The Lost Art of Dress

Posted by Jill Chivers in Helpful Books and Resources

The Lost Art of Dress


This book delighted me. It intrigued me. It kept me up reading long after I should have been lights out. I couldn’t put it down. It was as absorbing as the best mystery thrillers.

Dr Linda Przybyszewski not only has one of the most intricate surnames to spell, requiring much concentration to make sure every z is in the right spot, but is one heck of a writer.

She’s obviously a very intelligent woman (I guess they don’t let just anybody be a professor at Notre Dame University). She’s articulate and has a wonderful way with words. They come alive in her hands.

And she’s funny. I laughed so much one night that I shook the bed and woke my husband.

So you’re intrigued now, aren’t you? You should be. This book hit every button on my console, I just loved it.

The Lost Art of Dress is best summed up by its sub-title: the women who once made America stylish.

The Protagonists

Its main characters are the Dress Doctors, and what a compelling set of leading women they are! These Dress Doctors were the home economics teachers, professors and educators who taught American women the principles, rules and guidelines (3 different things) on how to dress, and dress well.  They did this in schools, in universities and in community programs, reaching millions of women from their teens to their 80s.

The Dress Doctors did this decade-in, decade-out from the late 1800’s (the first reference of them is about 1880), through to the 1970s.  They were educated, skilled, passionate, and generous.

Unfortunately, the Dress Doctors are no longer with us – not in the form Dr Przybyszewski describes in her marvellous book.

And the reason the reign of the Dress Doctors came to such a screeching halt in the 1970s is because their programs were cut. Their funding was slashed or cut altogether, making their ongoing existence nigh on impossible.

The Moment of Crisis

The Dress Doctors struggled to harness the enormous power of two phenomenon’s that started in the 1960s and gained momentum through the 1970s – the women’s movement and the civil rights movement.  And their inability to make the most of these gargantuan social phenomenon’s ended up being the beginning of the end for the Dress Doctors.

The women’s movement had the greatest impact on the work and seeming relevance of the Dress Doctors.  They just couldn’t seem to work out how to work with and use this tsunami of change in the world of women to their advantage.  In 1972, the Dress Doctors invited a leading figure in the women’s movement to address their annual conference, and this woman opened her keynote speech with these telling words “I’m among and addressing the enemy”.  Ouch!

It seemed like the Dress Doctors came very late — way too late — to the understanding that they needed to change their approach, perhaps radically, to harness the power and work with the women’s movement – not be perceived, and actioned against, as part of the problem and therefore as part of “the enemy”.

The demise of the Dress Doctors is heavily lamented in this fabulous and thorough work. Dr Przybyszewki regales us with the importance and impact of the Dress Doctors.

And I confess I had no idea of much of the work they did or how many lives they touched.

The Achievements

One startling statistic that made my eyes pop: The Woman’s Institute for Domestic Arts and Sciences created an ‘extension’ course (which would probably be available as an e-course in our Web 2.0 world) for women who wanted to learn how to sew. This course was to change the lives, and fashion sense, of millions of women all over America.

There were 38 lessons in the entire course covering everything from “Underwear and Lingerie” to “Principles of Tailoring” – over 1800 pages in all.  That is one huge course!  As a content creator myself, I can only marvel at the amount of work that must have gone into this incredible course.  Oh and they changed the illustrations every year to reflect any changes in fashions that they important enough to make changes for (the Dress Doctors weren’t too enamoured with fashion trends, it must be said).

Quoting directly from page 140: “Every month, 50,000 American women sent away for a copy of the institute’s catalogue… in five years, they sold $12 million worth of courses (more than $30 million today) and… enrolled 3,000 – 5,000 students every month. The oldest was seventy-three, the youngest twelve, the average age being twenty-six”.

This is gob-smackingly impressive, don’t you think? I do – I think it’s amazing.

If I heard of any course offered to regular women (not a specific or targeted demographic – just “women in general”) that sold that many courses to that many women, I’d be amazed and impressed out of the park.   It’s simply incredible and one heck of an achievement.

Captured my imagination… and my heart

This book made me wish I was either a student or a friend of Dr Przybyszewski. She struck me as an incredibly nice lady, as well as being an immensely capable writer, researcher and expert in this intriguing field.  You can not only see but feel how much work, time and energy has gone into this phenomenal book.

After reading this book, I wanted to sit down and have a cup of fragrant tea, or possibly a glass of a lovely Cabernet Sauvignon, with her. Perhaps one day that will be possible.

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    2 Responses to “The Lost Art of Dress”

    1. Rebecca says:

      I also loved this book. As soon as I heard about it coming out, I pre-ordered it on Amazon. It was so interesting to me as I also collect vintage clothing and etiquette books. I totally agree with her regarding the often inappropriate and sloppy/overly casual way people dress today. Thanks for highlighting this great book, Jill!

      • Jill Chivers says:

        hi Rebecca – yes, what a fabulous book wasn’t it? I stumbled across it and am oh so glad that I did! I can imagine how fascinating you found it, as a collector of vintage clothing and etiquette books. The Dress Doctors were truly from another era but I, too, like the author, lament their passing – if they had managed to make themselves relevant in the new feminist world they found themselves in, we would be enjoying their advice today.

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