Sunday, 29 September 2019

Focus on - The Lost Art of Dress

So near and yet so far. Everything is typed up and mostly edited, but I'm not happy with the conclusion to my dissertation. So it's currently back to the drawing board for a rewrite.

My dining table is back to looking like this

This week's studies-related book is written by a history professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. So far, so expected - but until recently Linda Przybyszewski specialised in legal history, which is hardly obvious source material for me. However she then took what she describes as a 'career swerve' and wrote this.

The Lost Art of Dress

The Lost Art of Dress tells the story of what Przybyszewski calls the Dress Doctors, the women who taught the principles of dress in schools, colleges and 4-H clothing clubs (if, like me, this term means nothing to you, 4-H is a U.S. youth organisation founded in around 1902, and the letters stand for 'head, heart, hands, and health'). More than just advice of the 'horizontal stripes make you look wider' variety, the principles of dress included thinking about which styles and fabrics were appropriate for different clothes and occasions, and the importance of planning a wardrobe so that the individual pieces would both work well together, and last. The many textbooks which the Dress Doctors wrote are all American titles and unfamiliar to me, but I think that a British equivalent would be this (thanks to Sewing At Damgate for telling me about it).

Written in 1958 - and still useful today

The working title of Przybyszewski's book was A Nation of Slobs, and she clearly feels that modern standards of dress leave a lot to be desired. The book is not just a 'things were better in the past' narrative though; it clearly explains the reasoning behind the various principles. No-one who knows how I dress will be remotely surprised to hear that I agree with much of what she writes. All the same, I firmly believe in the principle that people should wear what they want to wear (after all, I do), and I appreciate that a lot of people would regard at least some of the Dress Doctors' advice as overly restrictive and old-fashioned. However, as the environmental implications of throwaway fashion become ever clearer, the suggestions on planning a wardrobe rather than acquiring clothing more or less at random make a lot of sense.

I really enjoyed this book. Plus, even though it is aimed at a general audience, and is extremely readable, it has clearly been extensively researched. One thing which I loved was that the many, many pages of notes at the back are headed with the page numbers of the main text which they refer to. This may not sound like a big deal, but given the amount of time I have spent ploughing through pages of notes in search of an elusive reference in other books, I was thrilled!

How all notes sections should be headed

Przybyszewski clearly has a book collection which makes me green with envy, but when I was looking for something in my own collection of Vogue Pattern Books, I spotted some familiar illustrations in the August/September 1952 edition.

Front cover - Vogue pattern S4333

Back cover - Vogue pattern 7468

All of this makes me long to get back to some sewing of my own, but the best way to achieve that is to get the dissertation finished!


  1. Replies
    1. My mum passed her copy on to me, and it sat on my bookshelf for ages - I'm so glad my studies finally gave me the prompt to read it!

  2. Thanks for the mention! Always a pleasure to read your posts and Clothes by Margaret Butler is definitely a classic that never dates. Mind you, so many old dressmaking textbooks from the first 60 years of the 20th Century are excellent. Comforting to know that not much changes!

    1. You're welcome Kate! There have been a few occasions where people have asked me for suggestions for dressmaking books, and I tend suggest starting with a trawl through charity shops to look for something like this.