So, as much as I loved The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski for its historical value, I also hoped to glean some tips for today from the Dress Doctors. They are scattered throughout the book, and rarely are any stated as hard and fast rules. But I found the ones I remembered to be useful. Here are the ones I can recall (since a small person ran off with my notes 2/3 of the way through and I have yet to find them …)

5 Basic Aesthetic Principles Applied to Dress:

  1. Harmony–“All the different parts of an outfit need to look as though they are related to one another” (23). The elements of shape, texture, idea, and color in an outfit have to work together and have to suit the natural movements of a human body. Tight corsets, shoes that you can’t walk more than a block in, giant shoulder pads, straight cut skirts that are too narrow for walking or that ride up when you sit … these are all offenses against harmony. You also should not mix rough fabrics with fancy, delicate ones (as popular as that is on the runway). And ditch the soft knit jackets; they won’t hold their shape. Suit your outfit to your activity as well. She has lots to say abut color, but you’ll have to read that yourself. 😉
  2. Rhythm–“The rhythm of a garment should suit its purpose and its wearer’s personality” (59). This is something instinctive for many people. Don’t combine something stiff and angled with something soft and rounded. Don’t have too much going on.
  3. Balance–The eye should move easily down the outfit which is balanced formally (symmetrically) or informally (through diagonal lines or balanced asymmetrical forms, like two small details balanced by one larger one). Informal balance is best for women over 30. I think of how flattering traditional dresses are in certain cultures like saris, kimonos, and some forms of dashiki. Old Hollywood was full of gracefully draped gowns.
  4. Proportion–Basically, an outfit may narrow or change where your body naturally narrows or bends. If you look off balance (like I do with some of the giant tote bags I’ve chosen to drape on my small frame) or cut off (like you’re wearing a pillow case dress you sewed in 20 minutes off Pinterest directions), you’re probably disobeying a law of proportionality. There’s a whole lovely relationship between the human body’s proportions and the Fibonacci series but that’s too much math for me. Yet, it indicates why I love the idea of a 1920’s flapper dress until I get it on my body.
  5. Emphasis–Just enough in just the right places. Draw attention to the face and don’t put awkward designs or holes or copious designs on elements of the body that make you appear as a collection of parts rather than a unified person. If a person is too distracted by your outfit, they won’t be able to take you seriously and listen to what you say.

Other design elements

Honesty in dress–no fake pockets or fake skin colored material peeking out to add drama, etc. Each element of the clothing should behave as expected when you see it.

Hats–a definite win. A well suited hat draws the attention to the face and softens hard edges and wrinkles and protects one from the sun. Sadly, good millinery is hard to find since custom sized hats are rare and expensive now. [But don’t we all secretly want to look like Princess Kate??]

Shoes–they should be practical but not ugly. The obsession with shoes as a focal point of style interest in modern society shows a preoccupation with admiring oneself (you can see your shoes without a mirror) rather than thinking about how to create a harmonious whole out of your outfit for others to see. Additionally, uncomfortable shoes or more than a small heel may make your backside and calves protrude alluringly but it destroys the gracefulness of your natural walk.

Slits–Anything slit or slashed is probably either making up for a design flaw (a skirt too narrow to walk in that could use box pleats instead) or is aiming at novelty over tailoring (slit shoulders or jeans with gashes). True wrap dresses are an accident waiting to happen.

Scarves–A good, soft scarf can recover a bad outfit by bringing flattering colors and textures near the face and bringing the interest upward. [Good thing too, because scarves have pretty much been my one style investment for the last 7 years.]

Jewelry–Real jewelry, not costume, flatters women over 30 best. [And I thought my tastes were just getting more expensive! Vindicated. And thank you, sweetheart, for the real silver earrings for Valentine’s Day this year.]


Aprons–they preserve clothing! Bring them back for housework and cooking.

Change more often–change into something comfortable and beautiful when you are home for the evening to help you transition from the work day. [Lovely idea! Right now, I’m lucky to be dressed nicely at all when my husband gets home from work. Baby steps. But I like her recommendation that housewives have a few outfits that are durable and suit their duties at home, yet are cheerful and pretty as well.]

A small wardrobe is all that is necessary if you buy nicely fitting things that complement you and work with each other to create outfits that suit various purposes.

