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The Lost Art of Dress

I’ve put off reviewing Linda Przybyszewski’s The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish for several months now. In part because life was busy life-ing. In part because I had other things I wanted to write about. But mostly because I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the book.

The Lost Art of Dress is the history of what Przybyszewski calls the “Dress Doctors”: teachers, writers, retailers and designers who taught American women how to dress in the first half of the twentieth century. And if that were all it is I would be perfectly happy with the book. She begins with the rise of home economics as a branch of the Department of Agriculture and ends with the 1960s, when youth revolted against dictates on personal style as well as other forms of social constraint. Przybyszewski’s history is solidly researched, engagingly written and often surprising.*

But Przybyszewski has an axe to grind–the slovenliness of modern America–and she grinds it hard. (Now that I think about it, the title sort of gives it away) I have some sympathy with her position. I feel that Casual Friday in the workplace has proven to be the thin-edge of the wedge in many businesses. And I regularly see people wearing clothes in public that I would be embarrassed to wear at home while doing grimy work.** Nonetheless, I often found myself grinding my teeth, putting the book down and muttering “no, no, no”.

There is a great deal to admire in The Lost Art of Dress. If you are interested in the history of clothing or the changing roles of women, I recommend it strongly.*** Perhaps with a salt-rimmed margarita on the side.

* I was particularly stunned by the feminist roots of home economics. My personal experience of home economics class was–not feminist. And not pleasant. My strongest memories are being yelled at for mixing biscuit dough with my hands (a great way to get the texture right but not hygienic enough for the instructor), walking around the classroom with books balanced on our heads for posture (I’m very good at this), and learning to take off gloves properly. Not to mention the girl who ran the sewing machine needle through her finger. Screams! Blood!

**Let me make it clear I am not talking about the creative and/or subversive dress styles of the rebellious young.

***If you’re specifically interested in twentieth century clothing, let me point you toward The Vintage Traveler .

6 Comments

  1. Carol on July 29, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I’m so interested in this book.

    I have recently started wearing skirts, maybe because of some of the “lost art” concepts she addresses. Or maybe not. I just want to feel more girly and encourage my girls to do the same.

    Not that we don’t feel girly schlepping around in our yoga pants…but there is a definite difference in how I feel when I present myself different from the guys around me.

    Interesting!!

    • pamela on July 30, 2014 at 11:07 am

      I love my skirts.

  2. Gina Conkle on July 29, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Interesting that Home Ec has its roots in feminism. You took me back to yesteryear with the Home Ec thoughts. Mine was fun. Whenever we had a bake day, other students and teachers befriended us (and I often put my hands inside what I’m cooking). Maybe it’s a tactile learner thing? I hope summer is treating you well.

    • pamela on July 30, 2014 at 11:07 am

      Glad to hear that home ec could be fun. Another friend, whose experience seems to have been similar to mine, says the class should have been named How To Become A Woman Of A Certain Sort. With me they failed. I cook for fun. I do needlework. But not thanks to home ec classes.

  3. Bart Ingraldi on July 30, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    Books, precariously positioned, for good posture! I thought that was only in the movies.
    I also have an axe to grind concerning the garments chosen by some to wear in public, I just may read this book.
    Bart

    • pamela on August 1, 2014 at 1:50 am

      I don’t know if anyone still teaches good posture with a book on the head, but it was definitely the technique of choice at Jarrett Junior High in 1971.

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