Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Lost Art of Dress: A Book Review

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish tells the story of the rise and fall of the women the author calls the "Dress Doctors" who were based mainly in Home Economics departments across America, giving girls and women advice on the art of dressing well and appropriately on a budget--not merely for vanity's sake but in order to equip them to go out into the world confidently, freeing them to think about higher things than just worrying about what they were wearing.  It was such an interesting book that I finished it the weekend it arrived!

The book really tells the history of the rise and fall of the Home Economics movement in general and not just the Dress Doctors themselves which--as someone who could really have used robust courses in home economics as a young girl instead of being flung without any preparation into my current role as homemaker--I found really fascinating.  (On a side note, if you happen to have a mother-in-law who used to teach Home Ec and would love a book written by a ND professor you might want to buy this for her *hint* *hint* Aunt Elizabeth).

I loved the entire book but my favorite chapter was the last, Aftermath:  Tyrannies of Age and Size. It's particularly relevant for those of us attempting to transition from the style our youthful twenties to a hopefully more mature look for our thirties with little guidance from the fashion world other than to make sure that no matter what we wear we must above all still look hot--and also like we were still twenty.  Przybszewki states that at one time, "clothing styles clearly distinguished between a young woman and a woman past her twenties.  Sophisticated styles of dress were reserved for the older woman [and] the Dress Doctors liked to point out that the Paris fashion houses aimed at dressing the woman over thirty, for only with maturity could a woman wear clothes "with an air of smartness and chic". 

Looking around today it's clear that, for the most part, we've lost the sophistication of dress that used to be the mark of womanhood.  Now, for the most part, we tend to cling to the fashion trends of the young in a desperate attempt to (heaven forbid) not look old.  It's all very confusing.  Everyone from toddlers to middle-aged women are attempting to wear the same styles as your typical college student and the woman who wants to look more sophisticated and less sorority doesn't know where to begin--Talbots?  Coldwater Creek?  I'm really asking, I have no idea :)  

"In eras past, girls put their hair up as soon as they could, because they knew that pigtails and braids marked them as kids.  They were eager to be seen as women.  But girls, said the Dress Doctors, should wear styles that mirror their blooming youth, their boundless energy, and the simplicity of their minds and characters."  In other words simple, unfussy clothing that most certainly were not geared solely towards making young ladies look 'hot'.  "Only after a girl had gotten through that tricky stage of life called adolescence, and through the young womanhood of her twenties, was she allowed to wear sophisticated styles according to the Dress Doctors.  By the age of thirty, most women were married, held jobs, or both. and they were presumed able to handle the eroticism embodied in the draped designs that made for the most sophisticated styles."  The Dress Doctors advice was to "celebrate girlhood and womanhood, and the difference between them."  Clearly this is a lesson that's been lost over the past fifty years or so, but I'm on board for a revival of the celebration of maturity instead of a deathly fear of looking old!  
"Today's culture seems to have little appreciation for what years of living can do for you.  We all know that growing older usually makes you less of an idiot.  But there's little sense today that age might endow you with sophistication, dignity, grace, stateliness, and wisdom.  Or that we might aspire to dress in a way that expresses all these qualities."  
This book was very interesting and I would recommend it especially for anyone wondering how we got to our current state of fashion (grown women walking around in rompers, really?) and how we can maybe get some of our lost sophistication back.  Unfortunately the book did not have any pearls of wisdom on dressing with dignity, grace, stateliness and wisdom while pregnant and swollen but I suppose no book is perfect :)

Also, I fully appreciate the irony of the fact that that I'm currently typing this while wearing entirely too short cutoff maternity jean shorts and a t-shirt.  Super classy.

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