Saturday, June 14, 2014

"The Lost Art of Dress" Book Review


"The Lost Art of Dress" by Linda Przybyszedwski, PHD 

I will refer to the kind Dr. as Dr. Pski hence forward. Dr. Pski is a professor at Notre Dame, noted historian, and a woman who loves to sew. Don't you just love that combination? She believes she is the only woman to present before the Supreme Court in an outfit of her own making. Our kind of woman, right? In this book she introduces us to the "Dress Doctors", a group made up of retailers, extension agents, home economists, writers and designers. The Doctors taught the nation how to dress for most of the twentieth century. They had rules but it wasn't just about dress either. They insisted that a knowledge of how to dress appropriately was all that was needed, not money or a large wardrobe. In wartime they taught women how to make do and espoused recycling long before the current craze we are  now witnessing. Their rules for dress were the rules of Art: harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm and  emphasis. They believed in occasion dressing. "Happy" garments were worn in the home while caring for family. In the evenings dinner required a change of dress. The workplace required another, and so on. They taught women how to live with very few garments but  they would be quality, well made items of clothing. Variety would be supplied by a varied assortment of cuffs, collars, hats and gloves. Don't you wish we wore gloves again? Love my lovely leather winter gloves but today that is as close as I will get to what the Doctors ordered. 

This is a fascinating and entertaining read. What makes it so is Dr. Pski's humor and wit. She is really fun to read. Her account of the Biennial Dress alone is worth the price of the book. What's a Biennial Dress? It was an attempt, one I still find hard to believe, to get all women in America to wear the same dress. This really happened and it was a big deal. It was to encourage thrift. There was a national competition to design it and the design had to be flattering to every shape and size of female. The goal was to own just this one dress and change it up with accessories. I will leave the outcome for you to discover!

Any sewist will appreciate the detail in the garments above. Whiles styles changed detailing continued until the 1960s. At that time dresses morphed to plain little mini dress A lines, a look that had grown women matching the style of their five year old sisters. It was the beginning of the end of great fashion detail and Dr. Pski documents this landslide beautifully. 

Dr. Pski takes us from the 1890s to the present as any Dr.'ed historian would. There are details, footnotes , quotes and pictures. Reading it all from the vantage point of 2014 makes it all seem a bit unearthly yet quite entertaining.  It is really hard to believe this went on given the state of dress today. But Dr. P provides lots of interesting facts and anecdotes to shed light on this history of garments, their design and construction. 

Really fabulous is that this historian is a sewist and can provide an accuracy to her viewpoint that a non sewist couldn't. She talks about the sewing through the decades up until the present with humorous opinions freely expressed. She brings us to the sixties, the Baby Boomers and the end of it all and how that affects what we are making and wearing this very day. We Baby Boomers blew this one as she will prove to you when you read the book. And aren't we paying the price today as an oft described nation of slobs? 

Raw edges, unstitched hems, cleavage and poor fit that is seen as the norm today---the Dress Doctors would be looking for the nearest fainting couch. What could have been a really dry college text on fashion history, this book is not. The humor and wit supplied by the doctor make it a thoroughly entertaining read. It really makes you crave a spot in one of her classroom lectures. 

Here are a few quotes from the book:

In a description of a 1970s sewing manual, "Clothing Liberation' we have this, "But the piece de resistance of Clothing Liberation consisted of six dish towels sewn together to create a dress. Don't forget to hack a hole for your head. Now you can walk the streets and everyone will want wipe their hands on you. It is a waste of good dish towels."

On cellulite: "The word "cellulite" was introduced to the United States in the late 1960s, when curvaceous women were passed over in favor of underweight teenagers. Vogue magazine wrote of a young woman who had not undertaken an exercise regimen as a teenager, had waited too long to be "diagnosed" for cellulite, and feared it was "too late"  to do anything about the disease at the ripe age of twenty two. Fortunately, she had managed to reduce her 39 inch hips down to 34 inches through exercise, "standing correctly", and using "a special rolling pin". If you didn't want to rub your butt yourself, you hired a masseuse to do it for you. "

Dress Doctors Mildred Graves Ryan and Velma Phillips wrote, "Dress is more than practicality. It is the means of expressing your love of beauty and of life". I like that one. 

Other links about this book and author:


I highly recommend this book. It is entertaining, easy to read, very informative and explains why we dress the way we are doing today. Yes, this art of dress is lost. Sad thing.........Bunny


26 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great review, Bunny. I just requested the book from my library and am looking forward to reading it!

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  2. How very interesting, Bunny! Loved that last image of the various outfits...who wouldn't want an umbrella & hat to match their dress? I swear, I was born too early. I just know I should have lived during the age of the bustle! LOL

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  3. Oh, I'm going to have to get my hands on this book. Thanks for the review!

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  4. Oh gorgeous book! Thanks for the enlightenment....

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  5. I have this book, and enjoyed it immensely! How much I wish I had been taught to dress well... some seem to just have a knack for this. Others, like myself - do not.

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  6. That picture, which Dr.Pski kindly supplied, is of patterns, not just the latest fashion. Very Downton Abbey, don't you think?