Suit your outfit to the occasion–this was important to the dress doctors. Don’t wear athletic wear unless you’re doing something athletic. Don’t wear swimwear to a restaurant. Don’t wear something also appropriate for a hike to Church. And don’t wear high heels to hike a mountain (and yes, I’ve seen that attempted.) Someone told me this week, “You always look so nice.” I don’t really. I don’t always have time to do make up and hair and perfectly coordinate my outfit. But I do usually look appropriate to the occasion (Thank you, Mom). And in today’s world, that’s a big step up from the norm. I would challenge you, if you find yourself in a rut with a particular type of clothing that is easy but maybe doesn’t make you feel comfortable, put together, and pretty in most of the venues in which you wear it, to try to create a little space where you can change into the clothing that helps you feel as though you are thriving and not just surviving in that next place.

Dress your age. In the 60’s and 70’s, infantile styles with short skirts and high socks came into fashion. Even the husband of the designer that popularized these designs admitted that there was something pedophilic about grown women dressing as toddlers. It may not be too far to say that modern expectations about women being firm, small hipped, and practically hairless would fall into that line of criticism as well. Crop shirts and “leggings as pants” are other styles that ape the clothing our children wear. I do think it’s hard to point to one particular style and say that it can’t be worn well. Much artistry happens in the way things are layered and through the patterns and textures chosen. But when you leave the house, try not to look 5. And, if you’re over 30, own it. And don’t feel sorry if your body can’t squeeze into low rider skinny flares from college anymore. Find a new pair of pants that makes you feel graceful as you are and then lead a healthy lifestyle and be happy.

Colors & Textures

Keep your outfit grounded with darker tones towards the bottom.

Ultra white is too stark for most anyone’s skin. Softer winter whites, off whites, or ivory tones are more flattering on most people.

Black is best saved for mourning. Though it got a reputation as a “chic” and easy match all, especially for urbanites, it also does not compliment most complexions. Various browns, grays, and blue tones are more flattering neutrals.

No one looks well in a bright yellow green.

Younger skin can handle truer colors (primary/secondary) and shinier fabrics. This is why we all dislike swimsuits and athletic wear with shiny spandex as we age.

30+ should aim for tones and shades rather than primary colors. Softer, draped fabrics suit the softened, graceful figure and skin of a maturing woman. So think of a rich mulberry dress rather than a cherry red. There’s a wonderful chapter on aging gracefully and how bodily changes and coloring were accepted in the past with a sense of having earned your curves and grey hair and the ability to handle yourself with poise. I should probably read that chapter every few years.

Senior women should keep the lines of their outfits increasingly soft and the colors muted, especially as their hair and skin lightens. So, take that mulberry dress and make it a soft, dusty rose.

Patterns & Details

With visual interest like patterns and jewelry, make sure you’re wearing it; the dress or accessory should not just use you as a moving hanger. 😉

Patterns that are too large tend to overwhelm the face. Patterns that are too busy and seem to move like an optical illusion may disguise some unwanted bumps, but they also prevent people from looking you in the face and may necessitate Dramamine for the viewers. Watch out with those LulaRoe picks for outside the home.

Small, tasteful patterns and stripes are lovely and cheerful. Generally keep solids with patterns, not patterns with patterns.

Detailing in cuffs and necklines is vastly underappreciated in modern fashion. And it’s important to find the type of neckline that flatters your figure. Interestingly, the crew neck, which is so ubiquitous today, did not even make the list of possibilities for the Dress Doctors because it is almost universally unflattering to women. [Take note please, creators of dress codes everywhere who seem to love this neckline for it’s dependable modesty.]

You’re welcome to disagree with any of the Dress Doctors’ (or my own opinionated) pointers above. But consider why you dislike the recommendations and then make an effort to dress intentionally, not desperately or reactively. I’ve been trying for a few weeks now, and I feel that it makes a difference. I don’t want to feel overly hidden or exposed by my clothing. I want to feel like a woman who knows herself and is comfortable in her life.

I am far from perfectly dressed, but an older, gentleman friend exclaimed, “Kelly, that coat was just made for you!” yesterday, and I have to admit, that made my day.

See Part 1 to learn more about the book!

Image source: University of Washington digital archive