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!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Reading Challenge Book 5: North of Here by Laurel Saville

This story is about a search for "self." Miranda, the main character, must try to discover who she is after tragedy visits her life in spades. While some parts of the story are compelling, others make me less sympathetic for Miranda's plight. That is, until I realized that the story is really one of a search for rescue, for redemption. Then, I cheered her on in her efforts. The interplay between the main characters reflects the fickle character of the human heart when it is not centered on God. In essence, though, the story is just how far one can get away from Truth while looking at man in a search for purpose. Quite frankly, I do not recommend this book. Primarily, It is a story without hope, quite unlike the hope that is within us through faith in Christ. I am reminde of the words of God for Israel, through the prophet Jeremiah:
Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: "Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them," declares the LORD... Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. Jeremiah: 29:8-9, 12-14 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book 4: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Edmund Burke

In the Garden of the Beasts is a factual retelling of the lead up to World War II, when Hitler had a free hand in Berlin and the rest of the world was ignoring the situation, or purposefully choosing to discount the various stories that were coming out of Berlin. This is, of course, a book that is read knowing the ultimate outcome, but that does not take away from the desperate tone of the communications of William E. Dodd, then the United States' Ambassador to Germany. Ambassador Dodd was not part of the State Department "establishment," instead he was a university history professor with no diplomatic experience. This background, in the end, is what allowed him discern what the future would hold as he watched the events in Germany unfold in real time. 

This New York Times bestseller, authored by Eric Larson, is at times cumbersome to read due to it's many details. However it is that detail, taken directly from correspondence and witness accounts,  that provides the much needed context for World War II. It also allows us, the readers in the United States, to realize the ramifications of  having an isolationist viewpoint toward international events. It also brings home the fine line we walk - when is involvement in the affairs of other nations considered interference and when is it considered to be humanitarian? Perhaps more relevant, though, is whether or not we have learned from our mistakes. Are we listening to each other and to the world around us? 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Reading Challenge Book 3 - Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust's Hidden Child Survivors

"So, you were in Poland during the war?" asked author R.D. Rosen, making conversation with a likable woman in her seventies during a Passover seder. With her affirmative answer, he then asked a question that set him on a journey: "What were you doing?" Her quiet reply: "Hiding." With that, the author considered his "suburban bubble" to have been popped. 

Mr. Rosen is an excellent storyteller. In Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust's Hidden Child Survivors, he traces the history of three Jewish girls, each unable to escape their home country  (Poland, The Netherlands, France) during World War II. However, unlike many stories we have heard, the girls were able to escape the concentration camps and go on to live to have careers and families of their own. The details of the way in which the children hid, who hid them and some of the cruelties they endured are in the book, but equally compelling is his exploration of the effect the trauma had on the development of the hidden children as people. He explores what it means to live a lie - to use a new name, practice a new religion and be a part of a family that is not your own. Not only did the hidden children live a lie, they did it so well, they often did not remember what the truth really was. Through various worldwide gatherings of hidden children, several commonalities among them, all now adults, have become apparent. Common experiences include problems with memory, particularly as it relates to family and faith, having to grapple with the question of whether or not to identify as a Christian or a Jew, and whether or not, and when, to tell their stories. By exploring these commonalities, Mr. Rosen skillfully leads the reader through a minefield of tragedy and endurance. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Reading Challenge Book 2: I Capture the Castle

I Capture the Castle is a lovely book to escape into, written by none other than Dodie Smith, author of 101 Dalmatians.

The story consists of the musings of Cassandra Mortmain, a young woman who has as her goal to become a writer, as her father is.  Towards that end, she sets out to write about her days living in a castle in the English countryside with the rest of her impoverished family. Her journal tells of how they stretched each shilling they had to the most, her father's difficulties with writer's block and their affect on the family, and how the young residents of the house fall in love, though not always with the person who loves them. Through the use of beautiful descriptions of the surroundings as well as the humorous descriptions of the events and characters in the book Ms. Smith has created a book that tells of a family's sophisticated naiveté.

One of my favorite aspects of the book are the character descriptions, as seen by Cassandra, of course. Of one family member, she relates "...there were moments when my deep and loving pity for her merged into a desire to kick her fairly hard" and of another "wonderfully patient - but I sometimes wonder if it is not only patience, but also a faint resemblance to cows."

I'm afraid that my description of the book isn't doing it justice, honestly. Suffice it to say, if you want an enjoyable read that also makes you think, you will have found it should you open the pages of this book!