I’m fascinated by both cultural history and fashion and recently read a new book called The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski, who is a historian at Notre Dame and an award-winning dressmaker. You might think from the title that this book is about famous women who were known for their sense of style, but it’s actually about the “Dress Doctors,” as the author dubs them, mostly women who taught in university home economics departments during the first half of the twentieth century, who wielded enormous influence in advising American women on the art of dress.
The book chronicles the evolution of style and how it both reflects and influences culture. The author is opinionated, but I enjoyed her commentary. For example, she points out that the Dress Doctors mostly ignored women of color when describing which colors flatter different complexions, and she also is no fan of the micro-miniskirts of the 1960s, often adorned with a-line skirts, puffed sleeves and bows at the neck, which tended to infantilize women. Whereas before the 1960s mature women were considered sophisticated and glamorous, and capable of wearing chic ensembles that girls and young women couldn’t successfully pull off, the 60s ushered in the cult of youth, which persists to this day and has skewed our perceptions of beauty. Now the only way to look beautiful is to look young, rather than looking appropriately attractive for your natural age. While this has been a boon for the cosmetics industry and has vastly increased the number of cosmetic surgery procedures, it has hardly helped women’s self-esteem.
The book describes how undergarments changed over time, in some decades restricting women and in others freeing them. It documents how economic restraints forced women to become creative in developing their wardrobes. For example, in the 1930s a working woman might have just a few neutral colored dresses with several sets of interchangeable intricate collars and cuffs. Women were also taught to remake old garments into new and to create clothing from flour sacks. Manufacturers soon jumped on the bandwagon and began adding small floral prints to their flour sacks.
I enjoyed reading that more than 90% of women owned a sewing machine in the early decades of the 20th century and that making one’s own clothes was the norm. I grew up wearing clothes my mother sewed for me. In fact, when I got my first job out of college she created a new wardrobe for me to replace the Levis I wore every day to class. I wish I had kept those beautiful custom clothes, but who has room? Speaking of room, it struck me as I read the book that women have much larger wardrobes now than in past decades. That explains those tiny closets in homes built in the 20s and 30s!
If you like women’s history, fashion, or cultural history, this is a great read that just might inspire you to evaluate your wardrobe and clean out your closet, and will certainly give you a new perspective on how fashion and culture are intertwined.