The Lost Art of Dress

The Women Who Once Made America Stylish


By Linda Przybyszewski

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“A tribute to a time when style — and maybe even life — felt more straightforward, and however arbitrary, there were definitive answers.” — Sadie Stein, Paris Review

As a glance down any street in America quickly reveals, American women have forgotten how to dress. We lack the fashion know-how we need to dress professionally and beautifully. In The Lost Art of Dress, historian and dressmaker Linda Przybyszewski reveals that this wasn’t always true.
In the first half of the twentieth century, a remarkable group of women — the so-called Dress Doctors — taught American women that knowledge, not money, was key to a beautiful wardrobe. They empowered women to design, make, and choose clothing for both the workplace and the home. Armed with the Dress Doctors’ simple design principles — harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis — modern American women from all classes learned to dress for all occasions in ways that made them confident, engaged members of society.

A captivating and beautifully illustrated look at the world of the Dress Doctors, The Lost Art of Dress introduces a new audience to their timeless rules of fashion and beauty — rules which, with a little help, we can certainly learn again.



WANDERING THROUGH A USED BOOKSTORE YEARS AGO, I spotted a thick volume called Clothes for You. I’ve always been interested in fashion, so I pulled it off the shelf. It turned out to be a college textbook from 1954, but it was like no textbook I had ever seen before.

The book’s five hundred pages taught the art and science of dress, explaining that beauty in dress can only be achieved by applying the principles of art to clothing. These principles hold true no matter the season, the year, or the century. A woman can use them to choose the beautiful from whatever current fashions have on offer, and it won’t cost a fortune so long as she follows some basic rules of economics. If necessary, any girl can learn how to sew and create whatever she needs. The book’s message was artistic, logical, and democratic: knowledge, not money, is the key to beauty in dress.

The book aroused my curiosity on two counts. First, I’m a dressmaker from a long line of sewing women. One of my grandmothers could make anything her daughter pointed out to her in a shop window; the other left me her Singer Slant-O-Matic sewing machine, the very latest in high tech from 1952. My mother sewed and knit clothes for my sister and me when we were little. Sewing came in especially handy when I had to live on a low budget while earning my doctorate from Stanford University. Second, I’m a professor of American history. My first book was a biography of a justice on the United States Supreme Court. I may be the only historian to lecture at the Supreme Court in a suit that won a blue ribbon at a county fair.

Clothes for You inspired me to find out more about the art of dress. My hunt took me from the basements of bookstores to the archives of universities. I discovered that hundreds of books and pamphlets were written to teach the American woman how to dress for the twentieth century. Millions of girls read them in home economics classes and in 4-H clothing clubs.

The books were written by a remarkable group of women who worked as teachers, writers, retailers, and designers. They offered advice in classrooms, on radio broadcasts, at women’s clubs, and in magazines. They even enlisted the federal government in their efforts through the Bureau of Home Economics. I call these women the “Dress Doctors” after a story told by Mary Brooks Picken, the first among them.

Born on a farm in Kansas in 1886, Picken was a prodigy who could spin, weave, and sew by the age of five. At eleven, she made the layette of clothes and bedding for her newest baby brother. Widowed young, she supported herself by teaching dress design and sewing to everyone from the respectable young women at the YWCA to the female convicts doing time at Leavenworth Penitentiary.

A skilled woman physician turned to Picken for help, she recalled in 1918. The good doctor realized that people thought her less intelligent than she really was because she dressed so badly, but she had no idea what to do about it because clothes mystified her. So she asked Picken to “diagnose” her case. Picken examined the doctor and prescribed a professional wardrobe. When the doctor donned her new clothes, she noticed a marked difference in the way people viewed her. Her fellow doctors treated her with more respect. So did the hospital nurses who worked under her. People who had never before bothered to consult her professionally now made a point of doing so. She had been cured.

Fig. 1: Mary Brooks Picken at the time that she cured a physician of a bad wardrobe in 1918. PICKEN, THE SECRETS OF DISTINCTIVE DRESS, 1918

“Do we not express ourselves through the clothes we wear as much as through what we say and what we do?” asked Picken.1

The makeover is a story as old as Cinderella, but the Dress Doctors reinvented it for the modern age. Picken’s doctor wasn’t trying to land a prince. She was struggling to succeed in a profession in which women were few and far between.

