Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln's moral principles and political leadership -- and what the era of Lincoln can teach us about the state of our democracy today.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, a group of women called the “Dress Doctors” taught Americans what to wear. Via clothing clubs, pamphlets and home economics courses, they instructed young women on how to put together a wardrobe that emphasized thrift and beauty. The dress doctors felt women were embarking on a new era of civic and social engagement and needed to learn how to look the part. Now, in a time of fast fashion where price and novelty rule, the lessons of the Dress Doctors have largely been forgotten. Historian Linda Przybyszewski looks to resurrect their teachings in a new book, “The Lost Art of Dress.”
- Linda Przybyszewski Author of “The Lost Art of Dress” and associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted with permission from THE LOST ART OF DRESS: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, by Linda Przybyszewski. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Ill-fitting, cheaply made, poorly designed. That's the way historian Linda Przybyszewski describes the clothing most American wear today. But, she says, that wasn't always the case. In the early 20th century, a group of women called the "Dress Doctors" taught the dos and don’ts of style. Their instruction, based on principles of fine art, shaped the way Americans dressed for decades. The lost influence in the 1960s. Today, their teachings have been largely forgotten.
MS. DIANE REHMPrzybyszewski tells their story in a new book, "The Lost Art of Dress." She joins me here in the studio. I'm sure you'll want to chime in. Questions, comments, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Linda, it's good to meet you.
MS. LINDA PRZYBYSZEWSKIThanks for having me.
REHMAbsolutely. You know, in junior high and high school, I took Home Economics. They taught us how to cook. They taught us how to sew. They taught us how to clean. And all of that, I gather, came out of that Bureau of Home Economics at the USDA, created in 1923.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYes. The setting of programs in junior high school, and then high school got started in the 1920s, and by 1930, 90 percent of towns had Home Economics programs in their schools, and 90 percent of junior high school girls were actually required to take them.
REHMIndeed. We were required to take them. What about boys? Were they -- they were required to take, perhaps, mechanical drawing or something of that sort.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah. The focus, really, was on girls. And -- although some of the Home Ec. textbooks did include both boys and girls in their examples. For the most part, it was for girls. And it's because of assumptions that girls would focus on domestic life. That they would...
REHMBecome homemakers, take care of the home, the children, everything else. Who were the so-called "Dress Doctors?"
PRZYBYSZEWSKIThere were several groups of them. One of them came out of the Bureau of Home Economics at the USDA. And they ended up working either there or in land grant universities. And those universities then put out public outreach programs that they called extension programs. So, that was one group. The university based group. Then there were women who were independent. They wrote their own books on sewing, pattern design, et cetera. Sometimes they were in academies.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISometimes they -- they did all kinds of things. Radio programs, for example, talked to women's groups, went on the lecture circuit, et cetera.
REHMAnd what kinds of things did they say?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, they taught that the principles of art can be applied to dress. And so, they reached into the western tradition of art and pulled a set of principles that then they taught, the five art principles. And their argument was, and this really comes out of the progressive era, this idea that democracy should share various kinds of resources with everyone. So, if only wealthy people could actually buy fine art, well, everyone could bring art into their lives through something like clothing. Or even home decoration, for other home economists who worked on those topics.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, the idea was everyone deserved the beauties of art, the spiritual uplifting that art brought into peoples' lives. And clothing was the simplest way to do that.
REHMAnd what were the five art principles?
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, they were harmony, balance, proportion, rhythm and emphasis. And their argument was, if you actually look at paintings from the western tradition, you will find these principles in practice. They often argued that just as an artist creates and composes a painting, by making selections of color or shape, line, so the woman who gets dressed in the morning makes choices about color, shape and line. And she, too, can be an artist in her own way.
REHMAnd these women, you feel, really, in a sense, dictated how women dressed and thought about dressing for quite a while.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, they had a huge impact. I balk maybe at the word dictate.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIBecause it makes them sound so bossy, although I guess they were sort of bossy. They had rules, right? But they always said these principles need to be understood by someone, who then makes their own choices about how they should be applied in a given situation. And their impact was tremendous, in part because of these Home Economics classes, which literally millions of girls had to take. And through the public outreach programs from the USDA, the 4H Clothing Clubs, for example, were the most popular clubs for women and girls.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, that's another group of millions of Americans who were reading these pamphlets, and going through, year by year, learning step by step, not only the art of dress, but also the craft of sewing.
