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A Book Review--The Lost Art of Dress--The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

The Perfect Mother's Day Gift.

Update--May 2016

Received as Mother's Day gift in 2014 and immediately devoured it.  Two years later it is still a recommended read.  Enjoy the review; didn't change a word for the original post!

The Lost Art of Dress--The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski.

What a book it is; 288 pages, illustrations, 33 pages of notes and 15 pages of index.   This is a textbook, history book, reference book; not the casual read one would expect.  Don't be put off by it's textbook format as it is so much more.  The Lost Art of Dress is a fascinating, readable, intellectual treatise on women's dress in America.  I recommend it as an enjoyable, educational summer read.

Linda Przybyszewski, the author, is associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN.  She is also a dressmaker, she comes from a family of dressmakers, and a fashion connoisseur.

This is a book about 'former' American fashion style:  what it was and is, how America got it, and how we might have it again.  And, oh yes, why we need it.   It is also a comprehensive history of the women (Linda calls them Dress Doctors) who started the movement and why they ended  up in Home Economics at colleges and the USDA when they really wanted careers in the Sciences.  A great plus for the book, in my opinion, is that it documents  woman's struggle for equality, long before women won the  vote.

You might expect this book to promote a return to an earlier age of American dress.            So it does, but acknowledges 21st century  lifestyle changes.  Let's admit it, Americans are slobs, e.g., sweatshirts and flip flops to the office?  No wonder businesses institute dress codes. We have swung to the opposite end of the continuum and now need to get to somewhere in the middle.  Linda suggests we do that by finding current day Dress Doctors to show us the way.

Happily, Linda's Dress Doctors are not as rigid as my encounters at the College of Home Economics, University of MN.  I graduated in 1963, and even then, jeans and pants were acceptable college attire.  BUT, not at the College of Home Economics.  We were required to wear skirts even though we changed before and after class as tromping across snow-covered campus just wasn't comfortable or practical.

During student teaching, we were advised to wear hats and gloves when making home visits, a part of the home economics secondary school curriculum at that time.  This was common church attire in both rural and city communities but not professional attire by any means, especially for a school teacher.

And we were also coached to respond to an offer of coffee (on these home visits) with, "Thank you, a glass of water will be just fine."  I Kid You Not!  Would I make something like that up?  Have no idea what that was all about:  Keep us humble?  We weren't entitled to anything better than water????

Ms. Przybyszewski makes a point of acknowledging she set out to make this book enjoyable reading for anyone, not just college professors.  She has succeeded admirably.

There were times when I hooted, although I must confess, a lot of the humor is of the Insider variety--Insiders being sewists, home economists, fashionistas.  An example from the very first chapter refers to a woman who wrote to a farm journal editor in 1857,  arguing that women needed sewing machines as much as men needed farm machinery; this after said editor wished he had never written about sewing machines because he was inundated with letters asking for more.  Linda's aside wonders if the woman's husband "had been acting mulish about such a purchase."

I sadly chuckled as 150+ years later, wives are still facing opposition about the high price of sewing machines and ,"Why do you need a new machine, that one works just fine."  This, when a new boat shows up in the garage every two years and displaces a car--guess whose car!  I speak from experience.

Another part I particularly enjoyed was the history of home economists (I am one) .  These were women, often with chemistry college degrees, with nowhere to use them--a woman in a laboratory?  Horrors!

According to Ms. Przybyszewski, land-grant colleges provided a home for these scientists in the Home Economics departments,  By 1911, the USDA expanded to include homemaking.  Then WWI created a need for scientific knowledge of fiber and food.

In 1923, home economists got their own bureau at the USDA.  Finally, women college graduates had a place to go.  But it wasn't a bed of roses as it was often suggested that... "'girl chemists' learn to type instead of aiming for jobs in laboratories."

That condition strikes a cord with me as by 1959, the year I graduated from high school, career opportunities for women hadn't changed all that much.  My high school counselor had these 'job' suggestions:  nurse, teacher, secretary.  The unspoken was marriage or factory work at the local 3M plant.  Note the word choice of Job vs Career.  There was a certain denigrating connotation to the word 'job' as it related to women.