Picken eventually moved east and made herself into the most important authority on dress in America. She wrote dozens of books, including the first dictionary penned by a woman, The Language of Fashion. She helped found the Costume Institute, which is now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and became the first woman to serve as a trustee of the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1951.

Picken and the other Dress Doctors took traditional ideas about beauty and art and used them to help American women to flourish in the twentieth century, an era they viewed as one of unprecedented opportunity for their sex. They considered art a spiritual force that encouraged an appreciation of the beauty of all God’s creation. They taught their students to study the Five Art Principles of harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis, and to observe them at work in famous paintings, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. They explained that these same principles should be used in the design of clothing. Their aim was the creation of what they called “artistic repose,” the moment when the discerning eye takes in a design as a whole and finds it perfectly satisfying in color, line, and form.

The Dress Doctors followed the lead of the Arts and Crafts movement, which first blurred the distinction between what was beautiful and what was useful in the late nineteenth century. Any everyday object could be beautiful if it was suited to its purpose and designed according to the principles of art. Clothing fit the bill. By teaching dressmaking, the Dress Doctors made women into creators, not just shoppers. “Beautiful clothes should be part of contemporary art,” declared one Dress Doctor in 1925, “not beautiful clothes for the few, but beautiful clothes for everybody, and at a cost that all can afford.”2

The Dress Doctors were eager to prepare women for new roles in American life. World War I had called upon women to replace men in factories, while housewives learned to conserve food and clothing. Women gained new civic duties when the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed them the right to vote in 1920.

Against this backdrop, the Dress Doctors identified Six Occasions for Dress—school, business, housework, sport, afternoons, and evenings—and explained which designs and fabrics were best suited for each. The girl at school wore tailored dresses that allowed her to focus on her studies. Sober colors and restrained lines were good for women working in business, while cheerful and washable housedresses suited women looking after their children and their homes. Outfits for sport allowed the athlete—another new, modern role for women—to move with strength and grace everywhere from the tennis court to the skating rink. Afternoons and evenings let a woman indulge herself in fragile fabrics and rich colors, whether she was a social butterfly headed out for the evening or a quiet homebody curled up with a good book. Gently but firmly, the Dress Doctors urged all American women to wear clothes that let them work efficiently and that brought the elevating power of beauty into their lives.

And such a wardrobe would not break the bank, because it need only be made up of a small number of beautiful garments. During the Great Depression, the Dress Doctors showed farmwomen how to recycle flour sacks into dresses. When World War II redirected the American economy to provide for the troops, the Dress Doctors explained how to cut down a man’s suit to make a woman’s suit. When the 1950s brought prosperity, the Dress Doctors explained how best to choose a dress from the multitude offered in department stores. And through it all, the Dress Doctors reminded the American woman that a few perfect outfits, assembled according to the art principles, and suited to the occasions of her life, were all that she needed.

The Dress Doctors also advised what suited a woman at different ages. The schoolgirl’s clothing, whether day wear or evening wear, remained simple in cut so that she could move her energetic body freely. The bright and playful colors she wore reflected her youthful energy and simplicity. Aging meant gains in worldliness. The Dress Doctors reserved for the woman over thirty the most complex dress designs and the subtlest color schemes. They explained how a woman can age with grace and dignity by using the right hues and fabrics.

The Dress Doctors offered solutions to perennial problems of style. They reminded their students that fad stands for “For a Day,” because that’s about how long it will last. Instead, they counseled avoiding the spectacular and the weird in favor of the beautiful. The Dress Doctors knew women must deploy the erotic power of clothing sparingly if they wanted to be taken seriously in other arenas of life. The businesswoman and the housewife required very different wardrobes, so no list of fashion “must haves” would suit them both. Instead of advising on trends that would soon be obsolete, the Dress Doctors taught the rules of good design. Armed with these truths, a woman in any era could determine for herself what was beautiful, while the lessons on budgeting from the same advisers kept her out of debt.

