The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

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by Linda Przybyszewski
     
 

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As a glance down any street in America quickly reveals, American women have forgotten how to dress. We chase fads, choose inappropriate materials and unattractive cuts, and waste energy tottering in heels when we could be moving gracefully. Quite simply, we lack the fashion know-how we need to dress professionally and flatteringly.

As historian and expert

Overview

As a glance down any street in America quickly reveals, American women have forgotten how to dress. We chase fads, choose inappropriate materials and unattractive cuts, and waste energy tottering in heels when we could be moving gracefully. Quite simply, we lack the fashion know-how we need to dress professionally and flatteringly.

As historian and expert dressmaker Linda Przybyszewski reveals in The Lost Art of Dress, it wasn’t always like this. 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. Knowledge not money, they insisted, is the key to timeless fashion. Based in Home Economics departments across the country, the Dress Doctors offered advice on radio shows, at women’s clubs, and in magazines. Millions of young girls read their books in school and at 4-H clothing clubs. As Przybyszewski shows, the Dress Doctors’ concerns weren’t purely superficial: they prized practicality, and empowered women to design and make clothing for both the workplace and the home. They championed skirts that would allow women to move about freely and campaigned against impractical and painful shoes. Armed with the Dress Doctors’ simple design principles—harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis—modern American women from all classes could learn to dress for all occasions in a way that made them confident, engaged members of society.

A captivating and beautifully-illustrated look at the world of the Dress Doctors, The Lost Art of Dress introduces a new audience to their timeless rules of fashion and beauty—rules which, with a little help, we can certainly learn again.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Alexandra Jacobs
…like another forgotten artifact, the hope chest, [Przybyszewski's] remedial book is most delightfully and fragrantly packed.
Publishers Weekly
03/03/2014
Both a history and a defense of home economics, this book follows the Dress Doctors, a group of female teachers and writers whose mission, starting in the mid-19th century, was to help women assemble budget-conscious wardrobes with a sense of art and occasion, utilizing rules about color, decoration, and appropriateness. Przybyszewski, a University of Notre Dame historian and prize-winning dressmaker, leaves little doubt as to her opinion of fashion after home economics departments and classes were dismantled in the 1960s: “If the Dress Doctors looked around at womankind today, they would wonder why so many of us are determined to appear ready to seduce at all hours of the day.” The author unabashedly addresses the irony of miniskirts (especially in the workplace) as an infantalization of women during the feminist revolution. Finally, she argues for a return to the teaching of sewing: “the American Association of University Women girls to work with their hands in grade school and junior high… why not sewing?” The author can be critical of the Dress Doctors, who, for example, virtually ignored African-Americans and other minorities, but she effectively argues that women might do well with a more traditional concept of fashion. 31 b&w images and two color inserts. Agent: Geri Thoma, Writers House. (Apr.)
Library Journal
03/15/2014
In this exhaustively researched book, Przybyszewski (U.S. history, Univ. of Notre Dame) chronicles the early 20th-century work of numerous American women she dubs the Dress Doctors. Their mission was better living through fashion—not by pushing trends but by applying common sense and principles of art to personal style. She sets fascinating sociological scenes, including the rise and fall of the girdle, the custom of dressing for dinner, and the demise of home economics departments in universities. Przybyszewski—who teaches a dress-history class called "Nation of Slobs"—sometimes adopts an "everyone dressed better back then" tone, though every age has frumps and follies alongside enduring styles. The dress doctors, varied as their tastes were, argued that wearing clothing well is work with tangible rewards. A well-dressed woman chooses apparel for the lifestyle and body she has, not those she wishes she had, and reaps the benefits of comfort in her own skin—a look that's always in style. The author's spotlight on the women's work, with its extensive endnotes (though relatively few illustrations), will appeal to scholars of women's history and American culture as well as fashion. VERDICT This entertaining read is funny, opinionated, and full of useful wisdom—much like the dress doctors themselves.—Lindsay King, Yale Univ. Libs., New Haven, CT
Kirkus Reviews
2014-03-16
Historian and prizewinning dressmaker Przybyszewski (History/Univ. of Notre Dame; The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan, 1999, etc.) recounts the social history of a group of talented women, the "Dress Doctors," who once instructed young American women in the art of dress. While the author bemoans American women's current sloppy attire, her illuminating commentary explains the sewing and design skills that were once common knowledge but have been washed away by a proliferation of cheap, ill-fitting and inappropriate clothing. Consequently, American women no longer possess the aptitude necessary to dress with style on a reasonable budget. Ambling through a used bookstore, Przybyszewski discovered a 1954 college textbook whose "message was artistic, logical, and democratic: knowledge, not money, is the key to beauty in dress." A "remarkable group of women who worked as teachers, writers, retailers, and designers" wrote these texts, and many worked in home economics departments at colleges. The Dress Doctors based their theory of dress on the "Five Art Principles": harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion and emphasis. Przybyszewski delves into the role of self-esteem, the turning away from thrift as an ideal, and the rise of consumption in America and its effects on the country. When the 1960s brought waves of social, legislative and cultural upheavals, the Dress Doctors began losing their hold on fashion. Miniskirts and pants were becoming the norm for many girls and women. By 1975, one Dress Doctor declared, the "bad was beautiful and the beautiful was worthless." The author also explores the inherent racism of the Dress Doctors' teachings. "The one type of woman the Dress Doctors overlooked completely was the African American," she writes. "They thereby implied, even if they never actually wrote it down, that she could not be beautiful." Przybyszewski's fashion history shines a much-needed spotlight on a contingent of forgotten professionals and the role they played in dressing American women with style.
From the Publisher
#7 on The New York Times Bestseller List Fashion, Manners, and Custom

New York Times Book Review
“Like another forgotten artifact, the hope chest, her...book is most delightfully and fragrantly packed.”

