Currently Reading: The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski

I know I’m a bit late to the Lost Art party, but there is so much about this book that I’ve got to talk about that I’m hoping you all will humor me.

First, thanks so much for all the well wishes and kind thoughts extended during my recent surgery and convalescence.  I still have a lot of healing to do, but at least I can now do a bit of typing.  And all the downtime led to a lot of reading, and the luxury of time for reflection on what I was reading.

With The Lost Art of Dress, there was plenty of material for reflection.  In a nutshell, the book is about how women and girls were once taught that the principles of art could and should be applied to one’s manner of dressing.  From the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1960s women college professors, writers of sewing books, scientists that worked for the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and others working under the home economics umbrella helped women and girls apply these principles to their wardrobes.  I loved the many profiles of these remarkable women who worked hard to apply the principles of art, and even science, to the way people dressed.

Przybyszewski also went into some detail in discussing what these principles of art are – things like proportion and color  and harmony – and gave examples on why these things are important when considering what to wear.   I think we all understand the power of color, and how the right one, or the wrong one for that matter, makes all the difference in how our clothes look.  I can remember the moment I tried on the perfect yellow linen blouse and looked in the mirror and learned the awful truth about yellow and me.

Other lessons are not so obvious.  While reading Przybyszewski’s words about proportion I suddenly realized why so many really cute, young bloggers look strange in their clothing.  The very popular skirt that looks like something from the ice skating rink is just too short and oddly out of proportion.  The same is true for 1950s full skirts and big printed 1970s maxi dresses that are chopped into minis.

Today if you want to talk about appropriateness of dress, you end up sounding like an old fogey.  But the home economists (Przybyszewski calls them the Dress Doctors) taught that in order to best present oneself, it is best to dress for the occasion.  The little girl who wears her party dress to school ends up feel uncomfortable.  The same is true of the woman who wears shows up at a party in slacks when all the others are in cocktail frocks.

One of the things from the book that rang so true to me was that we need to have a better sense of dressing appropriately.  I know that Przybyszewski sees the worst of dressing because she works on a university campus, but we all see people padding through Target in their jammies and slippers, people at funerals in shorts and tee shirts, and girls wearing shorts too short and boys wearing pants too low. We live in a time where people resent the imposition of rules.

It was interesting to read Przybyszewski’s thoughts about how the 1960s brought about the demise of home economics.  She makes the argument that the rise of Youthquake and the trend toward the mini skirt and other clothes that were suited for the young led to home ec becoming old fashioned.  The Sixties was a decade when rules were made to be broken, dress codes were challenged in court, and the young wanted to do things their own way.  By the time I took home ec in school in the early Seventies, the only art principle I remember being taught was that of color.  I guess they thought it was enough that they were getting us to sew.  In just a few years, the home ec program was called Family Life and the emphasis changed to sex ed.

Another thing that really struck me is how today the dressing ideal seems to be “sexy” where as in the middle of the twentieth century the ideal was “sophisticated,” or even ” attractive.”  I think Przybyszewski’s point that young women should aspire to something higher than being a sex object is well taken, but some reviews I’ve read of the book accuse her of “slut shaming” and say that this emphasis on clothing and rules is anti-feminist.

Look at it the way the Dress Doctors did.  They believed that knowing how to dress well was freeing for a woman.  It allowed her to get on with life without worrying if her clothing was right or appropriate.  And wearing smart, attractive clothing made a good impression in a time when women needed a hand up in the world.  But that would also be true today, would it not?

There are some things about The Lost Art of Dress that I feel are just too much.  Przybyszewski never misses an opportunity to remind us that people today are slobs, and at times I felt like I was a captive audience in her college classroom in her course, A Nation of Slobs.  And I do believe that there are some good things that have occurred in fashion since 1963, whereas Przybyszewski seemed to blame Mary Quant for all the world’s woes.  I’m exaggerating, of course, but it is easy to see her disdain for the fashion of the Sixties.

The book also suffers a real lack of pertinent illustrations.  There were two nice sections of color illustrations, but they were not cross-referenced with the text.  And some of her major points were not illustrated at all.

Still, this is a book that you need to read.  It is well researched and expertly referenced.  After starting the book I went to my own library to see if I had any of the books Przybyszewski refers to in her text.  To my surprise I have nine of them, including one of the first of these books, The Secrets of Distinctive Dress by Mary Brooks Picken which was published in 1918.  After finishing The Lost Art of Dress I immediately picked up Picken’s book to read, and was impressed with how true to the original thought and feel Przybyszewski managed to be in her own work.

Przybyszewski has gotten a lot of good press, and my hope is that her book will start a conversation on whether or not our anything goes attitude toward dressing is really in the best interest of the individual.  It is worth thinking about.

26 Comments

Filed under Currently Reading, Viewpoint

26 responses to “Currently Reading: The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski

  1. It is wonderful book – many times while reading this book – I think it would be great having the Dress Doctors now.

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  2. I would love to just hold this book Liz. I am so glad you are feeling stronger!
    “The luxury of time” ♥

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  3. One is never too late to the party where this book is concerned. Thanks for a great review. There is so, so much in this book that it is difficult to distill the salient points, isn’t it? I like the conversation this book has started, and I think we bloggers should try to keep it going! Health and healing to you, Lizzie!