The art and science of dress was once a standard part of a girl’s education, but even historians have overlooked the Dress Doctors’ work. How were they forgotten so completely?3

The cultural rebellion of the 1960s undermined the Dress Doctors from all sides. The home economists among them had claimed a place at the vanguard of professional women in the 1920s, but now they seemed hopelessly old-fashioned as women demanded the right to work in all fields. When radical feminist Robin Morgan spoke at the annual meeting of the American Home Economics Association in 1972, she told the women in her audience, many of them teachers, that the best thing they could do for young women was quit their jobs. By the mid-1970s, funding for home economics programs in public schools was being slashed on the grounds that their classes encouraged sexual stereotypes. Ambitious young women turned to other professions.

The art principles also came under attack during the “Youthquake” movement of the 1960s. The Baby Boomers opted for shocking color schemes that created anything but the artistic repose espoused by the Dress Doctors. The sophisticated fashion models of the 1950s sometimes worked into their forties, but now the fashion world celebrated youth and youth alone. Clothing manufacturers abandoned what they called “Sophisticated Styling” in favor of “Young Styling” and “Youthful Styling,” because grandmothers and granddaughters were wearing the same dresses.

The results were not pretty. Jessica Daves, former editor of Vogue magazine, was herself a grande dame born in 1898. Taking in the state of fashion in 1967, she wrote, “The absurdity of a busty lady with a dowager’s hump and substantial legs appearing in the streets in a sleeveless shift, above the knees, is something horrible to contemplate.” The hallmark of Young and Youthful Styling—simplicity—led to the simplemindedness of garments like the dish-towel dress in the 1970s.4

The Dress Doctors may have been forgotten, but they deserve our attention. How valuable would this advice be today when American women are mired in credit-card debt, urged to shopping frenzy, and when the most common yardstick of attractiveness is who’s wearing the shortest dress? Many voices offer fashion advice today, but, unlike the Dress Doctors, they say little about overarching principles of style. In order to distill the teachings of the Dress Doctors of yore, I have collected and studied more than seven hundred books and magazines on dress and sewing. I have re-created vintage clothing from every decade of the twentieth century. I even made that dish-towel dress (not that I enjoyed it). I also mastered the art of millinery, because hats were once part of every woman’s wardrobe. This book explains what I have discovered.

Today, Americans are known for their sloppy dressing, but it was not always so. An Englishwoman who came to the States after World War II marveled at “the inherent good taste” of the American woman. But American women weren’t born with good taste. They learned it from the Dress Doctors. And we can learn it again.5


Introducing the Dress Doctors

IN 1913, THE SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE, David F. Houston, was worried about the decline in the number of Americans living on farms and determined to make rural life more “comfortable, healthful, and attractive,” so he sent out a survey asking farmwomen what the US Department of Agriculture might do for them. He got some surprising letters back.1

There were plenty of requests for plans for efficient kitchens and methods for banishing pests, but there were also letters that revealed how much American women hungered for beauty in dress. A girl would not be so eager to leave the farm, wrote a lady from Tennessee, if she could “really see that there is an art in the farm life, and that she can dress as prettily and have her home as neatly furnished as the city girl can.” A woman from Idaho thought that a pamphlet on “the art and appropriateness of dress” would be much appreciated. Who would answer these requests? The home economists, who soon found a headquarters at the USDA.2

Home economics got its first footing in the land-grant colleges created by the states under the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted federal lands to the states for them to sell in order to raise money to establish colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts. (This is what put the “A” and “M” in Texas A&M.) In a world that divided the sexes into separate spheres of activity, men got control over the worlds of agriculture and industry, while women were given the home. By 1905, thirty-six land-grant colleges had departments of home economics.3

Yet the USDA had always spent most of its efforts helping farmers with research and programs, and some thought that it was time to pay more attention to the profession of homemaking. As the American School of Home Economics put it in 1911, “we believe . . . that the upbringing of children demands more study than the raising of chickens.” The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 called for the USDA to cooperate with the states on public programs—called “cooperative extension work”—to bring instruction to farmers and farmwomen. Three years later, the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act increased federal funding for vocational education, including home economics, which led to a 300 percent increase in the number of women teaching vocational skills over the next fifteen years. The first “Dress Doctors” began their careers at this time.4