Boston Globe
"A fascinating and valuable book.”

Columbus Dispatch
“A witty look at well-dressed women and a defense of the classic home-economics course.”

Books and Culture
“The writing is sharp; the research thorough; and the book's illustrations alone are worth the price of entry.”

Threads Magazine
“If you’re interested in the history of fashion in America, or have just always wondered why Americans don’t dress well anymore—and what that means—read The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish.... The Lost Art of Dress is an engaging and fascinating history of the evolution of fashion and America’s approach to clothing itself.... If you love history as much as sewing, or are fascinated by the sewing and style manuals of the past, pick up a copy of The Lost Art of Dress.”

A Dress A Day
“A fascinating read.... If you love the styles of the first half of the last century and wonder why they were so lovely (and why so many modern clothes are not), you should read this book. If you are interested in the history of popular fashion as worn by ordinary people, you should read this book. And if you’re interested in some practical dress advice from the good Doctors, you’ll find that here, too. Highly recommended!”

Acculturated
“An important, even revolutionary book.”

Shop the Garment District blog
“[Przybyszewski’s] wit and intelligence make this book as entertaining as it is informative… The information it contains is timeless, so it won't matter how long it takes you to read it, so I suggest you buy it.”

American Age Fashion blog
“This book is a rare bird—a scholarly book aimed at a broad audience that is a ripping good read… whether or not you alter your wardrobe, you’ll be fascinated by these admirable women who tried to make America more beautiful, one dress pattern at a time.”

Denver Sewing Collective
“If you love fashion, history, and geek out about sewing you’ll love this book. It really is a fascinating read about some amazing women and should serve as inspiration to bring back beauty, thrift and style in to every day fashion.”

Library Journal
“This entertaining read is funny, opinionated, and full of useful wisdom—much like the dress doctors themselves.”

Kirkus
“[An] illuminating commentary.... Przybyszewski’s fashion history shines a much-needed spotlight on a contingent of forgotten professionals and the role they played in dressing American women with style.”

Sadie Stein, The Paris Review
“A tribute to a time when style—and maybe even life—felt more straightforward, and however arbitrary, there were definitive answers.”

Karen Karbo, author of The Gospel According to Coco Chanel
“Linda Przybyszewski’s remarkable, enchanting, well-researched history of America at its most stylish reminds us that once upon a time we were classy and fabulous. After reading The Lost Art of Dress, you’ll think twice before running to the store in sweat pants.”

Jennifer L. Scott, author of Lessons from Madame Chic
"An invaluable resource of inspiration. The Lost Art of Dress calls us to resurrect our stylish roots and bring tasteful beauty back to our everyday routine."

Claire Shaeffer, author of Couture Sewing Techniques
"The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski is a fascinating history about the “Dress Doctors”—teachers, writers, retailers, and designers—who advised women how to dress appropriately. Her extensive research in more than 700 books and magazines provides a wide range of information about changing trends throughout the twentieth century. Entertaining and informative, this book is essential reading for all fashion history students as well as everyone interested in fashion."

Lois Banner, Professor Emerita, Dept. of History and Gender Studies Program, University of Southern California, author of Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox
“Linda Przybyszewski takes her readers on an imaginative journey through a largely forgotten universe of women writers in the twentieth century who wrote about the art of dressing well. The book is sprightly and well-written, and it suggests new directions for research in the history of fashion and of women. Przybyszewski offers useful critiques of the restrictive clothing of the nineteenth century, the sloppy clothing of the 1960s, the periodic infantilizing of women through dress design, and the increasing commoditization of products and pleasures. She mourns the loss of the elegance of the 1930s, when women looked both liberated and chic.”

Patricia Cunningham, Associate Professor Emerita of Fashion and Retail Studies, Ohio State University
“This is an important work. In The Lost Art of Dress, dressmaker and historian Linda Przybyszewski skillfully delineates the rise of the Dress Doctors in the early twentieth century to their demise in the turbulent sixties. Przybyszewski excavated the lost texts of home economists and others who taught the art and science of dress through the application of five principles of art. Although Przybyszewski laments the decline of the teachings of the Dress Doctors during the 1960s, she sees their legacy in the recent rise of the craft of dressmaking and is encouraged by a renewed of interest of Americans in the art of dressing well and with good taste.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465036714
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
04/29/2014
Pages:
400
Sales rank:
418,171
Product dimensions:
9.20(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.40(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Linda Przybyszewski is an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. The author of The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan, the editor of Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911, as well as a prize-winning dressmaker, she lives in South Bend, Indiana.

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The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Being a seamstress I really enjoyed this book. I have always thought that Home Economics should have been left in school and agree with this author that the absence of it has left generations of women "unschooled and unskilled" in the ways of dress. This book shows we have come a long way in how we dress and maybe not always for the best. If you like fashion you will enjoy this book. There is a really good article on the subject of Fashion Academics,by this Arthur, in Vogue Patterns Magazine June/July 2014. The book goes into more detail than the article and is very interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book digs deep into the past in American fashion, when every woman was expected to look her best at every age. There are many lovely illustrations. I bought this as a nook book and the artwork does not suffer at all in e-format. The old rules have reminded me to care more about my appearance.
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