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.

See also: Celebrate the paper-doll art of iconic fashion illustrator Jim Howard on Saturday

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.

What happened to the dress doctors and the art of dress?

A couple of things happened, some of which you could probably anticipate and some of which would surprise you. One of the surprising things is during the 1950s, the home economics programs at the universities came under attack. University presidents at that point in time were really interested in moving resources into fields of study that they thought would help with the Cold War. They were very keen on the hard sciences, and to them home economics looked like this uninteresting field, so they took their money and their buildings. The program at the University of Chicago in home economics dismantled in the 1950s, as did the program at the University of California at Berkeley. The Bureau of Home Economics was also not exactly dismantled, but they just kept organizing and organizing it until finally it essentially disappeared. That's kind of unusual. I don't think that people would anticipate that home economics would come under attack because of the Cold War, but it did.

Another factor was the arrival of the baby boomers to their teenage years. The basic rebellious strain that runs through any young population -- they look at their parents and thing they're old-fashioned and think they don't know as much as they claim to. A lot of people questioned why there should be any rules of dress. There were dress codes, for example, which were rejected at high schools and colleges. One of the reasons in particular was because they barred young women from wearing pants at schools or in classes. That might sound really really oppressive to everyone, but the logic behind this was actually that pants were considered casual wear for women. If you weren't athletic, you didn't see any reason to wear pants because they were for sports or for loungewear or dirty work.

So frankly, pants were not the fashion on women until the 1960s when Yves St. Laurent and other French designers put out luxury pantsuits for women for the very first time. So by 1968, pants took off as a fashion item and something that could be very dressed up. Pants stopped being only informal wear. Once a rule like that gets thrown out, people start wondering why there should be any rules at all. Once you had the universities getting rid of programs, you didn't have a new generation of women going into the teaching of home economics. In the 1970s, the number of college women who chose the teaching of home economics as their major dropped in half, because it was now considered retrograde. It's about domesticity. The women's movement also said why are we talking about women's appearances at all? Women spend too much time thinking about their appearance, and we shouldn't be thinking about dress. The art of dress seemed like it was part of this hopelessly retrograde era of home economics.

What are some of the things the dress doctors advise?

One of them is that an outfit should bring emphasis and attention to the face, and I think this actually became a big problem after the 1960s, because the 1960s did away with hats. Before the 1960s, a woman did not go out in public without a hat. Neither did men, for that matter. We could talk about JFK showing off his beautiful head of hair. But for women what happened was starting in the late 1950s hairdos became enormous. Hairspray sales really shot through the roof, and the problem is once you create these really giant hairdos, you don't want to put anything on them because you might squash them. When young women stopped wearing hats because they were wearing these big, puffed-up hairdos, the only people left wearing hats were older women and hats became very old-fashioned and who would want to wear that? You look like somebody's grandmother. But the good thing about hats was they brought attention and emphasis up to your face.

Once we did away with hats, that left us with this unfortunate obsession with shoes. A really intriguing thing for me in reading these textbooks is the dress doctors will describe an outfit in really lavish detail -- they'll talk about the hat and the dress and the jewelry and how the belt works and how the drapery of the fabric falls, and then they won't even tell you what shoes she's wearing. And I realized it's because they don't care about shoes! Yeah, they had to go along with everything because they believed in harmony, but they're never going on and on about shoes, I think because the feet are the farthest thing away from your face. Why bring attention to your feet if you want people to remember your personality, remember what you were saying? You need to bring the emphasis up to the face. I think that it's really important more than ever today. We talk about women needing to lean in and lead in whatever field they want to work in, and I think if we're all just staring down at each other's shoes that's probably a distraction.

What do you find valuable about the art of dress? When I show my students pictures from vintage illustrations or vintage photographs, very often there are these oohs and ahhs and sighs and appreciation for the beauty of what was created by following the principles of art and applying them to dress. I do think we could all use more beauty in our lives.

The dress doctors argued that everyone deserves to have something beautiful in their lives, because beauty is refreshing to the spirit. It's good for us, it's good for our souls. And they said, look, we've all got to get dressed in the morning, so dress can be a very easy way to bring beauty into our lives by bringing art into our lives. Wealthy people can buy a beautiful painting or a beautiful sculpture, and the rest of us can't necessarily do that, but we can put on something beautiful. We can put on a color that is refreshing. We can create a color harmony that is pleasing to the eye, and dress is the nice, easy way we can do that. And everyone, the dress doctors argued, should be able to do that.

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