Friday, June 13, 2014

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

I'm reading a delightfully academic book about the history of dressing well in America.  Its title is the title of this post (no, I'm not going to write out that whole, long title again).  It's written by Linda Przybyszewski, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several other history books.  In this book, she takes a new subject upon herself: what women wore in the past, the women who inspired and taught them, and what we have to learn from them.  Przybyszewski fondly refers to these teachers of good fashion as "the dress doctors".  Their leader was Mary Brooks Picken, who inspired many women to use home-sewing to their advantage to create beautiful, thrifty wardrobes.

The dress doctors were home-ec teachers, writers, designers, and many more things.  Przybyszewski argues that they have really important advice for us today.  It's not a secret that many American women have lost all interest in dressing for occasion and this author is passionate about bringing practical beauty through clothes back into our daily lives.  The dress doctors taught that beauty was achieved through several simple rules of dress.  The rules for dress, summarized, are:
1. Sensibility- A wardrobe that serves you, rather than you serving your wardrobe.  This means a relatively inexpensive wardrobe as a whole made up of several good-quality expensive pieces that can be used in a variety of settings.
2. Good Design Principles and Overall Beauty- Clothing that has harmony, proportion, balance, and rhythm.  The clothing should be pleasing to the eye, but needs to answer first and foremost to the sensibility rule.  Sure, a mink coat is gorgeous, but how often are you going to wear it?  That said, sensibility isn't everything and if something is strictly sensible without any beauty, there's no joy in wearing it.
3.  Appropriate Setting- The dress doctors (and the author) firmly believed (believe) that there is a time and place for everything.  Out in public, you shouldn't be wearing your plunging necklines.  That should be reserved for your family and closest friends.

I agree with these rules pretty much.  There is a rather ridiculous emphasis on colors "going" together, which I find unnecessary.  Instead of this rule, I would say, "Colors that I, personally, find pleasing to the eye."  I find the rules about, "Well, I can't wear this color because I'm too light and never wear pink and read together!" to be tiresome and not something that needs to be dredged up from the past.  But aside from that, I really wish that there were some strict dress doctors walking up and down our streets today.

The book was really well written.  It was academic, while managing to be amusing and inspiring.  The perfect kind of book.  Przybyszewski tells of how clothing has evolved from the dress doctors of the 1900s to today and its ups and downs along the way (boy, is she scathing of 70s fashion) in a truly amusing way.  Honestly, I really can't do this book justice in a measly blog post.  However, I highly recommend it.

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