The Lost Art of Dress: A Conversation with Historian Linda Przybyszewski

by Grace Bello

In The Lost Art of Dress, historian and dressmaker Linda Przybyszewski explores how American women’s fashion went from floor-length dresses to bloomers to shirtwaist dresses to, yes, flour sack dresses. Before ready-to-wear and before fast fashion, American women created affordable clothing for themselves and their families with help from the Dress Doctors — the thrift experts, home economics professors, and fashion guide authors who advised women how to craft the most appropriate looks for less. Style changed with every step forward for women: gaining the vote, entering the world of work, heading academic departments. Recently, Przybyszewski and I talked about the evolution of American style, the fraught subject of home economics, the lack of fashion and beauty advice for black women, and how to dress like a streetwalker in the 19th century.

You wrote that “the Dress Doctors were eager to prepare women for new roles in American life.” So can you describe the cultural and economic climate these Dress Doctors were in? Why did American women want to and need to change the way they dressed?

There were several things going on at different levels and different arenas of life. One was, by the late 19th century, more and more women were getting educated at college — middle-class women. They needed something to wear because dresses then could be very fancy and frilly. Essentially, women started wearing suits instead of dresses.

World War I, which didn’t affect the United States as much as it affected, say, Britain, did require women to go into jobs that men had formerly held. And women who were volunteering for the ambulance corps, etcetera needed really practical clothing to do their jobs. They needed shorter skirts, things like that. Lots of working class women and some middle-class women were moving into wage work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They needed clothing that they could keep clean if they were working in factories, for example. So there was a big increase in the popularity of what they called the shirtwaist and what we call the blouse.

In the late 19th century, there was also a move to get young women to exercise. In the 19th century, dresses went all the way down to the ground. So if they were going to exercise, they needed new things to wear. So they came up with divided skirts with bloomers underneath for bicycle riding or golf and slightly shorter skirts for tennis.

Also, women had the vote in various Western states in the late 19th century but didn’t gain the vote nationwide until 1920 with the 19th amendment. A lot of the Dress Doctors saw this as a new phase, full citizenship for women. Obviously, women had participated in civic life. But to actually have the vote guaranteed by the Constitution was a big step forward. And the ways in which women would need to act in public life, they needed to look serious if they were going to take on important, civic issues.

Can you tell us about the home ec movement? It was about thrift, but it was also a way for women to make money at a time when not a lot of jobs were open to them.

Home economics started in the 19th century as a movement to bring a more systematic way of running the home to all American women. It’s interesting because the women who taught home ec and wrote the books, they were professionals. They were carving out a space for themselves in a world that pretty much divided the public world and the private world.

Via Maryland State Archives.

Men functioned in the public world mostly, and women functioned mostly in the private world. Well, the home falls into the private world, but teaching home ec means you need to look into textiles, chemistry, nutrition, and food science. So home ec became the way in which women created a safe space for themselves at universities. Which is why, startlingly, by 1960, out of the about 475 women at universities teaching science, 300 of them were in home economics departments. So it did give them an entryway in the sciences, it gave them an entryway into the university in a space that was supposed to be only for women. Women were the deans of home economics colleges. So that meant women got into higher administration in the universities as well.

We can criticize them in the long-run by saying that safe space ended up becoming a ghetto. But at the time they started it, it was a very effective way to allow women into higher education without having to argue with men about how much space they could have.

That’s fascinating.

I think most of us think of home economics as sort of backwards. [laughs] But this whole world of work opened up for women through home economics.

Can you talk about some of your favorite bizarre fashion trends? You mentioned the flour sack dress.

I love the flour sack dress! It’s the epitome of thrift. The idea that farm women will go into a feed store and buy feed for their chickens but make sure that the big bags it came in were in an attractive, floral print — I find that the most thrifty story in American clothing history. A lot of these things were actually really pretty. You can go onto eBay and other sites and find people selling bits of these cotton prints. They’re actually very attractive.


I tell you this because I’m a dressmaker myself. I went to graduate school and was self-supporting, which really means I was poor. [laughs] I went to Stanford. Palo Alto, Menlo Park are very nice suburbs that I couldn’t really afford to live in. But that also means their Junior League [thrift store] has great stuff. So I would take stuff that was too big — beautiful, wool crepe that I could never afford to go buy the yardage for — but I could take it apart and cut it down and make something completely different.

So flour sack dresses are an old tradition. Recycling, upcycling — it’s been going on for a long time.

In the book, you say of the Dress Doctors’ advice, “How valuable would this advice be today when American women are mired in credit-card debt, urged to shopping frenzy.” What do you think the Dress Doctors would say about our fast fashion habits?

