09 December, 2015

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

Did you know that regardless of what your personal style is, there is a universal science that, if followed correctly, will make your clothing very flattering and stylish, yet sensible at the same time?

Today, I would like to review Linda Przybyszewski's The Lost Art of Dress, a book about a forgotten group of women -- known as the Dress Doctors.

Who were the "dress doctors"? 
They were American female scientists from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, who could not find work in their fields of studies, due to sexism, so they founded the Home Economics department, where young girls and women learned the sciences of not only how to cook nutritious meals and keeping their homes happy and healthy, but also the science of dress.

From the early 1900s to the late 1960s, the words of these Dress Doctors were respected and followed. As the '70s wore on, and these Dress Doctors passed away, their teachings were forgotten completely by the 1980s.

Throughout this entry, I will also share a few beautiful illustrations from this book.

In one 1963 home economics book for junior-high school girls (ages 11-13), the author explained that a woman could gain "a basic sense of security and self-respect" by dressing well, because she would no longer be burdened by "the tension caused by concern about her appearance." Doing so allows her to direct her attention to more important matters, including herself and the welfare others.

Two Dress Doctors, sisters named Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, taught that good design was "genuineness, as against imitation," which means that not even one single detail should be fake. For instance, a button on a shirt should do its job as a button, which means that it is actually buttoning something shut, for example, instead of tricking others into thinking that it did.

Another Dress Doctor by the name of Mary Brooks Picken advised women in 1918 to be as mindful about how they dressed as they would be about what they read. Jane Loewen, a milliner who taught at the University of Chicago, echoed the same sentiment in 1925: "It is just as stupid to dress your body in ugly clothes, as it is to fill your mind with cheap and ugly literature."

According to the Dress Doctors, every woman -- once armed with knowledge, can be an artist. The Goldstein sisters wrote that we can select the best of whatever the latest fad or fashion that is thrown at us, once we've been taught the science of dress.

Before I go any other, please do not misunderstand The Lost Art of Dress. The book is not encouraging its readers to dress retro or vintage; it simply teaches us that the art and science behind dressing is timeless.

In fact, Harriet and Vetta Goldsteins also illustrated in their books with fashions from the past, to emphasize that when an article of clothing was well-designed and followed the principles and science of design, neither time nor place can change the fact that it was beautiful. For instance, "a floor-length medieval robe with sweeping sleeves may no longer be the fashion, but it remains beautiful if it follows the art principles."

So, what were the the art principles? The Dress Doctors taught that the Five Art Principles are as follow -- harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis, which were then applied to dress.

Harmony: this is the first art principle. According to the Goldstein sisters, harmony "was like a strong family resemblance." This means that all of the different parts of an outfit need to look cohesive; that they are related to one another. In other words, some consistency is required.  

Harmony is something that is not superfluous, or unnecessary, in a design. However, nothing could also be taken away from the same design without destroying the effect. If an outfit satisfies both the eye and the mind, it is in good harmony. You'll know harmony when you see it, and notice when it's missing.

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from The Lost Art of Dress, regarding harmony:
  • A family resemblance does not mean uniformity, however. If every element repeats the same color or shape, the design will be monotonous, even a little strange. This is why women in the 1980s who thought they would look taller and thinner if they wore the same exact shade, be it pumpkin or plum, from head to foot, ended up looking like flight attendants on a spaceship.
  • In order to achieve harmony, the larger elements making up any design need to be alike, said the Dress Doctors, but the smaller elements should vary. [Chic And Alluring's note: this means that the main parts of an outfit should be alike, but the accents, trimmings, etc., should vary.]
  • Harmony has four elements -- shape, texture, ideas, and color. Each of these elements needs both family resemblance and a little variety.
  • The shape of a garment expresses harmony by following the lines of a living, moving human body. The lines of the body are naturally beautiful and its movement naturally graceful, so any clothing that impedes that movement is, by definition, ugly. [...] Like men, women should be able to move freely in their clothes, said the Dress Doctors.
  • If you cannot walk more than a block in your shoes, they are not shoes; they are pretty sculptures that you happen to have attached to your feet. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps asked in 1877, "Could your father or your husband live in your clothes?" Well, could he live in your shoes? [...] No woman should allow her clothes to disable her.

Would you like to learn the four remaining art principles -- rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis? If so, I'd highly recommend getting your own copy of The Lost Art of Dress today!

Today, American women are known for their sloppy dressing, but it was not always so. An Englishwoman who came to the States after World War II marveled at "the inherent good taste" of the American woman. But Americans weren't born with good taste. They learned it from the Dress Doctors. And we can learn it again. (pg. XV)

**Note: this book was purchased by me, and all opinions are my own.

If you have a blog, feel free to leave it with your comment; I would love to visit! :o)


  1. this sounds like such a great read, I love all of the beautiful illustrations too. Completely agree about the being able to walk in shoes excerpt, I never buy shoes I cant walk in any more even if I love the look of them on the shelves x

    1. Hehe, I agree! No matter how pretty I feel, if my shoes distract me, then I wouldn't feel comfortable enough to enjoy whatever it is that I'm doing. Definitely check the book out! <3

  2. i learned something new today... great book! xx http://lovejoystyles.com

    1. It really is a good book; I hope that you'll check it out. Thanks for stopping by!


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