Over the 1920s and 1930s, they rose in prominence. Lucy Rathbone and Elizabeth Tarpley, for example, started as adjunct assistant professors in the 1920s teaching home economics in portable shacks with paper-thin walls and leaky roofs at the University of Texas. By 1933, they had moved into a new Department of Home Economics building, a lovely Spanish Renaissance structure with a red-tiled roof and balconies. They worked there for decades. The congressmen who voted for instruction in home economics were thinking only of practical skills for the future wives and mothers of America, but the home economists themselves set their sights on the full breadth of domestic science and on careers for their students. Their leader was the remarkable Ellen Swallow Richards, who had studied chemistry at Vassar College and then discovered, upon her graduation in 1870, that no one would hire a woman to work as a chemist. She decided to continue her education and was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The men there treated her, as she reported, “very much as a dangerous animal.” Richards earned a bachelor’s degree in 1873, becoming the first woman to earn a degree from MIT, but the professors made it clear they would not help her earn a doctorate. That did not stop her from directing her energies elsewhere. She taught sanitary chemistry at MIT, wrote books on sanitation, and, in 1908, organized the home economists into a professional organization, the American Home Economics Association, which later became the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.5

Despite the domestic focus of their work, home economists did not see their field as limited. To them, a well-run home was essential to human health, happiness, and prosperity. By researching how best to run that home, they created a professional niche in a world that did not welcome career women. “The educated woman longs for a career,” wrote Richards in 1900, “for an opportunity to influence the world. Just now the greatest field offered to her is the elevation of the home into its place in American life.” Their scientific ambitions sometimes sparked criticism, as chemist Isabel Bevier learned when her program at the University of Illinois came under attack from farmwomen for not offering basic sewing classes. Yet such ambitions also explain why 303 of the 474 women faculty doing science at the leading American universities in 1960 were working in departments of home economics.6

Domestic science had a reach beyond the home that justified women taking part in public life. Everything that touched the home was of interest to home economists and became a specialty within their profession: truth in labeling, public sanitation, theories of child development, nutritional discoveries, architecture, and dress. Their earliest efforts reflected the spirit of the Progressive Era, circa 1900 to 1920, when many Americans believed that government could be reformed, even purified, and put to work to solve the problems of the day. Science could be brought to bear on everyday life. The home economists wanted to give the modern homemaker the knowledge she needed to keep her family safe from germs, poor nutrition, and shoddy goods, and to offer her the insights of business efficiency to make the most of her time and energy. Homemaking required knowledge of art when it came to designing homes, gardens, and clothing if they were going to be both beautiful and functional. The added challenge for clothing is that it should be comfortable to live in.

Home economists proved their value to the nation during World War I, when their scientific knowledge of fabrics and food became vital. Which fibers last longer under hard wear? What’s the best way to protect military bedding from mildew? What foods are most nutritious? How can they be preserved? The home economists were ready with the answers.

With the help of the home economists, the US Food Administration recruited some 750,000 women to help teach the rest of America’s women about food conservation. Their slogan became “Food will win the war.” The recruits got a pin, a badge, and a pattern for an apron. The white apron was named after Herbert Hoover, who was then head of the Food Administration. The Hoover apron’s claim to design fame was that it completely wrapped around your dress and protected it from spills, opening in the front with a large overlap. Since it could overlap it in either direction, you could wear it twice as long as a regular apron before it was too filthy to wear. It was practical, and sort of disgusting, but it became a popular design. Renamed “Hooverettes” or “bungalow aprons,” done up in perky prints with ruffles at the neck and sleeves, they were sold in stores as dresses over the next two decades.7

Having proven their value during the war, home economists got their own bureau at the USDA in 1923. Its first head was Louise Stanley, a PhD in biochemistry from Yale University, who soon became the largest employer of women scientists in the country. The Division of Textiles and Clothing at the Bureau of Home Economics hired two physicists, two chemists, a “cotton technologist,” two specialists in clothing design, and a dressmaker. Their chief was Ruth O’Brien, who had a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Nebraska. O’Brien looked like a mild-mannered scientist, but beneath her large, round spectacles lay a dynamic personality that rose up in wrath at the suggestion that “girl chemists” learn how to type instead of aiming for jobs in laboratories.8

