Review: “The Lost Art of Dress” by Linda Przybyszewski

Thumbs up for The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski. Fashion history/Women’s history.

I read this in one sitting. The jacket blurb emphasizes the group of women called the Dress Doctors, who gave wardrobe advice to American women in the early- to mid-20th century; but it ranges much broader than a few personalities. I was particularly interested in the sections about the rise (and fall) of home economics taught as a science, but there’s a lot of material covered here, and if you are interested in 20th century women’s history I would recommend it. Note, however, the author has her own opinions about what good taste entails, and that may bother you if you are looking for a strictly academic work. Like all highly opinionated books, it is impossible to agree with all of it: you can pry my color-blocked outfits from my cold dead hands, and the need to adjust a snug pencil skirt is (situationally) a feature, not a bug. But I prefer forceful sincerity to aesthetic wishy-washiness, even when I disagree.

Although Mary Brooks Picken admired the one-dress woman, she was a little more generous when she described an ideal wardrobe. She thought that a businesswoman should have four or five dresses for office wear. Those, along with one afternoon dress, one evening dress, one blouse and one skirt, were all that a woman needed for her public wardrobe. So, at most, she needed eight ensembles total to wear both at work and out in the evening. Wardrobes this small were considered normal in the past. When the editors of the McCall’s Pattern Book drew up what they called a perfect wardrobe in the winter of 1936-1937, they listed one coat, one suit with a box-jacket, two day dresses, an afternoon dress, an evening dress, and a ski suit. That was it.


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