Fast fashion is so interesting because I think the Dress Doctors would think that we’re all shopping like teenagers now. They expected women to have different values or energy levels at different points in their lives. So they realize, here are young people full of energy and enthusiasm liable to chase one fad after the other — and that’s fine. As long as they don’t get into debt. Getting into debt for clothing was horrifying to the Dress Doctors.

Source: Nina Leen — Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Teenage fashions, 1944

So I think they would think two things: One, they would dislike debt itself, especially for clothing because clothing wears out. You’re in debt for something that is slowly losing value as you use it. And secondly, they would not expect us to be overly excited about new and novel looks when we’re older. Not that women shouldn’t be interested in fashion. But you need to choose what really suits your life and what suits your body.

Novelty was not the goal. Beauty was the goal.

The Dress Doctors often overlooked black women. Can you explain a little bit about that conflict?

Almost all of the Dress Doctors were white. When they laid out the range of complexions — they get no darker than a light-skinned Hispanic coloring. The reason they even got that dark was because, in the 1930s when many of the Dress Doctors started writing their most elaborate textbooks, there were Hispanic movie stars like the woman who played Dolores del Rio in Flying Down to Rio.

There are just a few textbooks that talk about women of color. What actually happened was, there were at least a couple of black women who got degrees in Home Economics who wrote their own books in order to offer young African American women the same sort of knowledge about color and complexion that white girls just took for granted. And at least one of those books, which was first published in the 1930s, got reprinted over and over. I think it probably got pretty good play in the black community.

Howard University Queen contestants, 1947, via.But otherwise, for the Dress Doctors who were working with the really big publishers, it wasn’t until the civil rights movement came along that they realized that they had simply defined African American women as outside of those standards. And some of the very last of the Dress Doctors started modifying their textbooks to try to make up for what had been decades of complete neglect.

I love this part of the book: “Since the whore was the most public working woman of the nineteenth century, respectable middle-class women had long avoided the styles she wore to advertise her wares.” Can you tell us more about this? What was the difference, style-wise, between a so-called respectable woman and one who was considered vulgar?

I don’t think anyone’s managed to, how do I put this, curate a prostitute’s wardrobe from the 19th century. All we have is commentary from middle-class writers.

It’s clear that middle-class women didn’t want to wear anything flashy. Bright colors worn in public was definitely considered vulgar. Good women should not be wearing them. Everything that they would associate with the whore or the woman of the town or street worker were things that said, “Yoohoo! Notice me!” So, bright or bare or flashy or loud, these are the kinds of words that they would refer to.

Realize, too, that men were wearing dark suits. In the 18th century, it was basically court wear: bright colors, embroidered things. That’s what you would have seen in Britain. And the colonists who had money wore those kinds of things, too. And then with the American Revolution, you get a sort of emphasis on plain dressing men, brown suits because they’re not aristocrats. That anti-aristocratic urge gets confirmed in the early 19th century with these dark suits.

The contrast between men on the streets in dark suits and women of the streets in bright clothing would have been particularly noticeable. So if the middle-class woman was in the street, she wanted to wear dark, unobtrusive clothing because she was not trying to get men’s attention.

That leads me to another question. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this term normcore?

Oh my God! I saw that in The New York Times!

What’s interesting is you just said there was this movement to not look aristocratic, and I wonder if you think that that’s maybe a driving force behind normcore? We’re trying not to look elite?

I don’t even know. I just read the one article, so I couldn’t tell you.

I remember reading about how in Silicon Valley, you’re not supposed to dress up. So some men, one thing they can do is wear fun socks. Even if you’re a multimillionaire in Silicon Valley, and you can appreciate a beautifully tailored suit from Milan, you’re not allowed to. Which I think is fascinating. It tells you, though people say you can wear whatever you want, you actually can’t. If you wear a hat today, people really do notice it. If you’re in Silicon Valley, and you wear a beautiful suit, apparently they won’t take you seriously anymore.

What are some of fashion trends that you wish would come back?

It’s weird because this is during The Great Depression, but the day dresses of the mid-1930s were wonderful. They moved away from that 1920s waist-at-your-hip look. That didn’t look good on most women. Then in the ’30s, the waist was at the natural waist. This is really when they put a lot of attention on bringing interest up to the neckline so that the bodices of a lot of the dresses have such creative, inventive collars. Even the sleeves and the cuts were so interesting. As a dressmaker, I’m amazed. I’ve never seen anything like that. They’re very attractive. They don’t look outlandish. They look like they have a lot of thought put into them. Those dresses, I think we could learn a lot from.

Previously: How Your Sweet Valley High Gets Made

Grace Bello is a freelance writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_land.