Ms. Przybyszewski makes a point of showing how other women forged their own path with considerable strength and purpose.  A leader was Ellen Swallow Richards who graduated from Vassar in 1870 with a chemistry degree only to find no one would hire a woman chemist.  Am guessing the 'chemist' appendage was irrelevant as women just didn't work outside of the home.  With that door closed, Ms Richards applied to MIT and became the first woman to earn a degree at MIT but was again stymied when she was not allowed to earn a doctorate.  So she taught and specialized in sanitation and in 1908 formed the American Home Economics Association.  Ms Richards is a perfect example of what women always do--when one door closes, open another

The following quote from the book is illustrative of the bumps home economists faced as they designed their career.

"The bureau's Food and Nutrition Division tended to get more press coverage than Textiles and Clothing--which makes sense, since botulism can kill you, while an ugly dress only makes you wish you were dead..."--also a telling criticism of the importance of clothing, fashion.

But home economists forged ahead and used a new invention to calculate how much labor was saved by a sewing machine.  The answer:  using a treadle machine used six times more energy than hand sewing but produced 14 times more work, and an electric machine produced 16 times more work with no more energy than hand sewing.  Bet that woman from 1857 wished she had those statistics to justify a sewing machine.

As to the importance of dress,  Ms. Przybyszewski relates the story of a woman Doctor who, in 1918, sought help as people did not respect her intelligence due to her poor dress and she had no knowledge of appropriate wardrobe.  This woman exhibited her intelligence by recognizing the problem and seeking professional help--problem solved.

Chapter 2:  Art:  Principles for Beauty is a review of how and when standards for appropriate dress were developed in America.  Ms. Przybyszewski goes back to sumptuary laws of Renaissance Europe that provided a way to recognize social class based on dress--particularly whores.  Seems to me that in the 21st century, dress rules have gone amok as the whore is eagerly emulated in dress and manner, e.g., entertainers, street style.

In any case, save this chapter for the art principles espoused by the Dress Doctors.  Most of the art principles come from Art in Every Day Life, by Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, The Goldsteins.  This was the Bible for home economics classes.

The brief biography of the eccentric Sisters is not to be missed as well as the history of how The Goldsteins, Frank Lloyd Wright, modern furniture, Shakers, etc., all came together in the early 20th century to link design and ideals.

Art in Every Day Life

As a student in Home Economics Education at the University of MN in the early '60s, I was introduced to The Goldsteins (they are still referred to with great reverence and with capital letters) in the required Intro to Related Art I & II . Although The Goldsteins had retired in 1949, the final 1954 edition, was the text book.  Every text book on dress since has borrowed from Art in Every Day Life.

Art in Every Day Life

The book is still available on Amazon.  Apparently the original book is priced at $2432.64, used at $7.00.  I'm madly digging through boxes of books (never unpacked from last move) for my copy.  Haven't found it yet, but did find several yearbooks and at least 10 dictionaries; two were 8" thick and weigh several pounds.  They now have nice homes at the local library, probably in the book sale.

In 1976, The Goldsteins were honored with the founding of the Goldstein Museum of Design, its mission to support teaching and research on campus; additionally the museum fulfills a vital public outreach function through exhibitions, publications, off-site programs and community partnerships.

The following Lost Art chapters continue the saga:

• Chapter 3  Occasions:  The Duty and Pleasure of Dress

• Chapter 4  Thrift:  Much for Little

• Chapter 5  Revolt:  The Fall of the Dress Doctors

• Chapter 6  Aftermath:  Tyrannies of Age and Size

The last chapter is a waggish review of patterns,--the skirt made from ties collected from men the wearer slept with, the dish towel dress (luckily I missed that one)--age appropriate dress and what was deemed age appropriate (at one time, only after age 25 were 'sophisticated styles' appropriate), and sizing, which apparently varies depending on the garment cost--the more expensive, the smaller the size.

The Epilogue:  Legacies

Here is hope for the future and affirmation of my passion of all things fiber.


The Lost Art of Dress--The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

Copyright 2014 by Linda Przybyszewski

Published by Basic Books, New York, NY


Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”





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