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  7. Oh Bunny,
    I wasn't borne in the Downton Abbet era, but how I wish I was, or even earlier.
    My Mother taught we six daughters how to dress, and yes at the age of 5 years onwards, leather gloves ( yes love them like you and still wear leather gloves) hats and beautiful handbags to go with our outfits were the order of the day. I have to admit to loving this more than my darling twinsister....................I am indeed my mothers daughter!!!!!!!!!

    I must obtain this book and thank you so much for the review. Oh and of course I cannot leave without saying the Dr's surname looks Polish to me......................and of course, that is my paternal heritage.......................

    I still love any excuse to wear a beautiful hat. Don't get many opportunities these days. Perhaps I should be the batty lady that wears them regardless along with my high heels and a smile of course......................

    Hope you are having a truly fabulous vacation.xx

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  8. Great review Bunny, Will most definitly pick up this book. I received a very interesting? email today in reponse to a comment I posted on your blog a few weeks back. I had not gone back and read the other responses you had received once i did, I could almost understand why I had gotten it. Buti it certainly blew me away coming out of the blue today. Would love to chat with you one-on-one about how to respond. I think it would be very interesting to have 'the teachers' - Claire, Susan, Kenneth respond to this topic.

    Since I don't have your direct email, if you find a moment, mine is reanns@gmail.com

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    1. How about we talk when I get back from vakay? Remind me if I forget. My email address is always in the right sidebar. Looking forward to it.

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  9. Wow. Between your review and the interview, I want to read it! Do you consider this book as one to buy, or just borrow?

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    1. I think that may depend on how much you are into vintage design and history. It is a fascinating read and has many pictures and quite a few in color. It is not a sewing reference regarding skill but certainly is a wonderful historical reference.

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  10. I'm reading this right now, too. Have you read, "The culture of home sewing"? That's a fascinating history of home sewn and store bought clothing and how desire for each ebbs and flows.

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    1. I will de definitely be on the lookout for that one. Thanks for the heads up.

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  11. I would consider this a borrow. I could not get past her referencing "the dress doctors" as if they were an official group, rather than the author's invented nickname for a larger and more disparate group of professionals, who deserved to be referred to by their individual names. I am sure it is full of great research.

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  12. This sounds like a great book. I'm going to see if I can get it through my university library. I love footnotes (yes, I'm weird) and social history, especially when it deals with sewing and fashion, are right up my alley. Not that I don't have enough to read these days, getting ready for my comprehensive exams. But if I've learned anything in graduate school, it's that I can be remarkably productive when I'm procrastinating! :)

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  13. Dear, randomly found your blog and I’d like to say that you have amazing design, beautiful photos and interesting posts! I’m also impressed by your style! Everything is magnificent!

    would you like to follow each other?
    will be happy to see you in my blog)

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  14. Great review. I wonder if there is a book with the opposite point of view? Extolling the decline of rigid standards for "how to dress," the deconstruction of fashion in general, and how it is renewed in various forms - Issey Miyake, Koos Van den Akker, etc. Thanks for the excellent post!

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    1. I love that idea. Hope someone steps up to the challenge!

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    2. That is a fascinating idea, for sure!

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  15. Wonderful review! I must search out this book.
    Nonie

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  16. Wow, our version of the Mao uniform, I guess. Thanks for the review!

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  17. Thanks for the reminder about this book. They had it at my library, and I'm reading it now!

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  18. Bunny, Thank you for the wonderful book review. I am going to add this to my summer reading list. I love the idea of having a few very classic pieces of clothing, but beautifully and expertly sewn. Darby

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  19. Thank-you for the review, Bunny. I often hear my soon to be 90 Mom lament the current clothing styles. She was always exquisitely dressed, even on a budget! I was encouraged to sew from an early age, and I still create clothing for myself and my 2 grand-daughters. My copy of the book arrived yesterday, and I am enjoying it immensely!

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  20. A late thank you for the recommendation. I just finished the book (took a while to get to the top of the reserve list at my local library). I didn't know much about this time period, but I was fascinated by the book. I had to laugh at the idea that women over 30 were "filled out" and graceful enough to wear draped styles. As someone who has just reached my mid-thirties, I certainly don't consider myself middle-aged yet. I have four small kids (8,6,3 and 1) and can't imagine dressing like those ladies for something as mundane as grocery shopping...but neither do I subscribe to the pajamas-as-daywear idea my generation seems so keen on.

    I wonder if you have any ideas or resources for those of us who are just starting out and would like to make a small but nice wardrobe of fewer, finer pieces. I am an intermediate sewist, but I have never made anything for myself that I'm truly happy with. I sew smocked, embroidered, heirloom type dresses for my little girls, so I can sew reasonably well and understand fine construction and finishing (though not couture, certainly). I'm just not sure where to start for me.

    I love your blog - you do beautiful, artistic work. I hope someday to have the time for that sort of thing. For now, it's sewing until midnight after everyone is finally asleep.

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  21. A great resource is Artisan's Square - Stitcher's Guild. They have a thread called SWAP, sewing with a plan. You follow the plan with great support from other sewists, many quite experienced and many fairly inexperienced. I think it could really help you pull together a wardrobe. Stitcher's Guild can be found with a simple google search.

    Thank you for the lovely comment about the blog. Time will come, I promise you. When mine were that age I didn't sew clothing at all. I found handwork was all I could get done and did a lot of embroidery and hand quilting and piecing. I promise you, your sewing time will come.

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