REHMBut there was also this conformity, was there not?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, I think there was, because the idea was that when you apply the art principles, you're aiming for something called artistic repose. That's when the eye, the mind and the spirit are all perfectly satisfied by what it sees, because you've created this beautiful harmonious image.
REHMBut isn't that always in the eye of the beholder?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, that's what they argued wasn't true. They said young people often think that. They think that there shouldn't be any rules, their parents are just bossing them around, their teachers are just, you know, pushing them around. There's no real sense to what they're saying. And actually, the "Dress Doctors," across the decades, dealt with young people, so they knew there was this sort of rebellious spirit in them. But their argument was, there are some things that have been figured out. And artists, for centuries, have been studying beauty and how you create it through art.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIAnd so we should take heed to what they've figured out and see if we can't apply it in our own lives.
REHMAnd how does that apply, say, to the shoes of a day?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIShoes. Yes, I know I may get in trouble over shoes. The argument was, and it's interesting because they really didn't -- when they described an ensemble, they very often did not talk much, if any, about the shoes, for example, in evening ensemble. Right? They'd start at the head, they'd talk about the beautiful jewelry, they'd talk about how the gown draped and how it came down to the floor, and the fabric. And sometimes they just left out the shoes entirely. And they were less interested in shoes that I think we are today, for a couple of reasons.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIOkay? So, one of them was they had seen enough shoes that women had trouble walking in. That they objected to the idea that women wasted time and effort trying to walk in shoes that clearly were uncomfortable or made them unbalanced. So, that was sort of the practical side of it. But the other side of it is if you think about the principle of emphasis. They said all the emphasis should be upwards, on your face, because that's how people remember you. That's how they listen to what you're going to say. So, they shouldn't be looking down at your shoes and saying, that's the best part of your outfit.
REHMNow, tell me about some of these women. Ellen Swallow, for example.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYes. She was the first woman to get a degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And she was really sort of the mother of all home economics programs. And she wanted to go on and get a doctorate and the men at MIT would not let her. So, they did let her hang around. They let her teach, and she became an expert in sanitation. Right? Realized with the interest in the discovery of germ theory, in the late 19th century, and she got her first degree, well, her only degree in 18 -- well, she graduated in 1870 from college. And then went on to get her Master's at MIT after that.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIBut she could not get a job as a chemist in a laboratory. And so she became very interested in sanitation and public sanitation and keeping people healthy, basically, through sanitation. And she, you know, wasn't able to do exactly the kind of work she'd first set out to do, but she really did try to expand within this sphere, focused on the domestic setting, to say, wow, you know, everything that comes into the domestic setting should be of interest to home economics.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIRight? Food that's healthy, water that is pure. Everything that affects our lives, in the home, should be something that women can pay attention to, and if necessary, take action to change.
REHMSo, she went on to found the American Home Economics Association, but then that moved into clothing, as well.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIRight. Clothing and textiles usually put together, and that brought scientists, women scientists in too. The first head of the Clothing and Textiles Division at the Bureau of Home Economics at the USDA was Ruth O'Brien. And she was a chemist, by training. She worked on textile dyes. So, and she also was someone who could get extremely angry when other people, at public forums, said, well, girls who graduate from college with degrees in chemistry -- they should just take up typing at chemical companies. And she said, no.
REHMThis is not to be. Linda Przybyszewski and her new book is titled, "The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish." Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, we're talking about a new book titled "The Lost Art of Dress." The book is by Linda Przybyszewski. She previously wrote a book on the Supreme Court and the women therein. What took you from there to here, Linda?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, I am trained as a legal historian and this is, I admit, a swerve in my career trajectory. But I first came across one of the Dress Doctor's books years ago and was so surprised that it existed at all, a 500-page book on the art of dress and the craft of sewing. And I said, well what is going on here? And that's when I started collecting them just for fun just because I enjoyed it. And then I ended up teaching a class, looking at the history of fashion because I thought it would be a good interdisciplinary class where students would be looking at art and how art applies to dress history obviously, but also the economics of the garment industry.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo I took the research skills, which I honed as a legal historian, and ended up applying them to this topic. And since I have been making my own clothes since I was a kid, these were women who were talking a language I understood actually.
