Historian Linda Przybyszewski on The Lost Art of Dress
Watching period dramas like Mad Men, it's easy to think that the elaborately costumed women of yesteryear just had an innately sophisticated sense of style. But that's not the case -- the Joan Holloways and Betty Drapers of the era were well-instructed in the art of dress by a group of women who studied and taught fashion for a living. In her new book The Lost Art of Dress, historian Linda Przybyszewski tells the story of the women she calls the "dress doctors," who curated and educated America's style through government agencies, informational pamphlets and university programs devoted to home economics. Przybyszewski will read from and sign her book tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover Colfax. In advance of her appearance, we spoke with Przybyszewski about how the Cold War contributed to the dismantling of this lost art and why she thinks the teachings of the dress doctors are still valuable.
Cathy Dietz Photography
Westword: What inspired you to write this book?
Linda Przybyszewski: In part it was inspired by my discovery that there was such a thing as a textbook on dress and sewing, and that these textbooks were used in college classes for young women who were going into the teaching of home economics or college-level work in dress and textiles. I had never seen a textbook of 500 pages on the art of dress and the craft of sewing, and I was simply amazed. Going to the reading list of this book, which came out in the 1950s, I saw a suggestion that you also read a pamphlet called "How to Buy Shoes," which was put out by the he U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That's when I figured out that there was in the USDA up through the mid-1950s a Bureau of Home Economics. It had been there since 1923 and one of its divisions was the division of Textiles and Clothing, and they had put out literally hundreds of pamphlets on clothing and textiles, which were distributed to 4-H clubs with clothing clubs and to your average American. Congressmen used to send out these little pamphlets to their constituents when they were reminding them to go vote. There were an enormous number of publications put out to teach Americans how to dress in the twentieth century, and I started -- just for fun, really -- tracking them down. And as I was reading them, I realized that they had created a very systematic way of teaching how you apply art principles to dress, how you can choose clothing for different occasions and how you can do it all on a small budget.
How did collecting these pamphlets turn into a book?
Like I said, I really just started collecting these for fun. I've made clothes my whole life, I've always followed fashion, I've always been a little interested in the history of fashion, but after a while I thought that this would make a really great class, and that's when I came up with a seminar for our college sophomores in the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame using these books and pamphlets. The reason why I wanted to bring this to my students' attention was I realized that they lived on the other side of two dress revolutions -- the dress revolution of the 1920s, which got rid of the tight corset and lifted skirts off the ground, and then the revolution of the 1960s, which kind of threw all the rules for dress out the window. My students didn't know that people had dressed differently in the past.
I think there's a little more awareness about that now because of the popularity of Mad Men and Downton Abbey. I think people are stunned at the way the outfits are all put together and how elaborate some of them are. But they're also intrigued and they want to know a little bit more. I'm hoping that by putting this book together, I can explain what was taught and why it is still valuable today. Because I do feel like it's a lost art that a lot of people have forgotten was ever taught at all, and I do think that the dress doctors managed to identify principles that transcend time that can create beauty in dress in ways that people will still appreciate today.
Who were the dress doctors?
They were a loosely affiliated group of women and they worked in a set of fields that touched on each other -- they worked in retailing, they worked at sewing academies, they wrote magazine articles. Almost all of them did tours talking to women's groups and women's clubs. A lot of them also would give little programs on the radio as well. Other dress doctors started out teaching home economics at the high school level but they didn't like the textbooks and started writing textbooks and put out a new edition about every decade for thirty years. There's a range of women who were giving dress advice. The school of retailing at New York University was another site for several important authors on the art of dress.