Recently, I finished reading The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski; I first learned about the book on Thread Cult (a favorite podcast about sewing and fashion.) Being a fan of both fashion and history, the topic itself was tempting enough. I found, though, that beyond simply providing a historical account of fashion, this book offers up a lot of food for thought on the way society has changed over time.
The book begins by introducing Mary Brooks Picken, one of the first “Dress Doctors,” or women who were designers, teachers, and writers, educating others on how to dress well, and even getting the government involved via the Bureau of Home Economics.
The Dress Doctors looked to the Five Principles of Art–harmony rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis–to advise women in their dress. (Part of the reason vintage fashions are still so appealing is because they adhere to these very effective principles.) The book discusses the “duties” and occasions of dress, offers lots of interesting facts and anecdotes, and finally looks at the decline of the Dress Doctors (hint: it had a lot to do with the 1960s.)
What I enjoyed most about this book, though, was that it provided a bit of a window into the mindset of women of the past–a time when being sophisticated (read: over 30) was actually something young girls looked forward to, a time when people didn’t have the compulsion to tell every stranger they met about every detail of their life, a time when certain colors or articles of dress had a significant meaning.
You may not care to follow all the Dress Doctors’ rules for dress, but you may be inspired to take a cue from their outlook on living. To them, fashion wasn’t just superficial, but ultimately held a connection to deeper things. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, art, fashion, or sociology.