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    • When I was about half way through the book I thought to myself that I’d not be able to write a review that made any sense at all. There was just too much to consider. I really had to edit down to what I thought were the more important points. And thanks!

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  4. It sounds like a book that echos a lot of the costuming books I have on my shelf. When you have to choose clothing for actors in a scene, it’s amazing how you can lead an audience to have certain impressions about the characters (even the background extras!). If only more people were conscious of the impressions they project about themselves through what they’re wearing.

    I find myself dressing for the occasion & event all the time and applying my costuming training. It’s amusing to see how certain things can cause predictable reactions from others around me.

    I’ve taught my husband a lot about clothing and dressing (he’s really good at applying what he’s learned!). Recently, he had a coworker look at him and notice his jeans because he was wearing a nice but rather plain shirt. She thought it was the first time he had worn jeans to work and he’s worn them every day – only with more colorful shirts. It’s all about overall impression.

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  5. Ultrawoman

    I am glad you are feeling better. I can often be dressed to the nines and find myself next to a guy wearing a dirty, rumpled t-shirt and ratty jeans.

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  6. You’ve touched upon a number of fashion things that resonate with me Lizzie – the “skating skirt” dresses (perfect descriptor!) that I feel are too girlish and flirty for certain business situations, the Sexy aspect – as if that is the only thing a girl has to be concerned with, as well as the “not having to worry about” what to wear because what you’re wearing is proportionate to you and appropriate for the situation.
    I sometimes feel like I,m an old fogey when I think that what young folks (and folks old enough to know better) wear to work is too slobby or nightclubby. We don’t all have to wear the dowdy calf length skirt with button down shirt, sneakers and a ribbon tie that used to be the “corporate woman” outfit, but there is a nice middle ground. Enough room to be stylish and not distracting.
    I’ve got this on my reading list now thanks to you – and glad to hear you’re on the mend!

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    • Yes, it is especially interesting that our standard is now “sexy.” When I was young and “sexy” it never entered my mind to try and dress that way. I just wanted to look attractive and competent!

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  7. I’ve missed you too. Haven’t read the book but fear anyone who comes across too strong in her criticism of today’s dreadfully low standards of dress will come across as an old fogey. I think we need to lead by example. I’m hopeful that those of us who don’t capsize to the enemy will inspire as well as gently prod the lazy non-believers into dressing better. In truth, the better you look the better you act.

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  8. Now I want to read this book! Sounds like it touches on so many things that have gotten corrupted in our culture. I had a French college student babysit for my son, and I remember she was floored when her fellow students went to school in PJs. I find in France that people of all ages look pulled together, with individual style nuances, even if they’re wearing jeans.
    Boston actually has a lot of people dressing appropriately with style these days, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the rest of the country.

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    • A person can dress casually and still look put together. I don’t believe we have to go back to little hats and gloves to do the marketing, but there’s a lot of territory between that and wearing pjs in public!

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  9. Well, I’m 22 years old, and I still feel as if these aren’t “old fogey” ideas. It ticks me off how a girl can’t seem to be considered beautiful unless she’s showing a substantial part of her body off. I also find it strange that women don’t want to be treated as sex objects yet still wear tight, stretchy clothes that bring attention to their bodies to the office. Seems like a mixed message to me…

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  10. As you know, I really enjoyed the book…but I really don’t see it making much difference in today’s fashion world. It would require a profound switch from the fast fashion model to an appreciation of a small wardrobe with a few well chosen items…something I don’t see happening anytime soon. But even if it doesn’t, I agree there is a lot to learn about proportion and color theory from the book…or you could just start with Picken. Great to hear you are on the mend.

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  11. Oh, I didn’t know you were down with a surgery. I’m so glad to hear you are recovering well, and enjoying the time to read and ponder. I enjoyed your review of this book, one which I’ve been hearing about from several people. This is something that has been on my mind, as we attempt to gain the skills to create our own well-made clothing (having grown up in the generations where this was all but encouraged beyond sewing a laundry bag). When you read the books prior to the 60s (or before), you sense that women learned how to choose styles that worked with their own unique body types, rather than trying to fit into something “one-size-fits-all”; pick the fabrics that would work well and know the quality of fabrics at the same time. I’ve enjoyed sitting at the feet of the tailors in this regard. I think they have a lot to offer in the skill of creating clothing that compliments and is becoming on a woman’s body type, no matter her age. They start with hand drafting a pattern to the person’s measures, draping and fitting, and sculpting the fabric to the unique individual. It’s really a beautiful art.

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  12. I really enjoy this blog, and the book (which I now should read) definitely sounds as if it takes on lessons so many people should learn. When I started working back in the shoulder padded eighties, I remember reading in Cosmo that you dress for where and who you wanted to be. Today, dressing sexy versus appropriate says something right there. Bill Cunningham of the NYT has had some great pictures that give me hope for the future. From your review, the Dress Doctors need to stage a comeback.

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  13. Alisha

    That Looks Interesting. Did They Say Anything About Flattering Plus Size Clothing? I Know There’s A Difference Between Plus Size Then And Now But It Certainly Is Hard To Find Something Fashionable, Attractive, And Affordable For Bigger Women Who Actually Want To Learn The Art Of Dress. Did It Mention Anything About Skin Tone And Colors Or Height Also?

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  14. Pingback: Official Uniform: Members of the Food Administration, 1917 | witness2fashion

  15. Pingback: Is This Why More Women Are Sewing? | witness2fashion

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