Curing America’s Fashion Amnesia

What if our obsession with shopping for clothes is nothing more than unsatisfied thirst for beauty, easily quenched if only we set the bar higher? That’s one of the many theories explored in The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, a recent book by Linda Przybyszewski, Ph.D.

In an era of unprecedented freedom to wear whatever we want, it seems that our no-holds-barred, anything-goes approach to fashion has an unintended flip slide: many of us don’t know the fundamental rules that govern design. “The human eyeball has not changed throughout history,” says Przybyszewski. “Fashion may change, but the rules of beauty still apply.”

Przybyszewski says good taste began its demise in the 1960s and 1970s, when Americans dismissed our so-called Dress Doctors—the women embedded in university home economics departments, newspaper columns and radio shows, dispensing decades of advice about how to apply the principles of art to clothing.

Following the birth of the feminist movement and the death of unquestioned authority, these mavens of style never recovered their influence, and much of what they taught has been forgotten or cast aside. “At the time, a lot of authority was being challenged for very good reasons,” she says. “People started asking, ‘Why are you telling us what to do and think and wear?’ but their insights weren’t wrong. Their ideas were actually quite valuable, and it seems kind of foolish to throw away such knowledge.”

An accomplished dressmaker in her spare time, Przybyszewski teaches history at the University of Notre Dame. She started working on The Lost Art of Dress after researching and reading works written by and about the Dress Doctors—a labor of love that married her passion and her profession. The more she learned, the more she wanted to share the wisdom of the Dress Doctors, in hopes of elevating our expectations for clothes and restoring forgotten principles that save time, money and heartache—and make us look and feel better.

In her unearthing of the Dress Doctors, Przybyszewski draws several comparisons that reveal how much things have changed from then to now. Those contrasts serve as a gut-check for our thoughts about fashion.

  • Today’s fashion cycles are designed to sell clothes, but have little to do with what looks good on a human body in motion. (Look no further than the hobbling pencil skirt for illumination on that point.)
  • Clothes are simpler and cheaper than ever. As a result, we don’t care whether we keep them or not. We discard and replace clothes regularly—which is exactly what the fashion industry wants. (The Dress Doctors would consider this a huge waste of time and resources.)
  • Past generations had smaller wardrobes, but spent proportionally more of their incomes on clothes. (We often say that a great fit, beautiful details and quality are too expensive or too hard to find, but technically, they are more affordable than ever—especially if you find a good seamstress or tailor.)
  • Our predecessors didn’t buy on whims and fads, but expected to wear and love each garment for years, adding subtle alterations and accessories that transformed them for double duty or transported them from one season to the next. (A good wardrobe suits your lifestyle, offers versatility and withstands the test of time. It has nothing to do with how stuffed your closet is.)

To illustrate the last idea, Przybyszewski restyled the same dress with accessories and wore it to class for a month to see if anyone would notice. Only one student did.

“If you look at beautifully-detailed vintage garments from the 1930s, they are still relevant today because they have a kind of beauty that transcends time,” she says. At the University of Notre Dame, one of her classes, A Nation of Slobs, has become a popular sensation among students. “When I show these photographs in my classes, there are always long sighs because they recognize this beauty.”

On August 27, Przybyszewski gives a free public lecture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at 6 p.m. Prior to her IMA lecture on the descent of design, Przybyszewski will appear at a book signing and fundraiser co-hosted by two Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) affiliates—the Alliance and the Fashion Arts Society.

Sponsored by Somerset CPAs and Advisors, High Tea: The Evolution of a Fashionable Ritual starts at 3:30 p.m. with a champagne reception and silent auction, followed by high tea at 4 p.m. Proceeds support fashion acquisitions and family education at the IMA. The cost of the event for members of the IMA’s Alliance or Fashion Arts Society is $55 and $65 for non-members.

Visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art for registration details. High tea guests receive preferred seating (as space allows) at the public lecture that follows. Additional sponsors for the tea are Leading Reads, Saks Fifth Avenue and Worth New York.

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