Interview with Linda Przybyszewski, Author of “The Lost Art of Dress”

Share This

Are American women slobs? That is the question at the heart of the new book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski. She takes fashion and style very seriously and thinks we should do, too. I wanted to know if elegance matters much anymore compared to the era Przybyszewski chronicles. I asked her for an interview. She graciously agreed and this is the result.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Linda. Or should I call you, Professor Pski?

Either is fine.

First of all, you use the term “the dress doctors.” Is that your own coinage and why “doctors,” and not, say, “advisors” or “coaches”?

I got the name Dress Doctors from a story told in 1918 by Mary Brooks Picken, an expert in sewing and dress. She was asked for help by a woman physician who knew that she looked all wrong in her clothes, but did not know what to do about it. She asked Picken to “diagnose” her case. Picken studied her and prescribed a wardrobe for her to wear. The doctor reported that it had a terrific effect on her career. Both the doctors and nurses she worked with treated her with more respect and people who had never bothered to consult her now made a point of doing so. She had been cured.

You start your book off by discussing a woman of whom I had never heard, Mary Brooks Picken. Please tell us a bit about her.

Picken was a remarkable woman. Born on a farm in Kansas in the late 19th century, she could sew and weave by the age of five. She taught everyone from the female prisoners at Leavenworth Penitentiary to the respectable women who came for lessons at the YWCA. She eventually moved east and made herself into the leading authority on dress, writing dozens of books, and becoming the first woman trustee to the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1951.

You write that the dress doctors espoused “artistic repose” in design. Is that feasible for professional women these days or for hipsters? Doesn’t that suggest a sort of dated Ralph Lauren look?

Artistic repose is not about any particular style, which is why both businesswomen and hipsters can aim for it. It’s the moment with the eye is perfectly satisfied with the color, line and form of an outfit. It doesn’t matter if it’s dark and conservative or bright and whimsical, so long as it creates a harmonious whole.

One of the reasons you wrote to the book, I gather, is to advocate “good taste.” What about diversity? And how does one differentiate good taste from classism or snobbery? Many of us remember that some of the meanest girls in high school were often those that were the most obsessed with clothes and looks.

The Dress Doctors insisted that taste had nothing to do with money or with uniformity. They thought all kinds of personalities and styles could be expressed in dress. The art of dress is about acquiring knowledge and applying it to even the smallest wardrobe. And they also taught that a small wardrobe, one perfectly suited to your life, is all that you need.

One of the most interesting forms of publication the dress doctors used to disseminate information was the pamphlet. Could you please tell us what such pamphlets looked like and who read them?

The Dress Doctors who worked through the land-grant colleges and universities made a point of creating small, affordable pamphlets. The idea was to make it possible for anyone to get their hands on them. Congressmen sent them out to their constituents. They ranged in length from five pages to 25 pages or more.

Children's Rompers Cover
Children’s Rompers Cover – USDA, 1921 (Photo courtesy of Linda Przybyszewski)

What was “vanity sizing?”

Was? IS! It is still going on.

Vanity sizing is a way in which clothing manufacturers appeal to our vanity. Women are more likely to buy a dress that fits if the label says it is a size 10 than if it says it is a size 12. So labeled sizes have been merrily shrinking for decades. I wear a size 18 in sewing patterns from the 1930s while I wear a size 8 or 10 in today’s ready-to-wear clothing, but they all fit a 36” bust.

Could you please tell us about the Goldstein sisters?

Harriet and Vetta Goldstein wrote the most influential book on teaching the decorative arts, including dress, in the United States: Art in Every Day Life, which first came out in 1925. They set the pattern that many Dress Doctors followed: arguing that dress was one way in which everyone, regardless of class, could bring the spiritually uplifting power of beauty into their lives.

What were the five art principles and what was their origin?

The Goldsteins drew upon the art of composition from the Western tradition in order to come up with the five art principles: harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, and emphasis. These principles hold true whatever the century or style. A garment that follows them will be beautiful even if it is no longer the current trend.

One thing I found surprising in your book is that the dress doctors were not, as I had assumed, obsessed with fashion at the expense of comfort or utility. Could you discuss the matter of high heels, for instance?

Harmony of shape requires that clothing allows a healthy human body to move freely and gracefully, while high heels force women to totter and mince. The Dress Doctors hated the idea that women were expending energy trying to stay upright in their shoes when they could be using that effort for something more important.

Could you please tell us how the rise of suburbia has led to far less differentiation in women’s clothing than once existed between town and country?


