Lost Art of Dress - A Review

I read a book.  I'm not sure I liked this book.  The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski was a bit to get through.  I initially thought this book was sort of a how to guide on the lost styles of the '30s, '40s, and '50s.  Well, sort of.  The book did not provide any specific how-to's.  However, it did provide some general guidance on color schemes to make one appear stylish, as well as broad overviews on what might be in a ladies wardrobe in the decades mentioned.  First and foremost though, it was a history book.  It was a history book on, believe it or not, home economics in the United States.  Now from that perspective, it was utterly fascinating.  But the author chose to focus on the clothing/sewing aspect of home economics.  And let me tell you, the ladies who pioneered home economics, were some JUDGEY Fucking Bitches.

I barely made it through the intro without wanting to throw this book and at times it was very hard to discern where the author was reporting on history and where the author disagreed with the "Dress Doctors" as she calls them.  The general gist of the book is that a woman should aim to blend artfully with the background.  One should only wear bright colors if her personality can pull it off (never mind if you just don't like corporate black).

And one should only let your freak flag fly at home, and then only if trusted friends and family will be seeing you.

Orange Dress? Don’t mind if I do!

Orange Dress? Don’t mind if I do!

Now, some of the points I got.  The principles of dress, as reported from the first half of the 20th century, were the principles of art.  From the book, page 22 "The Dress Doctors took their ideas, reworked them into the Five Art Principles--harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis--and applied them to dress."  The rest of the chapter then explains how specifically those Five Art Principles were used in dress.

Harmony made sense to me, the sense that an outfit pulls together in a logical flow.  But then she decries combinations such as a silk blouse with denim pants.  To me, there is a casual elegance in that combination.  And then there was this quote, from page 49: "Color-blocking, which we see in the unfortunate modern practice of wearing a bright pink bodice with a bright orange skirt...in wearing such a dress, a woman declares: Here I am; you are obliged to see me, for I am a blot on the landscape, an object that defies the canons of true art."

This prompted this conversation with The Boyfriend:

Ha! That will show those dead biddies!

Ha! That will show those dead biddies!

And each part of the chapter on Art: Principles for Beauty contained combinations of yeah, ok, I get this.  Followed by a bitchy jab at women in general.  On page 74 we learn " The original beauty-pageant winners got furs and a shot at a movie career, which at least made more sense than the decision in 1944 to begin awarding college scholarship money to women for parading around in their swimsuits."  Oh NO!  Let's not EDUCATE the women!  Pretty women, I guess, are ONLY good for Hollywood!  Never mind that the Miss America Foundation is the largest provider of scholarships to women IN THE WORLD!  Can't have women be smart!

But, I kept going.  I did read the whole thing.  The next chapter was Occasions: The Duty and Pleasure of Dress.  The different times when a woman would be expected to dress up, or down, and what sort of clothes might be needed for each occasion.  Doubly interesting, given the way women in swimsuits were viewed, is that the Dress Doctors apparently allowed a very large budget for clothes that were athletic.  But they did think you should only wear slacks if you were petite.  And if you were over 40, NEVER!  For the record, I am 40.  I am wearing jeans as I type this. Other than being short, I could not be called petite.

Chapter 4, Thrift: Much for Little is where I actually started to (mostly) enjoy this book.  Here is where the history became pretty heavy, and it delved in to all the ways women could stretch a dollar.  It covered how flour mills started selling their product in floral printed sacks because the women would then buy that brand and make a dress out of the sack.  It started diving in to the actual benefits of a home economics course.  Even just a basic course in high school could still be beneficial.  How many people even know how to balance a check book these days?

The last two chapters explain how women's liberation and corporatism destroyed the legacy of the Dress Doctors, with a special hate on for Mary Quant's mini-dress, and all of the 1970's.  My main take away from these two chapters is that women really are our own worst enemy.  And it made me sad.  Instead of supporting the endeavors of women who truly had accomplished some remarkable feats in era's dominated by men, the women's liberation movement essentially shut them out as old fashioned.  And the accomplishments, judgmental or not, truly were amazing.

These women founded entire colleges attached to major universities.  The study of home economics at that level included higher level mathematics, chemistry, agriculture, architecture.  And of course art.  While clothing was a focus of this book, the true backdrop was the history of women in America.  Difference in fashion choices aside, they did contribute.  And they rarely get credit for it.  So while my own feelings on this book are ambiguous, I do have to thank Linda Przybyszewski for bringing this history to light. And on the plus side, I did learn I am not the only one who dislikes corporate black.