Tag Archives: The Art of Dress

Currently Reading: The Art of Dress by Jane Ashelford

I have a lot of respect for all the recent fashion historians who have published such richly illustrated, researched, and documented books. Most fashion history books one encounters these days really are heavily documented, and still manage to be readable by mere fashion enthusiasts like me.

The book I’m currently reading, The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914 was published in 1996, but it too has all the features I look for in choosing a book on fashion history. Based on the collections of The British National Trust properties, Ashelford takes the reader on an in depth look at English fashion through the examination of paintings, extant garments, written records, ephemeria, and photographs.

The author begins in 1500, and because so few actual garments from the sixteenth century survive, most of the illustrations are from paintings in The National Trust collection. The details of each ensemble is carefully analyzed and explained to the reader. As you can see, both men’s and women’s clothing is addressed. Above is Richard Sackville, 1613, and Mary Curzon, circa 1610; both paintings are by William Larkin.

One of the earliest garments shown is this embroidered apron from between 1702 and 1714.

This circa 1745 painting of the Trevelyan family of Wallington, Northumberland, is a “conversation piece”, meaning that the people in the painting  were engaged  in conversation in an informal setting. These paintings are important because it makes it possible to see differences in dress worn by people of the same family or group of friends. The hound is a nice touch!

And as we move into the eighteenth century, there are more actual articles of clothing to be found.  Above is a detail of a mid century Spitalfields silk brocade court mantua, with silver gilt threads that showed to best advantage in the candlelight of the palace.

The author does an excellent job of detailing the drastic changes in fashion that occurred in the last part of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Fabrics were lighter, like the cotton muslin above, circa 1812.

Actual garments are shown along with period fashion plates. Here we get a better sense of how this 1820s silk dress would have been worn, with the hair style, jewelry, fan, and shoes.

By the 1850s and 1860s photographs became a valuable form of fashion documentation. Above we can see the fan shaped skirt of 1860s, and how the fullness of the skirt was gradually being pulled to the back.

In 1903 Lady Mary Curzon was painted wearing the famous Peacock Dress, made by the House of Worth of golden cloth with peacock feathers embroidered in gold and silver threads. Remarkably, this dress has survived, and can be seen at Kedleston Hall in a special climate controlled display case. To the left in the photo you get a glimpse of the fabric. What look like jewels in each feather are actually beetle wings.

One of my favorite things about The Art of Dress is that not only does Ashelford tell what people wore, but also how they obtained their clothing. This ends up being a good overview of the rise of ready-to-wear in Britain, and also of the emergence of the department store.  Above we see how mail order was also becoming an important part of shopping.

I do highly recommend The Art of Dress. It can be found on Amazon for a very reasonable price, and I imagine that most fashion school libraries have a copy.  At 303 pages, it can make for a lot of cozy wintertime reading, or if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, a lot of lazy summertime reading.


Filed under Currently Reading

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.


Filed under Currently Reading, Viewpoint