The 1950s brought prosperity to the United States and the enormous growth of suburbs, which fell on the countryside of the usual divide between city clothes and country clothes. In town, people wore formal clothing, which indicated their seriousness of purpose at work, while, in the country, people retreated for relaxation and outdoor activities where they wore clothing that was more informal and up to rough wear. The suburbs fell on the informal side of the divide. They offered outdoor spaces like patios and pools where people were supposed to be wearing informal clothing, and activities like sports where people had to wear sports clothing. When people lived their entire lives in the suburbs, they stopped wearing formal clothing.

The Lost Art of Dress
“The Lost Art of Dress” by Linda Przybyszewski

Has the rise of e-commerce resulted in more uniformity in recent years in women’s clothing? That is, if we can have easily shipped to our homes the same things women across the country are wearing, is there less regional variation than there used to be?

There is less variation. In the very early twentieth century, women made their own clothes or had them made for them, so a great variety of human imagination had its play in clothing. By the 1930s, the women’s ready-to-wear industry took off, which created greater uniformity. Still, I am struck at the variety found in a sewing magazine from the 1930s: dresses cut in many ways, an enormous variety of collars and details. Unlike today, when it’s possible to see an entire room of young women wearing t-shirts and leggings.

What was the rationale for the Dress Doctors’ concept of one-color harmony and in what settings would a woman of today employ it?

The one-color harmony is one of the simplest to understand: you take a single hue and wear it with variations of itself. So, take a navy blue dress and trim it with cuffs and collar in a pale blue. You can add one of the neutrals, like white, as well.

You tell us that the Dress Doctors tended to advise against pure colors. Wouldn’t that make for drabness?

The Dress Doctors thought that most of us weren’t energetic and vivacious enough to stand up to pure, bold colors because we would look less interesting in comparison. So a bold red dress makes most people look faded in comparison. But this has nothing to do with drabness. They would advise the woman who loves red but who realized it overwhelms her own personality to wear it in smaller areas, as trimming on a dress, as a necklace, etc. But for those of us with amazing complexions and bold personalities, go ahead and wear the red dress.

Linda Przybyszewski (Cathy Dietz Photography)
Linda Przybyszewski (Cathy Dietz Photography)

Isn’t there a somewhat doctrinaire quality to the thinking of the Dress Doctors? For instance, in their admonition that older women should avoid wearing black?

The Dress Doctors had lots of rules, but as Harriet Goldstein once put it, there are blessings in limitations. As for older women and black, the Dress Doctors always said that as “like brings out like” which in this case means that black brings out the dark shadows on the faces of older women making those shadows look deeper. Only the lucky woman who ages while keeping all her beauty and coloring can escape that truth. Most of us are better off wearing something that brings lighter colors near our faces as our complexions fade.

What was “the Greek curse” and is it still sometimes evident in today’s fashion magazines?

The Greek curse is the ideal standard of height handed down to us by the ancient Greeks through their statues: eight-heads high. That is if you take the length of your head as the unit of measure, your total height should be that measurement multiplied by eight. Most of us are shorter than that, some of us much shorter. Fashion illustrations have regularly depicted women as eight-heads, nine-heads, even 12-heads high, which gives us a complex and prevents us from judging how an outfit would look on a more typical height. Nowadays, model agencies seek out unusually tall young women and then Photoshop may even exaggerate their height.

You say that the Dress Doctors stressed that clothing should draw attention to the face. Is that what many designers do these days and how did that come about?

The Dress Doctors wanted clothing to emphasize the face so that people would notice the woman wearing the dress more than anything. Some designs do that, but the crew neckline is now the default although it is boring and unflattering as the Dress Doctors pointed out. I suspect the recent popularity of statement necklaces can be traced back to the desire to bring attention to the face when the neckline itself can’t do that.

I learned from your book to question many of my assumptions about fashion. I have always assumed that it glorified wealth and idleness. But you point out that much of what the Dress Doctors advocated was actually on the democratizing side. Could that be because many of the Dress Doctors came from the West or Midwest and taught at land grant institutions (many of which were in states in which women won the vote earlier than elsewhere in the country)?

That’s a good question. Many of the Dress Doctors worked at land-grant colleges and universities either in departments of home economics, or in decorative arts, and worked on public outreach programs, so they were committed to serving all the people. Many of them wrote their first textbooks in the 1930s, which meant they were particularly attuned to the needs of the average woman who was suffering hardship because of the Great Depression.

Is it mistaken on my part to equate dress with fashion?

There are ways to define those words in order to tell them apart. Fashion is whatever the current trends are being offered up by designers and manufacturers. Dress is the various kinds of items that people can wear. The Dress Doctors applied that Five Art Principles to dress from any era in order to show that something could be beautiful even it was no longer the fashion, such as a medieval robe.

