The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski
~post by Katie P.
Linda Przybyszewski is worried about American women. More specifically, what they’re wearing. It’s one thing for women to have largely lost the desire or skills to make their own clothes, but it’s another, immeasurably more tragic one that they have also, she argues, lost their sense of style. The Lost Art of Dress is, as the author has implied in the title of her new book, an endangered species.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, as Przybyszewski outlines, women who wanted to study chemistry, nutrition science, architecture, design, and engineering were being lumped together and dubbed “Home Economists,” an umbrella discipline that offered these women the chance to continue at least some of their desired work, while limiting their scope of influence to inside the home. (The author is a professor of History by day, which lends her historical background work both well-researched and compellingly explained, and a dressmaker in her spare time, making her arguments passionate and personal.) As a group, the “HomeEc” experts with financial, economic, and/or design backgrounds became known as the Dress Doctors, and set out on the admirable and ambitious mission of teaching American women how to dress.
The Doctors encouraged women the nation over to follow the Five Principles of Art, above all: harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis. Beyond that, knowing how to find balance between the formal and informal (or “occult”, as it was hilariously named in the 1920s) was key, as was wearing “clothes that let [women] work efficiently and that brought the elevating power of beauty” into every action. These passages are where The Lost Art of Dress shines. Fashion is notoriously unkind to women, vis-à-vis impossible shoes, tiny sizes, and improbably-proportioned models, but fashion as the Dress Doctors intended was specifically kind to every body type. The agenda was, first and foremost, to encourage the making and wearing of clothing that allowed women to work with pride and efficiency – if impractical, unflattering clothing was eliminated, they argued, there is no reason a woman shouldn’t or wouldn’t be a prime candidate for CEOship.
There are, of course, ways this book is dated—at its core, it is nostalgic for fashion as it existed 90 years ago. But there are crucial ways in which this book is being published at exactly the right time, too. We may desire more than the 1936 McCalls recommendation of 6 outfits to make the “perfect wardrobe,” but anybody can benefit from both the skill to make, or at least repair, their own clothing, and women are CEOs today – opportunities to find and create beauty in the boardroom have never been higher. The title of her book implies that the art of dress is lost, but Przybyszewski’s research and guides make clear it isn’t extinct, but dormant – it’s up to us to bring it back.
Copies of The Lost Art of Dress are now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com