Monday, February 20, 2017

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

I thoroughly enjoyed The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish. It is, however, not at all what I thought it would be like. I expected a book about women who were known for their sense of style and so inspired generations of women to adopt certain styles of dressing. People like  Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and even, perhaps, Madonna and others with a more, shall we say, modern style.

Instead, what I found was a delightful history of clothing patterns, sewing and the influence that the women who worked at extension offices and in university home economics departments around the United States had on the everyday styles sported by American women through the 19th and 20th centuries. These women, whom the author calls the Dress Doctors, taught not only sewing, but applying artistic principles to dressing, thrift and a host of other skills. The Dress Doctors believed that women should dress for the occasion and shepherded women through the industrial revolution, World War II factory jobs and then college and professional jobs, all the while teaching not only the practical skill of sewing, but also teaching thrift, manners and instilling in their students the belief that, with the ability to vote, women can indeed, do anything. In fact, the purpose of good home economics practice is to free up time for women to participate in their community and to work to make it better for all concerned. Home economics was, indeed, seen as a noble endeavor.

There is a bit of the practical mixed in with the history - explanations of different fabrics and their uses,  understanding color and a variety of other tips. For example, I learned that trim should go in only one direction on any one outfit, lest it be visually disturbing. If you are going to trim the cuffs of a jacket, then don't also send trim up the outside of the sleeve from the cuff to the shoulder. It's just too much! Suddenly, my discomfort with many things I see hanging on clothing racks in stores makes a lot of sense to me. Above all, the Dress Doctors emphasized the principles of art in dressing - harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion and emphasis. They taught their students to observe them in works of art and in everyday occurrences. Throughout the book, we learn the history of shoulder pads, hip pads, shoes and why skirt lengths were at a particular point at given times in the history of our nation.

There is a lot of humor woven into the book - both from the Dress Doctors themselves and from the author, Linda Przybyszewski. Overall, it is a delightful book to read, even though it gets a bit repetitious in places. I recommend this book for those interested in textiles, sewing and the history of everyday life. The subject matter is acceptable for readers of all ages, although the writing level places it solidly in the high school and college range of difficulty.

I'll mention one gem that I found mentioned in the book - Cornell University hosts the HEARTH web site. HEARTH is Home Economics Archive, Research, Tradition and History. Here, you can find the original writings of the Dress Doctors as well as a variety of patterns and other work that traces the history of the study and practice of home economics. Enjoy!

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