The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish
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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.
Ruskin and Morris preached that the hand (the worker) and the head (the designer) should be one and the same person. Morris lived what he preached. He mastered many hand techniques before he set to designing tapestries and fabrics in his workshop. Yet, as with so many movements started by men to free the world from some oppression, the Arts and Crafts movement did not do much to free women. Women were not really welcomed as designers; they were usually set to work making products designed by
solid with a print if you would like people to listen to what you have to say.130 9780465036714-text.indd 73 2/10/14 1:37 PM 74 the lost art of dress We are often more aware of the burdens of beauty than its pleasures. A dress book from 1913 tells us, “It is woman’s duty to be as beautiful as possible.” That dutiful strain became even louder in American culture as the beauty industry invented itself in the early twentieth century in order to sell us all kinds of supposedly magic potions.
figuratively (solid color with polka-dot trim) than her unemployable counterpart. Her skirt flared enough to let 9780465036714-text.indd 99 2/10/14 1:37 PM 100 the lost art of dress her stride freely. Her sleeves flared, too, so that her arms were not constrained. Her practical hat shielded her eyes from the sun and also harmonized with the solid color of her dress and the print of her tie and belt. Her clothes revealed more than a man’s suit would have in 1936—he would have been in
of their enormous hats. But the Dress Doctors were just as happy to see humbler fabrics, washable cotton ginghams and cotton piqués, in dresses with matching jackets, for women in the spectator stands. Again, a hat with a brim is a must to shade us from the sun. The burnt faces of today’s crowds at a ball game prove that the Dress Doctors’ prescription was a wise choice.91 The end of the workday! Off with those tailored dresses and sober colors! Off with cottons and tub silks! It is time for
conducted more than 91,000 demonstrations on clothing and sewing across the country. The farm girls who saw the demonstrations then went home and made more than 231,000 projects. Their mothers knew how to sew, but extension teachers still had some tricks to show them, and well over 175,000 women came to watch. Agents offered clothing clinics where farmwomen could bring in old coats and dresses to make over or cut down into children’s wear. The USDA estimated that it saved rural women and girls