Historian and prizewinning dressmaker Przybyszewski (History/Univ. of Notre Dame; The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan, 1999, etc.) recounts the social history of a group of talented women, the “Dress Doctors,” who once instructed young American women in the art of dress.
While the author bemoans American women’s current sloppy attire, her illuminating commentary explains the sewing and design skills that were once common knowledge but have been washed away by a proliferation of cheap, ill-fitting and inappropriate clothing. Consequently, American women no longer possess the aptitude necessary to dress with style on a reasonable budget. Ambling through a used bookstore, Przybyszewski discovered a 1954 college textbook whose “message was artistic, logical, and democratic: knowledge, not money, is the key to beauty in dress.” A “remarkable group of women who worked as teachers, writers, retailers, and designers” wrote these texts, and many worked in home economics departments at colleges. The Dress Doctors based their theory of dress on the “Five Art Principles”: harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion and emphasis. Przybyszewski delves into the role of self-esteem, the turning away from thrift as an ideal, and the rise of consumption in America and its effects on the country. When the 1960s brought waves of social, legislative and cultural upheavals, the Dress Doctors began losing their hold on fashion. Miniskirts and pants were becoming the norm for many girls and women. By 1975, one Dress Doctor declared, the “bad was beautiful and the beautiful was worthless.” The author also explores the inherent racism of the Dress Doctors’ teachings. “The one type of woman the Dress Doctors overlooked completely was the African American,” she writes. “They thereby implied, even if they never actually wrote it down, that she could not be beautiful.”
Przybyszewski’s fashion history shines a much-needed spotlight on a contingent of forgotten professionals and the role they played in dressing American women with style.