Wasn’t there a certain amount of self-aggrandizing in the part of the Dress Doctor movement? They tended to complicate life a bit with their notions of dressing for the occasion. Isn’t life easier these days in that we don’t have to think about having to maintain so many types of outfits?

Six may sound like a lot of occasions, but they advised that a woman needs only the outfits that fit the occasions of her life. So if she’s athletic she needs sportswear, but otherwise she may only need work wear, evening wear, and home wear. Don’t most of us already have clothing for those categories? The only real changes are in afternoon wear which has disappeared as more women have joined the wage work force, and ball gowns which have disappeared because we don’t throw balls anymore.

Does modern America really need contemporary versions of the Dress Doctors? You do make an interesting argument that many young women lack a sense of decorum vis-à-vis appropriate work attire and that fashion magazines tend to show pictures of celebrities rather than working women in real-world settings.

It does make me slightly crazy how a magazine can urge us to “lean in” and then show women posed sprawled half-naked as if saying “do me.” No wonder some young women have no idea what they need for the work world if they want to be taken seriously. Even when successful businesswomen are featured, somehow it’s essential to show them being sexy in magazines. But nobody asks Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to look sexy for the camera, so why should women executives have to?

Do you read fashion blogs? Or subscribe to fashion magazines?

I subscribe to so many fashion magazines that I sometimes have a backlog. While writing the book, I came to think of them as part of my research.

You make the fascinating point that women on TV news programs are often attired in sleeveless sheath dresses, whereas the men are in suits and ties. Is that especially true of Fox?

Women on television seem to be wearing sleeveless sheath dresses everywhere from morning talk shows to ESPN. It doesn’t seem fair that men get sleeves and jackets, while women have to worry about the state of their biceps and underarms.

Could you tell us about the impact of the shirtwaist on fashion and the ability of women to break away from the tyranny of the dress? (And yet you mention the hybrid form of the shirtwaist dress – what was the advantage of that?)

The shirtwaist, or what we call a blouse, appeared in the late nineteenth century and became very popular. It was practical since a cotton blouse did not cost much, so even a young, working woman could buy more than one. Plus it can easily washed out at night and will be dry by the morning which can’t be done with a dress. But, since it cuts the figure at the waist, which tends to shorten and widen the figure, some Dress Doctors thought it was a bad idea. American designers opted for a combination – the shirtwaist dress – where the top of the dress looked like a detailed blouse, and the bottom half, like a skirt. This meant that the design details and color would be the same throughout which eliminated the cut-in-half problem.

I did not realize that there used to be so many varieties of dresses. When did those begin to die out?

Dress designs became simpler and simpler during the 1960s. In part, the fitted look of the 1950s disappeared. Which may have been more comfortable, but details of all kinds also disappeared: collars, cuffs, sleeves, etc. Pockets disappeared, but pocket flaps, which now served no purpose, continued to appear. Once, a great deal of designers’ imagination was lavished on thinking up new kinds of details for dresses. The variety of collars and dress bodices in the 1930s is incredible. But after the 1960s, people largely forgot all about them. They were stuck with the plain A-line, the shirt-dress which looked like a man’s shirt, and the shift which has no shape to it. And the crew neckline became the default.

You say that the Dress Doctors were not keen on pants for women. That is a deal breaker for me. Could they be serious that most sports could be played in a dress or in a divided skirt?

It is amazing how unpopular pants were before the 1960s when you look around today and see so many women wearing them. Before the 1960s women rarely wore pants because they were considered appropriate only for sports, at home, or for dirty work. Magazines showed women doing a great number of sports – from golf to bicycling to horseback riding – in dresses or divided skirts.

And most women agreed: in 1960, Cornell University women owned on average nine dresses, 13 skirts, and three pairs of pants. Pants only became really popular for women in the late 1960s, in part because miniskirts were so short that it was hard to move in them with any dignity. But pants have their drawbacks. Thin became the fashionable look in the 1960s, while exercise became compulsory for women in the 1970s. If college women today weren’t so keen on wearing tight pants, would they spend so much time running on treadmills to escape the natural shape of their hips? Would they have more time to do more important things?

There is a passage in your book that says that we have few opportunities these days to adorn ourselves in real jewels, magnificent furs, and long white gloves. Is that something that is really desirable?

Marking celebrations with clothing is desirable. I really don’t care if the jewels and the furs are fake or real. We all know important occasions, like weddings, should be marked by special clothing. I suspect that young women go overboard planning weddings because they have become the sole occasion they can look forward to for dressing up. We should mark more of the special occasions of our lives with beautiful clothing.

