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Friday, May 30, 2014

A Look At The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

Spring suits for juniors anticipated their future status as grown women. (McCall’s Pattern Book, Spring 1958. McCall's ® M4304, McCall's ® M4402 images courtesy of the McCall Pattern Company.)Two green evening gown patterns from the 1930s. (McCall’s Fashion Book, Winter 1936-1937. McCall's ® M9009, McCall's ® M9006 images courtesy of the McCall Pattern Company.)The housecoat in 1952 was for an evening or brunch at home with intimates. Vogue Patterns catalog, September 1952. (Vogue ® V7712 image courtesy of the McCall Pattern Company.)Beach Pajamas were the first pants that women did not wear out of practical necessity. (Vogue Pattern Book, April-May 1931. Vogue ® V5572, Vogue ® V5545, images courtesy of the McCall Pattern Company.)

There once were women called the “Dress Doctors,” the product of a federal act in 1914 that funded vocational programming and a boom in home economics. They helped shape style and fashion in the U.S.

Nowadays, these women might be chemists or researchers, but they put their energies into helping women run their homes and dress with a sense of style.

Linda Przybyszewski misses them. She teaches a course called “A Nation of Slobs” at the University of Notre Dame and writes about the Dress Doctors in a new book “The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish.”

Przybyszewski joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the legacy of the Dress Doctors. Although many of their principles have been lost over the decades as women search for individuality through fashion, some of their basic principles can still be found today.

Interview Highlights: Linda Przybyszewski

On the women who were the “Dress Doctors”

“Some of them were based in institutions. Some of them were at the Bureau of Home Economics, which was created in 1923 at the USDA. Some of them worked at land grant universities, which had public outreach programs which had extension programs, so they helped organized 4-H clubs, which included clothing clubs, which were the most popular clubs for girls and women. Some of them were independent. They ran their own sewing academies, they taught dress design and sewing. But they all agreed on how the principles of art applied to dress, how one can dress for different occasions. That’s the one thing that really surprised me, to realize there was a systematic way of teaching young women how to dress, and it went on for decades.”

On how they taught women to dress

“They said if you look at how pictures are composed, you will find principles you can then apply to dress: harmony, proportion, emphasis, rhythm and balance. So emphasis, for example, they argued should always be brought up towards the face … They didn’t talk about shoes the way that fashion magazines go on and on about shoes. They didn’t notice them. But they’re really most interested in getting attention up to the face, either with color or with lighter fabrics or with design feature, because they wanted people to listen to what women were saying and to remember them, and they thought of the face as an expression of the personality.”

On how the women’s liberation movement changed fashion

“When the women’s movement came along, they were afraid that women were worrying too much about their appearance. In fact, when some California women’s liberation activists were invited to meet California garment industry designers, they said, ‘This is not even worth talking about, so we are not going to come meet with you.’ But I think it would have been worth talking about. Obviously, there were choices that were being made about whether women could wear pants in anything except a very sporty or a very dirty setting, and obviously, a lot of women opted to start wearing them in the late ’60s and the early ’70s. My concern is about if people say, ‘We shouldn’t have to worry about what we wear.’ Well, I think we worry about what we wear anyway, and if we had some of the information that the Dress Doctors were teaching, then we would know what we wanted to choose, what effect we wanted to have, and how to actually make it.”


  • Linda Przybyszewski, author of “The Lost Art of Dress” and associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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