Book Review – The Lost Art of Dress

If I ran the world, every child, starting at about age 10, would be required to take some kind of “home”-related course. I hesitate to call this home ec, because there are certain connotations to “home economics” of olde tymes, but rather a course where all children, regardless of gender, were taught basic sewing, cooking, and home repairs, plus maybe some woodwork and basic plumbing and electrical. So, make an apron, build a bird feeder, bake a cake, hang some wallpaper, wire a lamp, learn to do basic taxes.

We lost home ec in the 80s because it was considered sexist… in my junior high, all but two girls took home ec while the boys were shuffled off to shop class.

But a lot of good came out of knowing how to sew, and repair garments – skills that we’ve almost completely lost today.

In The Lost Art of Dress, author and historian Linda Przybyszewski traces the history of the sewing component of home ec, from late Victorian times to the 1970s and 80s when such courses were removed from most school curricula. The women (and men) who developed and taught these courses were known as “The Dress Doctors” and as individuals and teams, they created home ec programs, fashion and sewing books, and garment history programs for universities, schools and 4H clubs, and were responsible for teaching generations of young women how to dress.

Knowing how to dress well is something that, nowadays, most of us don’t have a natural skill for. We look to magazines, or television shows or even YouTube to guide us. But in this era of fast, cheap fashion that focuses on youth and trends, we’ve lost a lot of skill, craftsmanship and style that our mothers and grandmothers learned about from a young age.

Przybyszewski’s Dress Doctors taught their students how to choose fabric, cut patterns, match plaids, choose foundation garments and accessorize – on a budget, in war times, and in eras when most women – even the wealthy – had far smaller wardrobes than we have today.

The title, The Lost Art of Dress, figures into the Dress Doctors’ lessons – young women were taught basic art principles (line, proportion, texture, colour), as well as how to dress for the occasion. The Doctors believed that women should have different clothes to suit different activities in their lives, whether that be home making, sport, afternoon (bridge, tea, PTA), or evening (out and at home). The doctors also believed in dressing modestly (remember, most of these ladies taught in rural, often conservative locations), and thriftily – Przybyszewski offers a whole section of what the Dress Doctors taught women to do with cotton sacking (ie. feed bags or flour bags) during the Depression, and how the now long-lost collar and cuff sets could take one basic black dress through a week of changes. (She also addresses other long forgotten things such as dress shields, which you’d probably need if you planned on wearing the same dress for a week without laundering it.)

By the 60s, however, the Dress Doctors were out of favour. The miniskirt didn’t really jive with their gloves and hat and pearls philosophy, and more and more young women rejected home sewing for the convenience of off the rack clothing. At the same time, those garments got much simpler – there is much hand-wringing about “flat” garments – knits such as t-shirts, for instance, that took the skill and detail out of how we dress, and how clothing is made. Nowadays, most high street knitwear, especially 2-4 piece garments such as t-shirts, are made in places like Bangladesh, by mostly unskilled, underpaid workers in unsafe factories. We now can’t be bothered to sew even the simplest dress or t-shirt.

Przybyszewski, an award-winning sewer herself, in addition to being an author and historian, is on the side of the Dress Doctors, to the point of coming across as rather judgmental when including her own opinions. I can imagine her chiding students who show up at her lectures for their sloppy manner of dress.

Overall, two points in The Lost Art of Dress stood out for me. First – that women of different ages had distinctly different styles. Clothing for young women was simple, with lots of movement to allow for play, dancing, etc. A woman earned her right to sophisticated garments (better quality fabrics and tailoring, draping, etc) as she aged. Women didn’t try – or want – to look younger. They were proud of their age and their ability to be glamourous and chic. So different from today when everyone wants to look as young as possible. This was the era when those “things not to wear if you’re over 40” actually made sense, because there was a much clearer line delineating age groups and their mode of dress.

Secondly, the emphasis on quality garments that fit well should not be understated. Students of the Dress Doctors were taught how to tailor, because part of dressing well and being stylish, whether your dress was cotton flour bags or rare silk, was ensuring that your clothing fit. Think about it, even if a woman was plus-size (or “stout as we’d have been called back then), she never looked sloppy or slatternly, but pulled together with an air of being respected and taken seriously – because her clothes fit her well. A good girdle was part of that, and nobody wants to go back to that torture, but we could still put more effort into making sure our clothes fit us. As indicated by this post I came across recently, where someone asks What Not to Wear stylist Clinton Kelly the secret to celebrities looking great in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt – everything is tailored. Our throwaway culture means we are unlikely to have a shirt we’ll wear a mere eight times tailored to fit us better, but it only takes some minor observation on the street to see that we could all look a lot less sloppy with a thread and needle and a few stitches here and there.

The Lost Art of Dress is not just a book for people who love retro style. It’s not just a history of home economics in the US, or a chronicling of how styles changed – the basic components the Dress Doctors taught still work with clothes today – base your wardrobe on the principles of art, assess your daily activities and buy or make clothes for what you do the most (evening gowns are lovely but useless if you don’t actually go to fancy parties), choose quality over quantity, expect good pieces to last years or even decades, learn how to accessorize, and know your body and what works best on it and don’t be tempted by styles that are unsuitable.

Even with today’s more casual fashions, knowing how to use what you’ve got is never a bad thing. Now if we’d only go back to teaching this stuff in schools.