The Dress Doctors seemed to feel that even among their intimate friends in relaxed settings, women still had to look nice so as to make their friends feel that they were not being treated disrespectfully. Was there no room at all for just pure comfort? I would have found the sort of 24/7 emphasis on appearance stressful and exhausting. Do you think that women under 30 days would be willing to put up with the relentless hectoring of the Dress Doctors?

I’m not sure why people think that wearing beautiful clothing means wearing uncomfortable clothing. The early 20th century offered lovely lounging pajamas and brunch coats uncomfortable to wear in intimate settings that don’t look good at all. I think women wore them because they were beautiful in color and cut and they and their friends could appreciate them. When my students see many of these vintage patterns, they want them! Faced with so many choices and so many clamoring fashion outlets, young women may be relieved to know that there are a reliable set of rules that work. Simplicity was the hallmark of the Dress Doctor’s advice.

Who was a notable African-American Dress Doctor? You write interestingly in your book that questions of appearance were often even more important for African Americans than for Whites because the former were so often portrayed negatively.

Charleszine Wood Spears taught in the Kansas City public schools, but had never seen a home economics text book that featured the color of her skin, so she decided to write “How to Wear Colors”: With Emphasis on Dark Skins in 1937 which was reprinted into the 1970s. White prejudice assumed that black women were not respectable women, so church women in particular, felt pressure to appear as respectable as possible. Yet the advice they offered was not all that different from the white Dress Doctors.

You make the fascinating point that the Dress Doctors seemed to have owned far fewer items of clothing than women do now and also were willing to invest the time to maintain them (e.g., by mastering skills like darning). Have the advent of the Great Recession and environmental concerns about drought and the effects of detergents on the environment led to a renaissance in some of those old domestic skills?

The recession, combined with the popularity of Project Runway, gave a boost to sewing classes around the country. Design schools saw applications from young people who had never learned how to sew, but wanted to create. This seems to run in cycles. The 1970s were a time when many people tried to make things at home. Creation is a basic human impulse, which we sometimes forget and then something comes along and we all realize what extraordinary things we can make with our hands if we just learn the skills.

What was the Biennial Dress?

The Biennial Dress was a quixotic attempt by a home economist in 1916 to end the fashion cycle by creating a single, modifiable style, that would suit any woman and any occasion and be worn forever. It didn’t work as you may have noticed, since you are not wearing it, but it did begin a national conversation about standardized dress and the problem of fads and trends which were seen as bad for factory workers who had to speed up and slow down as each new fad took hold as well as shoppers who found their closet out of style in a month.

Biennial Dress
Biennial Dress – Woolman Clothing c. 1920 (Photo courtesy of Linda Przybyszewski).

You say that the Dress Doctors never varied in their devotion to thrift. Where did much of their writing on this topic appear? Was there a counter movement that was more inclined to extravagance and excess in dress?

Yes, the counter movement is called fashion magazines, catalogues, and now web-site “flash” sales. But tips on thrift appeared in textbooks for junior high and high school girls, and in women’s magazines to teach women how to say within their income.

There is a fascinating passage in your book about the perversion in our own day of the word “save.” Could you please explain what you mean by that?

Savings used to be money that you put away in a safe place. Savings rates among college women faculty in the 1920s were 27% of their income (this is before Social Security). But at some point, merchants realized that they could use the word “save” to urge you to spend more. Which is why we see advertisements proclaiming, “Buy Two Pairs of Shoes and Save 20%!,” when all they are really urging us to do is to spend money on two pairs of shoes. Spending less is not saving unless you put the difference in the bank.

One striking observation in your book is that it used to be quite common for women’s magazine to include within their pages sewing patterns, but that that is no longer the case. What magazines used to feature them and what exactly were they? And could you tell us about pattern magazines?

All magazines featured patterns from Vogue to Ladies’ Home Journal, and newspapers did too, including the New York Times,which carried news on them until 1964. Glamour magazine featured patterns into the 1980s, including some by Donna Karan. These were the latest styles, but you could make them without spending a fortune. Pattern magazines were put out by the pattern companies themselves. Vogue patterns were originally owned by Vogue magazine, but then McCall’s pattern company bought them in 1961.

I was surprised to learn in your book that the Dress Doctors were not mere mouthpieces for the fashion industry but often were quite sober-minded women not at all in favor of the frivolous. Indeed, you tell us that they often acted as a counterweight to fashion. Was that because many of them were single women in academia who had fairly small incomes themselves?

Some did live on small incomes, and a few were quite well-off, but they were all well-aware how much trouble people go into living beyond their incomes because they studied the problem through surveys and statistics. I think they hated waste and loved beauty and figured out the best way to avoid the first and to indulge the second is to make plans ahead of time.