The bureau’s Food and Nutrition Division tended to get more press coverage than Textiles and Clothing—which makes sense, since botulism can kill you, while an ugly dress only makes you wish you were dead—yet the members of its staff were eager to prove their scientific chops. They put to use an invention created by Professor Wilbur O. Atwater, a specialist in nutrition, which he called the “respiration calorimeter.” It could calculate how much energy a person took in as food and how much energy they expended as activity. (Yes, Professor Atwater is the man responsible for your counting calories.) In 1896, he constructed a giant box and sealed a graduate student inside to determine how many calories he used studying and weight-lifting. Then Atwater put in a champion cyclist to see how long he could pedal a stationary bike on one egg. He appalled teetotalers by proving that alcohol was food by sealing a man in the box who lived on the stuff for six days.9

Ruth O’Brien’s question was more mundane: How much labor did a sewing machine save? They put a woman in the box and learned that she used six times as much energy using a treadle machine as she did sewing by hand but got fourteen times more work done. When she used an electric sewing machine, she managed to get sixteen times more work done using no more energy than hand sewing.10

Fig. 1: The Dress Doctors ushered out the demure Victorian maiden, who spent her spare time on samplers and the treadle machine, and ushered in the modern girl, who played tennis when she was not sewing on her electric machine. DULCIE G. DONOVAN, THE MODE IN DRESS AND HOME, 1935

No wonder women had purchased these machines in droves the minute they had shown up decades earlier. Godey’s Lady Book, the most popular women’s magazine of the nineteenth century, called the sewing machine “The Queen of Inventions” and a “Household Fairy.” In 1858, the editor of a farm journal said he was sorry he’d ever written a column about sewing machines, because his office was flooded with letters from women demanding advice about which model to buy. One Anna Hope had written to a farm journal in 1857 arguing that women needed sewing machines as much as men needed new farm machinery. (One wonders if Mr. Hope had been acting mulish about such a purchase.) The cost of the machine had to be weighed against the time saved by using it and what a woman might do with that time. “Next to the gospel, I consider the general introduction of the Sewing Machine the best gift to woman,” she concluded. “For it gives her time to cultivate her own higher nature, and to devote herself more fully to the best interests of her children.” Some 98 percent of farm families and 92 percent of city folk owned a sewing machine by 1925.11

The home economists believed that the study of clothing required the sciences of physiology, psychology, hygiene, physics, chemistry, bacteriology, and sociology, not to mention history and economics, but they added art to that list for the same reason that Anna Hope praised the sewing machine: its ability to improve women’s spiritual lives.12

That art should be part of American lives was a shift in more ways than one. Early in American history, the artist was considered dangerous because he created a useless luxury, pandered to aristocrats, and ogled nude models; but by the nineteenth century, art seemed to have a potential as a teacher of morality, and even ministers saw the artist as imitating God’s own creative acts. Americans now identified art with spiritual concerns at a time when women were thought more naturally spiritual than men. At the opening of a fine arts college for women in 1889, a hymn proclaimed:

       God speaks in Art: all beauty, grace,

       And symmetry their models trace

       In His Perfections; there we view

       The Good, Beautiful, the True.13

No wonder the farmwomen longed for information on beauty in dress. The home economists were determined to satisfy their needs. One of the first of the Dress Doctors, Leona Hope, who taught at the University of Illinois, set the pattern in 1919 by writing an extension pamphlet called Fashion: Its Use and Abuse. The Chicago Tribune praised her as a “university apostle of sanity in feminine dress.”14 She followed up with pamphlets on artistic dress and color. The Dress Doctors directed their message largely at girls and women for two reasons. They assumed that boys would be trained in the art of dress by their mothers, and they knew that women’s dress veered into discomfort and goofiness far more frequently than men’s clothing.

Government became interested in teaching art as a way of improving industrial design and increasing profits for American industry in the late nineteenth century, but it was women who championed the movement to make art a part of everyday life so that all Americans could share in the spiritual benefits of beauty. William Morris of the English Arts and Crafts movement said, “Art should be no more for the few than liberty is for the few.”15

Morris, and the Americans who would create their own Art and Crafts movement, believed that the rise of mass industry had destroyed the vital link between the work of the mind and the work of the hand by setting factory workers to mindless, repetitive tasks. All people needed to both design and make. Dressmaking answered this need perfectly.


On Sale
Apr 29, 2014
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Linda Przybyszewski

About the Author

Linda Przybyszewski is an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. The author of The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan, the editor of Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911, as well as a prize-winning dressmaker, she lives in South Bend, Indiana.

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