the history of the women Przybyszewski has dubbed the “Dress Doctors,” their origins and education, and their approach to teaching garment cutting and construction, the art of dressing well, and other aspects of the domestic sciences.
When I first opened this book I had serious misgivings that it would be a catalog of complaints about how sloppy we Americans dress these days, with a “why don’t women dress like ladies anymore?” thrown in–with no recognition of the social changes that have driven the evolution America’s fashion sense. But I was very pleasantly surprised, both by Przybyszewski’s style of writing and her approach to introducing the Dress Doctors and what they cared about, and presenting what they taught. Her amusing characterizations of the women she calls the Dress Doctors as members of a large family made me want to get to know them better. In case you’re wondering, the Dress Doctors included home economics educators and sewing and fashion entrepreneurs, such as Mary Brooks Picken, Ellen Swallow Richards, Leona Hope, Mary Schenck Woolman, Doree Smedley, Elizabeth Hawes, Ruth O’Brien, Mildred Graves Ryan, the Goldstein sisters, and Alpha Latzke.
“The Lost Art of Dress” is an engaging history of the evolution of American fashion and America’s approach to clothing itself. It is also a history of how American women created the field of home economics and fueled the growth of the home sewing industry, as well as a useful and interesting source of information on the principles of dressing well for everyone. Przybyszewski relates a selection of lessons from the Dress Doctors on dress and building a well-rounded wardrobe suitable for the life actually being lived–not the life dreamt of. Occasionally, Przybyszewski’s remarks have a school-marmish grumble behind them, but in the context of the lessons she presents, they hardly seem out of place, and you may even find yourself harrumphing and nodding along in agreement.
At the end of her introduction, Przybyszewski writes:
“Today, Americans are known for their sloppy dressing, but it was not always so. An Englishwoman who came to the States after World War II marveled at “the inherent good taste” of the American woman. But American women weren’t born with good taste. They learned it from the Dress Doctors. And we can learn it again.”
While learning the art of dressing well–with taste, style, and restraint–is a laudable goal, and while “The Lost Art of Dress” may be intended as a guide towards learning how to dress well, what struck me most were the economic aspects of the Dress Doctors’ teachings, which Przybyszewski distributes throughout the book’s lessons.
The Dress Doctors, according to Przybyszewski’s research, didn’t just teach sewing and tailoring and the art of dress. They delivered broad lessons in economy and thrift to America’s home and working women, in which sewing and thoughtful wardrobe planning played important roles. Unlike the home ec classes of my junior-high years back in the early 1990s, home economics education in the late 19th and early 20th century wasn’t simply about how to make a few charming, but ultimately useless, things. It provided a solid framework and reference for why one should take the trouble of making what one needs instead of buying. During the Dress Doctors’ heyday, many families didn’t have the ability to buy what they needed, because they lacked the money, because there were no local sources, or because it was simply cheaper to make than to buy. It was only by making, and preserving/maintaining what they were able to make, always with an eye to economy and thrift, that such families could live comfortably and afford to invest in their futures. These are lessons we could stand to learn again, even in our modern times of relative prosperity. Economic crisis, anyone?
Przybyszewski organizes her history of the Dress Doctors around the lessons they taught, sprinkling their personal histories and teachings throughout her chapters. After introducing them, she explains in detail the core concepts of the Dress Doctors’ teachings: the art principles for beauty, dressing for the occasion, and thrift. From there, Przybyszewski relates the declining importance of home economics education in America and how the Dress Doctors’ teachings fell out of favor with American women and lost necessary support. The final chapters deal with the social revolutions of the 1960s and the changes wrought on fashion, as well as the effect on home economics programs at universities and USDA extensions. Not to give too much away, but: blame the Baby Boomers and their Youthquake.
If you love history as much as sewing, or have always wondered what home economics programs taught once upon a time, go pick up a copy of “The Lost Art of Dress” (Basic Books, $28.99).
Have you read “The Lost Art of Dress”? Does fashion and sewing history interest you? Do you have fond memories of home economics classes?