You write quite movingly that one of the reasons that the Dress Doctors could be severe on the virtues of thrift was that they worried that naïve young women might fall prey to lascivious men ready to lure them into illicit relationships using the allure of money to spend on pretty clothes. Could you tell us about some of the more lurid cautionary tales the Dress Doctors told?

One story explained that a man of a young woman’s acquaintance would see her window-shopping and offer her all the pretty things she wanted if she could become “his sweetheart” – that is, in exchange for sex. This is a tale told in movies from the 1930s too, where often these arrangements ended badly and only in the final reel does the heroine realize that she has sacrificed love for nothing of real value.

Please tell us about the Bermuda Shorts Affair.

The Bermuda Shorts Affair of 1960 began when the president of Columbia University noticed how the women from neighboring Barnard College were dressed when they came over to his campus. Columbia was all-male then; Barnard all-female. Barnard’s president agreed to ban her students from wearing slacks and shorts on the Columbia campus. You need to realize two things about this: 1st, that pants and shorts were considered inappropriate for city wear; this was a time of formality when the young men would have been wearing sports jackets and ties; and 2nd, women’s slacks had become extremely tight during the late 1950s. The students reacted with outrage, organized mass meetings, and petition campaigns and won the right to wear pants if they wore a coat over them. But by the mid-1960s, fancy pant suits were coming out of the Paris fashion houses, so the inappropriateness of pants for city wear would disappear by the end of the decade.

You certainly don’t pull any punches in your book. Could you elaborate on this statement, for example, “By the 1970s, simplicity had slid into stupidity…?”

Although simplicity was the goal of the Dress Doctor, so much had been left out of clothing in the 1970s that dresses were reduced to shapeless sacks. The third dimension of clothing – which spells the difference between a dress for a paper doll and a dress for an actual woman – was often ignored. I suspect that, by following the motto of “do your own thing,” a number of people failed to realize that the designers of earlier years had figured out a numbers of clever ways of dealing with taking two-dimensional fabric and turning it into three-dimensional clothing.

When did the girdle fall out of fashion?

 

The mini-dress was one of the reasons that girdles, which held up stockings, fell out of fashion. The hardware that held up the stockings would have become visible under a miniskirt. And young women didn’t think they needed girdles because their figures were firm. Weirdly enough, the solution to miniskirts so short that men could see women’s underwear was pantyhose, which were considered modern at the time.

Do you think the hat will ever make a comeback or are hats only something we read about when royal weddings are in the news?

I don’t know if hats will come back, but I do know that women long to wear them. I recently took my fashion class to a hat workshop where they all made fascinators, the little cocktail hats. One student told me, with a slight smirk, that the workshop was the only reason everyone signed up for the class. (!!!) Another asked if we could “wear our hats.” I said, “They are hats, of course you can wear them.” And she said, “No! Can we all go out together wearing our hats?” So we did and had a wonderful dinner, and they all looked beautiful. You could see they needed a group of hat-wearers to have the courage to wear their own hats. I am also scheduled to give an address to the staff here at Notre Dame, and when I said I thought I would talk about hats and hat-making, they were thrilled to realize that they could all wear hats to the luncheon.

Is the subject of home economics taught much in high schools these days? What are schools of home economics called now at colleges and universities? Or have home economics classes been shunted off to other departments?

Home economics classes have been shrunk from serious full-year programs to unambitious courses that take up part of a semester. Which seems a shame because teaching budgeting has never been more important, and nutrition lessons may help with our obesity problems, and many young people would like to learn how to sew. Now, they go take private classes.

Whom do you see as the ideal reader of your book?

Both young people and older people are interested in the topic. Many young people find vintage fashions charming and want to know their history. Others are overwhelmed by their fashion choices and a little disappointed in the fashion magazines, which don’t seem to show clothing that they would actually wear to work, and they want to know how to dress to succeed. Then there are older people who remember how their parents and grandparents used to dress, so they are interested in how we got to the point where we are today. I can’t tell you how many women have heard about my topic and told me a story about their talented grandmother or aunt who could sew anything and who made them beautiful clothes when they were young.

What notable public figures do you think dress appropriately for their age and position? Do I really need to think about someone like the chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen’s dresses? Or Hillary Clinton?

Since I haven’t made a study of it, I don’t want to name names, but I am struck by the overly bright colors that some public women wear. You have a group of men in dark suits and one woman in bright blue, and I always wonder, “Why?” What’s accomplished by this? Do you want to draw attention to yourself? Through color? Is that the best way? If serious men can settle for bringing in color in shirts and ties, why can’t we do it with blouses?

Thank you for your time.