Notre Dame’s Linda Przybyszewski, Professor of History, released The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish earlier this year with Basic Books.
A group of women whom Przybyszewski dubs the Dress Doctors—a collection of seamstresses, home economists, mothers, and young professionals—wrote with authority during the fast changing 20th century. Their goal: keeping American women gorgeous, but grounded. With the World Wars, the right to vote, increased participation in sporting activities, and the chance to support themselves financially with their own jobs, women had many new decisions to make, fashion and otherwise. The Dress Doctors emerged as trusted advisors to many American women.
Przybyszewski states that the Dress Doctors are largely forgotten, despite their popularity during the 20th century. The Lost Art of Dress very successfully revives the memory of the Dress Doctors and their ideas while also serving as a fun historical read. I will focus on a few particularly poignant guiding principles of the Dress Doctors (which can surely guide us today): dress as democratic, dress as art, and the questions “where am I?” and “what am I about?”
Fashion: the great equalizer?
Few women today think of fashion as anything but a chance for drama and differentiation. But the Dress Doctors considered it to be democratic. Dress was art (as I will discuss shortly), and “Art should be no more for the few than liberty is for the few.” The message was simple: “knowledge, not money, is the key to beauty in dress.”
Knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean sewing knowledge, however, and in fact the Dress Doctors explicitly told busy mothers that they likely didn’t have time for sewing and shouldn’t be worried about it. Tips and tricks are given to those who sew their own clothes and to those who do not. Forever practical, the Dress Doctors always considered cost and encouraged a small wardrobe, even as they spoke of the importance of beauty. For example, the editors of the McCall’s Pattern Book, who were Dress Doctors, compiled a list of the items in a perfect wardrobe in the winter of 1936-37. It included fewer than 10 items.
Already the Dress Doctors sound a lot different than modern fashion advisors, but this next point makes them even more distinct: The Dress Doctors took the woman’s interior life into account. One Dress Doctor, Margaret Morton, wrote, “[A good wardrobe] is not only a proof of our understanding of design and color and texture, of means of creating illusion and expressing temperament, but it also tests the real character of the person in discernment, in farsightedness, in self-discipline and in organization, and in ability to hold unswervingly to principle and purpose.” Phew! A lot to live up to when shopping. With this as the ideal, women with less money could look as good as women with more.
The five art principles
Fashion is not about looking good and wearing anything that one desires, a point that the Dress Doctors hammer home again and again. Rather, it is about bringing beauty to the world.
The Dress Doctors advanced “The Five Art Principles” as the guide for women: harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis. Przybyszewski states that these five principles restore what historians call “the unity of truth”: the idea that all of creation was ordered according to the rules of the Creator.
Harmony is the first art principle. Harmony requires both consistency and variety—larger elements of dress must be alike and smaller elements should vary. Harmony consists of four elements: shape, texture, idea, and color. Dress Doctors Harriet and Vetta Goldstein said that “harmony, the first art principle, was like a strong family resemblance.” Again straying into discussion of the interior life of the wearer, a Dress Doctor textbook in 1935 explained, “A unified harmonious whole … is insisted upon inexorably by the mind.”
The second art principle: rhythm. “The rhythm of a garment should suit its purpose and its wearer’s personality … Our eye is led along by rhythm, or it should be.”
Third is balance. There are two kinds of balance in dress: perfect symmetry or informal (or
“occult”). Przybyszewski uses the example of children on a seesaw. Perfect symmetry is like when children of the exact same size are on each side of the seesaw, but in the second case two small kids are on one side of the seesaw and one larger kid sits on the other side. Drapings, for example, can be balanced.
Proportion is the fourth art principle. At its most basic, this principle demands that a small woman should not carry a huge handbag.
The final principle is vital: emphasis (accessories, bright colors, etc.). One Dress Doctor wrote: “Emphasis in dress design, like emphasis in reading or speaking, is more forceful when used sparingly and in the right places.” Enough said.
The Dress Doctors make clear that these art principles do not negate their point that fashion is democratic. Rather, “[t]he Five Art Principles were democratic principles. Beauty cannot be hoarded by the wealthy few who can afford fine paintings and sculptures … Clothing gives women the chance to create and choose beauty.”
“Where am I?” and “What am I about?”
One Dress Doctor said, “Clothes should be chosen for the places we go, the things we do all day, the people we are with—and not for the places we would like to go.”
The places we go: Not all destinations call for the same outfit. Yoga pants are not the best clothing choice for any and all occasions.
An appropriately selected outfit should enable the wearer to go about what she is doing without hassle and free her to focus on the higher things. By dressing well, “a woman could gain ‘a basic sense of security and self-respect’ that would release her ‘from the tensions caused by concern about her appearance,’” stated one 1963 Dress Doctors book. This would free her to give her “full attention to more vital matters, for herself and for the welfare of others.”
The Dress Doctors speak beautifully about the difference between what one wears with family and what one wears with strangers. When a woman is in a city or traveling, she should dress more conservatively, as she does not know the people around her. But at home it is a different story. Two Dress Doctors wrote in 1935: “In the home where the most intimate human relations hold, there is an atmosphere of affection and confidence, permitting full self-expression.”
Contra modern standards, the Dress Doctors held that even at home women should not disregard their looks. The Dress Doctors speak with horror about frumpy housewives and seek to sway their readers from thinking that “everyday” clothes are of the least importance. One Dress Doctor wrote, “So often we think, ‘Oh! This is for every day, so it does not matter.’ But it is our every-day clothes that mark our good taste in dress, that give our most intimate friends pleasure in seeing us. And is it not these friends, after all, who are the most important ones to consider?”
Healing for 21st century fashion
Although the 1960s sadly brought an end to the widespread influence of the Dress Doctors and home economists like them, Przybyszewski encourages American women to learn good taste from them once again. For women fashion-conscious and -unconscious alike, this book is a historical journey abounding in tips relevant for our 21st century world of veritably disposable clothing and skin-tight options.
After this cursory introduction to Przybyszewski’s book, I hope my readers agree that a Los Angeles women’s liberation group in the 1970s was missing the point when it proclaimed, “We consider fashion too superficial to even comment on its importance to women” (191). Unlike American women of the 1960s and 70s, let us not reject the wisdom and beauty offered by the Dress Doctors.
Madeline Gillen, class of 2014, would welcome tips on easing into the practice of sewing. Email her insights at firstname.lastname@example.org.