What We Can Learn From the Past About Dressing Beautifully and Affordably

We talked to historian and dressmaker Linda Przybyszewsi what we can learn from the past about the art of dressing well.
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We talked to historian and dressmaker Linda Przybyszewsi what we can learn from the past about the art of dressing well.

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Art Credit: via Linda Przybyszewski

In The Lost Art of Dress, historian and dressmaker Linda Przybyszewski follows a group of unlikely heroines: female home economics professors of the early 1900s who taught women how to dress beautifully and affordably. Dubbed the “Dress Doctors,” these women helped adjust American styles of dress to changing times, as women won the right to vote and entered the workforce.

Recently, Przybyszewski spoke with Verily about the dress revolutions of the twentieth century, the art of composing an outfit, and why hats should make a comeback.

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How did a legal scholar end up writing about fashion?

I got interested in writing about fashion by accident. I found this book called Clothes for You, a 1950s college textbook. I had never seen anything like it, and looking through it, there were lists of other books to read.

I started collecting these things for fun, and then I was teaching a class where my students were reading a novel from the 1840s that has a villain who kept talking about the ankles of the young woman he intended to seduce. They kept saying, “Is this a foot fetish?” So I brought in images of Victorian men and women in their clothes.

Once I explained it to my students, I looked around the room at what they were wearing (this was around 2006), which was the midriff-with-miniskirt look. I told them, “To these Victorians, you would have looked like you’d escaped from the insane asylum.” The miniskirt with the crop top couldn’t even be underwear; it was less than underwear!

That’s when I realized my students lived on the other side of two dress revolutions—the dress revolution of the 1920s that got skirts up off the floor and the dress revolution of the 1960s. In the sixties, a whole lot of rules—the rules the Dress Doctors had formulated over the course of the twentieth century—got thrown out as, basically, a plot by the establishment.

Who were the Dress Doctors?

What happened in the twentieth century was a shift to a much more democratically minded idea of dress. These women worked at land grant universities and colleges; these were supposed to be the people’s universities. They wanted to bring the beauty of dress to every American.

Their argument was that you can bring beauty to your life through clothing, and it doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot. It just means you to have to understand how the principles of art apply to your clothing. It’s a very democratic idea—anyone can afford beautiful clothes. Obviously, the wardrobes were small.

They thought the rules of dress were like the rules of manners. Any child needs to be taught them in order to get along in the world. But it’s also a pleasure. That’s something they believed in as much as they believed that dressing appropriately was a way to show respect to other people.

People today often equate being dressed up with being uncomfortable. But the Dress Doctors argued against uncomfortable clothes—no high heels or skirts too tight. Is it possible to be both comfortable and stylish?

I don’t own clothes that are uncomfortable. If those shoes hurt, those shoes go out in the trash tomorrow!

The default mode in dress today is the sheath dress. The sheath dress dates back as far as popularity to the mid-1950s, and in order to get into it, women wore what today would be Spanx. They wore serious girdles under those dresses. If you think the alternative to yoga pants and a T-shirt is a dress that squeezes you absolutely everywhere, then I don’t blame you for saying, “I don’t want to be fashionable. I’d rather be comfortable.”

It’s quite possible to be both, and the Dress Doctors insisted that beauty in dress couldn’t be achieved if someone wasn’t comfortable. The human body needs to move freely in order to move gracefully. Anything that distorts the body was by definition a failure of design.

But you do teach a course at the University of Notre Dame on dress called “A Nation of Slobs.” What have been student reactions?

Students are often charmed by images from vintage magazines. It’s not just the way that they’re posed; it’s that both the photographer and the person who put together the outfit were thinking in terms of the art of composition. Going way back in the Western tradition of art, there are rules about how you compose a picture, and it’s so clear that they are using these rules, and creating a sense of balance, harmony, proportion, and emphasis. I can explain why a particular fashion illustration or photograph catches the eye, and it’s because it follows these rules of art.

What fashion mistakes do you see women making today?

Can we get out of black? Everyone goes on about Coco Chanel and "the little black dress," but I’m reading about women in the 1930s saying, “We’re so sick of black.” At work, it makes sense; you’re trying to look serious. But at night, think of all the beautiful colors we can’t wear during the day—shimmering yellow, pink, grass greens, and blues. Why don’t we wear those instead? It’s not so much a fashion mistake as it is an opportunity lost. I would urge women, when they’re buying something to wear at night, to indulge in a beautiful color.

What style advice do you have for women?

You can apply the principles of art to any style. Make sure the emphasis is on your face because you want people to listen to what you’re saying. Not thinking, “Wow, those are the wackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.” Your feet should not be the most interesting part of you. The reason women got so interested in their feet is because we stopped wearing hats. A lot of young women would be happy if they could wear hats. I’m hoping they’ll make a comeback.