Book Review: The Lost Art of Dress, by Linda Przybyszewski

 

So Basic Books sent me  months ago, and I read it immediately and thought it was awesome. And now it’s actually out in the world where you can read it, so I figured: review time!

The Lost Art of Dress is a history of (and paean to) the women who invented the field of home economics, and who taught hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of women how to dress beautifully, healthfully, economically, and practically during most of the twentieth century, only falling out of favor during the youthquake movement of the 1960s. Przybyszewski calls them the “Dress Doctors” and outlines how they used principles from art to guide women’s dress choices.

It’s a fascinating read, and whether or not you agree with the premise of the book (that women today are largely not stylish because they have abandoned these classic principles of color harmony, symmetry, and graceful line) it’s certain that you’ll enjoy the vast amount of largely forgotten and entirely charming advice the Dress Doctors gave their “patients.” For instance, women were advised that, when traveling, they should remain efficient and anonymous by choosing “no emotional colors, no revelatory designs, or fabrics, no temperamental hats or shoes.”

The most satisfying theme threaded through The Lost Art of Dress has got to be its debunking of the modern cult of youth fashion. Given that designers were , it can be astonishing to remember that, pre-1960, all the good clothes were intended for mature audiences only. “The French say that all perfectly dressed women are over forty,” reported Women’s Home Companion in 1937. “That is because they know that a smart appearance is the result of study and experience.” Przybyszewski may hammer this point a little too hard for anyone under 30, but those of us past that don’t-trust-anyone-over age will nod and grimace by turns as we read advice on how to wear crepey textures in order to flatter crepey skin.

Przybyszewski does not shy away from strong statements, whether quotes from the Dress Doctors (who pointed out that if you wear fancy clothes for mundane errands, it’s likely those who see you will assume you have “no other place to wear fine clothes”) or her own observations that “the only creature that should be wearing bright yellow-green is a small poisonous tree frog living in the Amazon” and that “if you cannot walk more than a block in your shoes, they are not shoes; they are pretty sculptures that you happen to have attached to your feet.”

If you love the styles of the first half of the last century and wonder why they were so lovely (and why so many modern clothes are not), you should read this book. If you are interested in the history of popular fashion as worn by ordinary people, you should read this book. And if you’re interested in some practical dress advice from the good Doctors, you’ll find that here, too.

Highly recommended!

Today's Pattern Story: Vogue 7340

Pink: There! On the horizon! Could it be … my long-lost love? Or maybe … an ice-cream truck?

Polka Dot: Her hat looks delicious. Maybe I can make some bet I can lose? “If that isn’t an ice-cream truck coming, I’ll eat your hat?” Worth a shot.

Inexplicably Tiny Person: Now! While my guards are distracted, I’ll activate the teleport! Soon I will beam up, away from this place of monstrous hungry women!

Pattern from  on Etsy.

Today's Pattern Story (and sale): Butterick 5832

 

Yes, it is a nice day. Isn’t it?

Yes, I am glad that I came out to the club with you and “the boys”.

Yes, it’s good to get out of the office and do a little informal business.

Yes, I’m a good sport not to be offended that they wouldn’t let me golf. Or wear trousers. Or drive the golf cart. Or sit in the dining room. Or park my car in the parking lot. Or come in the front door.

Yes, Danny’s a riot. Absolutely a scream. That joke about women lawyers? That must always have them in stitches at his firm.

Yes, I do make a great cup of coffee. That *is* one of my many excellent work qualifications, in addition to being editor of the law review and my Supreme Court clerkship.

Yes, I am imagining you all dying of massive coronaries as you grunt and smoke and drink and make unnecessary comments about my ass. (Yes, I can hear you.)

No, I didn’t say that last thing out loud.

 

is from MOMSPatterns … and Jen is having a sale! She has more than , and they’re 75% off THAT with the code ‘bigsale’ until April 5. And she’s throwing in 15% off all OTHER patterns for the month of April  just for Dress A  Day readers (no foolin’!). Use the code ‘sewingbasket’.

Winging It

 

Sorry for the white-on-white image here, but behold the triumphant future-weird that is the .

I kind of love it. A lot. Maybe because the wings are , but probably mostly because I’ve always wanted a carapace. (Tell the truth: you do too.)

This would be a fantastic dress in black, with iridescent green organza wings. Or red, with red-and-black polka-dotted wings. If you extended the skirt length and made the wings of silver lamé, you’d have a great shot at a Space Empress dress (or two: try it in a holographic laminate print). The possibilities: literally without end.

Today's Pattern Story: Vogue 3286

 

Like most of the other students in the dojo, Betsy dreamed of the day where she, too, would achieve the red sash, and find oblivion in inhaling deeply the sweet breath of the lotos-orchids. In the meantime, as a lowly pink belt, she performed such menial tasks as making sure Gladys didn’t trip on her sash of honor and recruiting new novices from the village fête.

Surely the woman in the floral dress would leave the cake table soon, and then Betsy could offer her a free pamphlet!

 

(Pattern courtesy of the )

Today's Pattern Story: Vogue 2880

 

Pensive: Do I look pensive enough? The column is certainly pensive-worthy, but what about the wicker chair? Is wicker pensive?

Skeptical: Huh.

Pensive: I should be holding a rose, right? Not girdling myself with one? And it should be an actual flower, not a repurposed shower scrubber?

Skeptical: If you say so.

Pensive: What about the petroleum-based sheen of this fabric? I think perhaps it’s a little too oleaginous.

Skeptical: Could be.

Pensive: Well, it will all be fine when the unicorn shows up.

Skeptical: Any minute now. Sure.