The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish
Basic Books, 2014
400 pp., $28.99
The Lost Art of Dress
When my sister and I were young, our favorite part of every day was when we would crawl into our parent's bed, one of us on either side of Dad, and settle in for the nightly reading. The Hobbit was an early read, as were the Narnia books, and after them came a slim volume called Cheaper by the Dozen. Now immortalized in a terrible film, back then we knew the story of Frank Gilbreth and his family only through the book. Gilbreth, an efficiency expert, ran a family of twelve children with the same studied attention he gave to his industrial clients. He "buttoned his vest from the bottom up because it took four seconds less than buttoning it from the top down," his children recalled. Gilbreth was obsessed over ways to eliminate what he called "wasted motion," like those four lost seconds.
We can thank the same commitment to efficiency for the state of contemporary dress. It was the rise of home economists around the turn of the 20th century, whose domestic domain required attention to time and detail, that was responsible for the standardizing of fashion. Sewing machines enabled the act of making clothing, and clothing patterns became ubiquitous in the following decades. These home economists and their fashionable peers—professors, authors, and crafting experts among them—are the heroes of The Lost Art of Dress, by Linda Przybyszewski, a history professor at Notre Dame. Przybyszewski walks us through the contributions of these women—the Dress Doctors, she calls them—to the closets and culture of Americans and laments what she sees as the uniquely modern problem of having traded quality for quantity.
Ironically, the domestic sciences were among the first acceptable places for women who wanted to work outside the home. The field may have combined art, biology, military history, urban planning, and chemistry—among other disciplines—but it looked local enough to be a safe landing pad for career-minded women. The professors of the group included ambitious women who were also the best-known of the Dress Doctors: Sisters Harriet and Vetta Goldstein at the University of Minnesota, Laurene Hempstead at NYU, and the most famous of all, Mary Brooks Picken, who not only taught the economics of fashion at Columbia but was also a founding director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They understood that women in America were at the beginning of a unique era, one that would demand their roles (and wardrobes) change to suit the workplace and the gymnasium as well as the home.
Like so many efforts of fin de siècle American industry, the realm of home economics was deeply segregated. Przybyszewski refers to an extension director (extension programs were part of the USDA's outreach to homemakers) who explained "there were 'some things' that white women agents could not do, such as walk into a black woman's home and talk to her as though they were social equals." None of the Dress Doctors were black, although there were communities of black women at the time who adopted their ideas. Even as the field of the domestic sciences provided increasing autonomy for white women, women of color remained largely unaffected by these improvements. Przybyszewski's attention to this fact is welcome and important; it would have been easy for her to write a book that paid no attention to this inequality, but it would have been a lesser book for it. We are reminded that there is no one monolithic bloc of "women," but many different categories of them, and that what is good for one constituency isn't de facto good for amother. In an interview with The Hairpin, Przybyszewski said that "it wasn't until the civil rights movement came along that [the Dress Doctors] realized that they had simply defined African American women as outside of those standards."
One of the book's best—and most illustrative—anecdotes comes when Przybyszewski talks about the Clubwomen. Members of the General Federation of Women's Clubs assembled in 1916 in New York City to lobby "against child labor, impure drugs, and sweatshops [and for] women's suffrage, kindergartens, and 'setting sensible and artistic standards in dress.' " The aesthetics of the era inclined toward elegant simplicity—think of Hemingway's sentences, Lloyd Wright's clean lines, Eames's chairs. The (almost definitely misattributed) Coco Chanel quote about removing one accessory before one leaves the house has its origins in the same cultural moment. Simplicity was not only a guiding aesthetic principle; it was a virtue. This showed up at church as well, at a time when the recurring appeal of an unpretentious faith was strong. "Sunday best" wasn't an idea many of the Dress Doctors would have tolerated. Mildred Graves Ryan skewered the idea of wearing fancy clothes to church when she wrote "People like to get all dressed up and go to church in new clothes, because you think that a large number of people will have the opportunity of admiring you there." Ouch. (What the Dress Doctors would have thought about today's casual wear in church is another matter entirely.)