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A Look At The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

Originally published on Mon June 2, 2014 6:50 am

There once were women called the “Dress Doctors,” the product of a federal act in 1914 that funded vocational programming and a boom in home economics. They helped shape style and fashion in the U.S.

Nowadays, these women might be chemists or researchers, but they put their energies into helping women run their homes and dress with a sense of style.

Linda Przybyszewski misses them. She teaches a course called “A Nation of Slobs” at the University of Notre Dame and writes about the Dress Doctors in a new book “The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish.”

Przybyszewski joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the legacy of the Dress Doctors. Although many of their principles have been lost over the decades as women search for individuality through fashion, some of their basic principles can still be found today.

Interview Highlights: Linda Przybyszewski

On the women who were the “Dress Doctors”

“Some of them were based in institutions. Some of them were at the Bureau of Home Economics, which was created in 1923 at the USDA. Some of them worked at land grant universities, which had public outreach programs which had extension programs, so they helped organized 4-H clubs, which included clothing clubs, which were the most popular clubs for girls and women. Some of them were independent. They ran their own sewing academies, they taught dress design and sewing. But they all agreed on how the principles of art applied to dress, how one can dress for different occasions. That’s the one thing that really surprised me, to realize there was a systematic way of teaching young women how to dress, and it went on for decades.”

On how they taught women to dress

“They said if you look at how pictures are composed, you will find principles you can then apply to dress: harmony, proportion, emphasis, rhythm and balance. So emphasis, for example, they argued should always be brought up towards the face … They didn’t talk about shoes the way that fashion magazines go on and on about shoes. They didn’t notice them. But they’re really most interested in getting attention up to the face, either with color or with lighter fabrics or with design feature, because they wanted people to listen to what women were saying and to remember them, and they thought of the face as an expression of the personality.”

On how the women’s liberation movement changed fashion

“When the women’s movement came along, they were afraid that women were worrying too much about their appearance. In fact, when some California women’s liberation activists were invited to meet California garment industry designers, they said, ‘This is not even worth talking about, so we are not going to come meet with you.’ But I think it would have been worth talking about. Obviously, there were choices that were being made about whether women could wear pants in anything except a very sporty or a very dirty setting, and obviously, a lot of women opted to start wearing them in the late ’60s and the early ’70s. My concern is about if people say, ‘We shouldn’t have to worry about what we wear.’ Well, I think we worry about what we wear anyway, and if we had some of the information that the Dress Doctors were teaching, then we would know what we wanted to choose, what effect we wanted to have, and how to actually make it.”

Guest

  • Linda Przybyszewski, author of “The Lost Art of Dress” and associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. What to wear? We ask that every day. But what if there were incredibly overqualified scientists to help us out? There once were. They were called the dress doctors - the product of a 1914 federal act that funded vocational programming and led to a boom in home economics. They were women who might have been chemists but put their energy into wardrobes. And Linda Przybyszewski misses them.

She teaches a course called A Nation of Slobs at the University of Notre Dame. At a time when a law firm told The Wall Street Journal they had to hire a personal shopper to dress new workers arriving in tank tops, Linda said bring back the dress doctors. Her book is "The Lost Art Of Dress." And she joins us from Notre Dame. So, Linda, take us back to the early 1900s. Who were the dress doctors?

LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Some of them were based in institutions. Some of them were at the Bureau of Home Economics, which was created in 1923 at the USDA. Some of them worked in land-grant universities, which had public outreach programs called extension programs. So they helped organize 4-H clubs, which included clothing clubs, which were the most popular clubs for girls and women.

Some of them were independent. They were ran their own sewing academies. They taught dress design and selling. But they all agreed on how the principles of art applied to dress, how one can dress for different occasions. And that's the thing that really surprised me was to realize there was a systematic way of teaching young women how to dress, and it went on for decades.

YOUNG: Well, and some of these dress doctors - one, for instance, graduated from MIT. But MIT at the time wouldn't allow her to get a doctorate. These are, after all, women. Their paths that they should have been on were blocked, they turned this sense of science and art. In part, they told women to look at fine art and look for what?

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Well, they said if you look at how pictures are composed, you will find principles, which you can then apply to dress - harmony, proportion, emphasis, rhythm and balance. So emphasis, for example, they argued should always be brought up towards the face.

YOUNG: Oh, they did not like an accent on shoes?

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: No, I actually - they didn't talk about shoes the way that fashion magazines sometimes go on and on about shoes. They didn't notice them. But they were really most interested in getting attention up to the face either with color or with lighter fabrics or some design feature because they wanted people to listen what women were saying and to remember them. And they thought of the face as an expression of the personality.

