I was really looking forward to beginning part one of our “What Are You Wearing?” Fashion Book Study with The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski. When considering which book to read and review first, I felt we needed to get to a very basic level of what fashion means – what is style? Why do we wear these things? What does fashion as art even mean?
Surprisingly, fashion as art does not really translate into Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty. While those pieces are unbelievably beautiful and artistic, they are missing a key element of artistic dressing: practicality. Similarly, the most practical clothes are often missing the element of beauty. Personally, I had lost an understanding of what dressing well means as a modern American woman and wanted to learn how to get it back.
The Lost Art of Dress is a historical study and analysis of the Dress Doctors – professors, educators, biologists, psychologists, seamstresses, and other home economists who were highly educated, well dressed, influential resources for 20th century American women. The Dress Doctors provided classes, lessons, books, college courses and degrees, sewing patterns, articles, and ideas for making American women stylish. Through reading the book, I learned the history and evolution of the American style of dress, from why we raised hemlines to our ankles (so the skirt wouldn’t drag in horse poo) to why women did not wear pants (they were very sexy at the time).
I learned three important lessons from this book…
Number 1: Dressing well is a form of art, just like drawing well. You might draw realistic portraits or charming cartoons, but it is still quality art created using art principles. Dressing well requires the same principles of art: harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm and emphasis. These principles can not hinder your own personal style – they are not solely for the preppy, the classic, or the conservative. Anyone can apply these principles to their personal style of dress and achieve a beautiful ensemble.
Number 2: Clothing needs to bring attention to the woman, not the outfit. Many times you will hear people say that “the dress is wearing you,” but it happens more often than you think. Clothing should bring attention to your face, so people look at you when you speak and see the woman and her ideas, not the clothes. A good example of this involved a simple dress with bold, exciting shoes. Everyone will look at the feet and never consider looking at the face. Instead, a floral print blouse with a simple skirt and shoes will bring attention up towards your gorgeous smile.
Number 3: Beautiful, practical, and affordable are the key ideas to dressing well. Clothing should make you look more beautiful and enhance the natural qualities you possess. Wear flattering colors, necklines, and styles to bring attention in the right way. Clothing should be practical for your everyday life. I have a very casual lifestyle, so it would be impractical to invest in beautiful suits or evening gowns instead of day dresses and ballet flats. Clothing should be affordable to your lifestyle, too. Buy the best quality you can afford. For some people, that will be a 100% cotton blouse that is flattering to your body and your wallet. For others, it will be a 100% silk blouse that will last a lifetime. While you should invest, do not invest more than you can spend.
I really loved these quotes from the book…
“Historians … fret about the rise of consumption in American life and its effects on us today. They worry that Americans stopped thinking about the higher things in life, including spiritual life and civic duty, because they became obsessed with shopping. Women, in particular, wasted their time in chasing after fashion. And we struggle with the shallow materialism that resulted.” (Przybyszewski, 2014)
“Mainbocher, who first made his name as a designer in the 1930s, explained the problem … : “As amusing as slang fashion is, it is not a complete language. I think women should dress as they talk: a basis of grammar, lightened here and there with a sprinkling of argot.”” (Przybyszewski, 2014)
I really enjoyed this book, but I already agreed with many of the author’s sentiments. Today, women dress terrible. We do. It is a fact. Go to the grocery store and tell me what the first three women you see are wearing. We have lost our ability to dress and be stylish. 20th century American women, with the invaluable assistance from the Dress Doctors, wore beautiful, practical, and affordable clothing that we still lust after today. When there is so much beauty in fashion, why would you want to wear sweatpants and a t-shirt?
What did you think?
- Did you learn anything new about fashion and dressing well?
- Did you agree with the author’s sentiments about our modern culture of dressing?
- Do you think Americans have become too casual, or just evolved naturally with the times?
Our next book in the “What Are You Wearing?” Fashion Book Study is Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline. This should be an incredible lesson on where our clothing comes from and what exactly we are buying (raise your hand if you know how Rayon is made! Anyone?).