The Lost Art of Dress

· A review of Linda Przybyszewski’s book about the “Dress Doctors” ·

the lost art of dress
Via Amazon

A few years ago, my grandma gave me a family archive of letters – including years of annual Christmas letters from when my mom was a little girl. I was amused – and unsurprised – to learn that my mom had won a spot in Washington State’s “Future Homemakers of America.” What a quaint and antiquated this idea was to me. My mom explained that it was a big deal and I remembered a club at my high school: “Future Business Leaders of America.” How times had changed.

While Linda ______’s The Lost Art of Dress doesn’t reference the Future Homemakers of America directly, she explains different organizations with similar ideals. It was in these types of groups that the subject of Linda’s book, the “Dress Doctors,” spread their ideas. Women over several generations tried to teach American women the key to dressing well – even on a budget. They preached that art principles about proportion, color and more could be applied to dress in order to create a pleasing image. The Lost Art of Dress is a fascinating journey through the history of homemade dress in America.

Linda’s book is a well researched look at the Dress Doctors’ lessons, impact, and relationship with the cultural history of the time. However, Linda’s own opinion on different styles over the years also creeped through and it became a little tiring to hear her nostalgia for dress gone-by throughout the book to the point where it felt judgmental. Sure, I think many of the styles from the early- and mid-twentieth century are beautiful. However, I also think some of the styles and trends today are also beautiful and worth merit. Linda’s thoughts, while filtered through the teachings of the Dress Doctors, were not so lenient. These personal opinions put me off from the book as a whole. I wanted to read about history, dressmaking, and style, not a history professor’s thoughts on today’s style.

simplicity patterns
The book has beautiful recreations of various mid-20th century patterns such as this one. Via The Hairpin

Despite this shortcoming, it is worth a read. It chronicles American cultural history through sewing patterns and dress styles. It talks about race, gender roles, the World Wars, the Great Depression, and other trends in American history. It alerts us to powerful women who worked at colleges and universities throughout the country during a time when women’s place was expected to be in the home. It explains a forgotten and valuable piece of American culture and history that many may not have thought about but that was an essential piece of many American women’s lives.

In the end, Linda compares designing and making a dress to engineering. As a student of fashion history and theory, I am all for any book that helps people understand the important way dress contributes to our lives and proves against fashion’s frivolity. Despite my issues with her own opinions, the book is a light read for a non-fiction history book and an interesting one at that. If you can get past the self-righteous opinions on current dress, you won’t be disappointed.

And if anything, you might get a few pointers on how to dress. They were the “Dress Doctors,” after all.


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