YOUNG: It's interesting because I can hear - and we're going to talk about it - but I can hear women of a certain age saying women were known for what they wore. It demeans women. But these women felt to me in the reading like early feminists. They wanted women to be their best.

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Yeah, and it didn't matter what field you were going into. They gave advice to the women who worked at home. They gave advice to the businesswoman.

They were so excited that the 20th century would open up new employment opportunities to women, that it would open up new political opportunities because women got guaranteed the vote in 1920. And they just thought, well, let's get these women ready no matter what they're going to go forth and do.

YOUNG: Well, so go back to looking at a painting. Let's say it's a landscape. How is a woman supposed to apply what's in a beautiful landscape to how she puts her clothing on?

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Well, they often pointed to nature as a source of beautiful color harmonies. Just look out your window. And you will see beautiful greens and browns of the trees, right? And then you see just a little spark of color here and there - maybe a Cardinal comes through. They said that's how an ensemble should work as well - at least one feature, sort of the equivalent of that brightly colored bird, that does draw the eye. And that's where you can bring the emphasis to.

YOUNG: Well, you go through decades of change. That's the other thing the dress doctors helped with. As women started to do more things, they had to be consulted because, oops, you can't wear a certain kind of skirt if you can't sit down on a train with it, you know.

There were all sorts of questions that had to be settled before women could move into a new kind of clothing. But you do, as many do - and just completely disdain the '60s for...

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: I'm afraid so.

YOUNG: Well, your sense of the '60s, how would you characterize it?

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: One of the things that went on in the '60s that I think was just - just became awful was that the miniskirts were very much cut like toddlers' dresses. And they were so short. In certain offices, for example, the rule was, well, you can wear a miniskirt, but you have to wear matching underpants, which of course means everyone could see your underpants.

So I would see this as a step forward for freedom. It seems like a complete lack of dignity. In fact, there are women who tell fashion reporters in the 1960s, yes, I've got this miniskirt I wear to cocktail parties but I can't wear it to go out to dinner because I can't actually sit down in it...

YOUNG: Right.

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: ...Without it hiking up and flashing everyone.

YOUNG: Well, so there's the tension that there are women in the '60s who saw, you know, throwing out a lot of these rules as being freeing. But maybe they were then enslaved by these new rules or lack of rules that they took up. But again, these rules were seen as oppressing women.

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Well, they were in the 1970s. When the women's movement came along, they were afraid that women were worrying too much about their appearance. In fact, when some California women's liberation activists were invited to meet California's garment industry designers at a convention they said this is not even worth talking about, so we are not going to come and meet with you.

But I think it would have been worth talking about. Obviously, there were choices that were being made about whether women could wear pants in anything except a very sporty or a very dirty setting. And obviously, a lot of women opted to start wearing them in the late '60s and the early '70s.

My concern is if people say we shouldn't have to worry about what we wear, well, I think we worry about what we wear anyway. And if we had some of the information that the dress doctors were teaching, then we would know what we wanted to choose, what effect we wanted to have and how to actually make it.

YOUNG: Linda, we've made one oversight. Throw out some of the names - these women that played such an important role.

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Mary Brooks Picken was born on a small farm in Kansas. And she became, very early on, very skilled in sewing and weaving. And she ended up teaching sewing to both women at the YWCA and women prisoners at Leavenworth Penitentiary. And then she went on to become the first female trustee at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and cofound the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ruth O'Brien was the chemist, the first head of the Division of Textiles and Clothing at the Bureau of Home Economics. And I love her because at a public talk about what young women chemists could do when someone else said, well, girls, you should settle for jobs as secretaries and laboratories. And she got up and said no. They should get to work in labs, too, just like the men. Harriet and Vetta Goldstein taught at the University of Minnesota for decades.

YOUNG: Sisters. Sisters.

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: Yeah, sisters. Yeah, Harriet and Vetta Goldstein were sisters. And they wrote "Art In Everyday Life," which is really a textbook that everyone else borrowed from. And it came out in new editions for several decades. And just like the title said, they were arguing that every American deserves to have art in their life because beauty is spiritually uplifting and it shouldn't be monopolized only by the wealthy people who can afford fine art.

YOUNG: Yeah, it's fascinating. Linda Przybyszewski, author of "The Lost Art Of Dress" also an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame on how we're just not dressing the way we used to. Linda, you've given us much to think about. Thank you so much.

PRZYBYSZEWSKI: You're welcome.

YOUNG: And, Jeremy, I know you're there at NPR in D.C. where you probably had to up your game. But I'm still in my PJs.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, I thought I was going to get a beautiful Washington, D.C. day. It's only 65 degrees and cloudy.

YOUNG: Yeah, but I'm sure you have a special shirt and khaki pants on as opposed to your other shirt and khakis pants. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson, not wearing khakis, though. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.