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.