I had the privilege of sitting down to lunch with my grandparents the other day. My grandmother told me about her early experiences in Home Economics. The ladies had to sew a headband and apron. You wanted to be a careful seamstress because you would wear those items you made for the whole second semester as you studied cooking. Grandma shared that she wasn’t always the expert seamstress we all know today. She didn’t come from a sewing family, but her first yellow and white striped blouse was so ill made that her grandmother took a seam-ripper to it and told her to start again. Now, my girls wear beautifully constructed classic dresses that Grandma made for my sisters and I thirty years ago. Her diligence certainly paid off!

Beauty. Thrift. Independence.

These were the goals of the “Dress Doctors” who led the Home Economics revolution of the early 20th century. Their classes churned out women who knew how to sew to care for their own wardrobe and the dress and linen needs of their families. They gave these women practical skills which enabled them to make do during the Great Depression and the World Wars. And now we look back at these time periods of difficulty and fabric shortages as a high point in American fashion.

I just finished reading a charming, humorous, and informative survey of the Dress Doctors and the philosophy and implementation of their ideals that changed American women for nearly a century. I found The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made American Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski at my library and was riveted.

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Przybyszewski handles her subject with the precise eye of a scholar, the passion and technical expertise of a skilled dressmaker, the admiration of a sympathetic professional woman (she teaches at Notre Dame), and the perspective of a modern woman who still holds some hope for the next generation of women. [It’s entirely possible that I got a little bit giddy over her extensive end notes and the wealth of scholarship that she compiled to write this entertaining book.]

Most of the books I have read that encourage modesty and a more traditional glance at dress for women are long on diatribes against modern fads and short on real advice or context for how a woman might dress in a way that is thrifty, practical, and flattering. This book does the reverse. Certain absurd dressing trends are dispatched with humor. For instance, regarding the “dish towel dress” of the 1970’s, “Now you can walk the streets and everyone will want to wipe their hands on you. It is a waste of good dish towels” (232). But the general tone is one of encouragement and reverence for the women who applied classical principles of aesthetics to dress. I found myself completely drawn in by the author’s portrayal of a woman in her 30’s as finally graceful and elegant enough to wear more delicate fabrics and draping styles that complement her mature form (not Spanx it into a prepubescent shape.)

Sadly, the second wave feminists of the 60’s and 70’s found themselves in an awkward situation. While they wanted to claim and build upon the social victories of the feminists who came before them, they did not want to be restricted by the norms of aesthetics, social manners, or value for age and wisdom that those early leaders cultivated. In their brave new world, a woman should be respected and given privilege and liberty no matter what she wore or did. Which was fun and novel for a while …

We don’t need Ms. Przybyszewski to detail the results. Our grandmothers are ashamed of their grey hairs and don’t know how to flatter their figures. A generation of young mothers vlog with wine in hand about the impossibility of keeping a tidy and ordered home and despair over sewing buttons and other puerile attempts at “adulting.” The poor women have never been taught. They are just plunged into Lord of the Flies with their academic and corporate world skills and told, “Good Luck!” and “Lula Roe leggings feel like butter and will help you survive in some measure of comfort as your body changes and you attempt to cram the chaos into a Magnolia Homes series of rattan baskets.” May the odds be ever in your favor, Pandora.

Perhaps Home Economics wasn’t a tool of the restrictive patriarchy after all. Perhaps those classes taught valuable skills for accomplished women. In 1904, an annual conference defined, “Home Economics stands for … The simplicity in material surroundings which will most free the spirit for the more important and permanent interests of home and society” (285). Sounds, liberating … yes?

It is probably a mistake to idealize the past too much. After all, these women were fighting hard to find a place for competent, intelligent women in the professional and domestic realm during a century of unprecedented social change. But, I think that The Lost Art of Dress recaptures some concepts, personalities, and stories that women today would do well to embrace as part of our rich heritage. And perhaps, upon reflection, we may discover a place for a woman today to be confidently beautiful and domestically competent and also free to embrace the gender equality that has been won for us.

See Part 2 for practical tips on dress!

Image source: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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