REHMDid your mother sew as well?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYes, my mother sewed. I can still tell you about some of the little outfits she made me that I wore when I was a kid.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIAnd my grandmother sewed and I still have her Slant-O-Matic which is a very old Singer machine from 1952.
REHMRight. You know, up at our farm I have a treadle machine.
REHMAnd it still works. I made all the curtains at the farm on this treadle machine. But I'm looking at some of these glorious photographs you have in the book. I shouldn't call them photographs. They are drawings. And the first thing that knocks your eyes out when you look at this first photograph, hats...
REHM...and how important hats were in that day. The hats almost overwhelm the outfits.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah, some of them do. And I do think that -- well, it's kind of a shock for my students today to realize that hats were considered a necessity.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISomething women wore whenever they went out into the street. I see men wore hats too.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIRight. And, I mean, partly it's -- it goes back, if you think about it, to the idea of covering your hair, right. It's a very old idea, women should cover their hair when they go out in public. And then it became more of a fashion statement. There are also elements of practicality when it comes to sun or warmth or, you know, trying to keep warm that is. And...
REHMOr anything being tossed out of a window as you're walking along.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah, that would be true too in certain neighborhoods.
REHMSure. But the elaborate decoration of these hats and, I must say, the dresses as well. The draping of the fabric which, as a seamstress myself, I must say I found very difficult. I think that women today who are still sewing -- and I think there is a bit of a resurgence in the art of home decoration, home sewing, of home cooking. I think people really do love it. But look at the evolution of these styles as shown perhaps by both McCalls Patterns, Vogue Patterns and the like, Simplistic Patterns. You remember those I'm sure.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYes, yes. And they're still being made. I mean, to me what's fascinating is we are clearly looking at evolution over time, right. In the 1900s very early dresses go all the way to the floor, right. They are brushing along the street. And then by the 1910s they've lifted them up. The silhouette has relaxed a bit from the hourglass figure to something more comfortable.
REHMWhat happened to corsets between those two periods?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah, corsets -- in the late 19th century there are women reformers who were working on clothing reform. And they argue that women's corsets in particular have become far too tight, far too restraining. They prevent them from living...
PRZYBYSZEWSKI...yes, a natural life. And they need to be loosened up. So that is one of the reforms that happens at the turn of the century, along with lifting the skirts off of the floor, which is actually connected again to germ theory is that, you know, if you're walking in the street, especially with horse manure around, right, you are dragging all this stuff into your home. So the argument was made, yes, we have to get these things off the floor, even if that means the public will be able to see your feet.
REHM..your ankles and your feet. But really quite a dramatic change from 1910 to 1918 when the styles do seem so much more relaxed and comfortable. Now jump forward to today when perhaps comfort is first and foremost.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, it's interesting because on the one hand there's this real push, we need to be comfortable all the time. On the other hand, you might have noticed shape wear, as it is euphemistically called, is being sold everywhere from what I can tell, right. Spanx is kind of the big one but you see at all price points in all catalogs these same kind of things being sold. And they are different than corsets. They don't lace...
PRZYBYSZEWSKIBut there is this notion that despite all the comfort we talk about, there's a lot of clothing that is worn quite tight and close to the body. And clearly a lot of women who are anxious about how they will appear in those so that they are willing to put on tubes of spandex to squeeze themselves as small as possible.
REHMAnd to look as good as possible. Talk about one of the other of the home economics movement. Mary Brooks Picken born on a farm in Kansas, tell us about her.
REHMYeah. Now she wasn't trained as a home economist per say. She was one of these really independent women who became a professional in the field. So she was a bit of a prodigy. She was sewing and weaving when she was just a child. She took lessons from a neighboring woman. And she ended up working in Kansas where she taught everyone from the young matrons who wanted sewing lessons at the YWCA to the federal women prisoners at Leavenworth Penitentiary. And every time -- I don't know much about that but I keep thinking sewing shears are so sharp.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIThat sounds scary. She eventually moved east and she worked for the Women's Institute of Art and Domestic Sciences. And she wrote, oh, dozens of pamphlets that were for this correspondence school. So her teachings actually went out to tens of thousands of women every year who would read these. And she ends up writing, as well, a great number of textbooks.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIShe became the first woman trustee at the Fashion Institute of Technology which tells you that she really was one of the leading authorities on dress and sewing. And then she helped found the Costume Institute which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the site of many fabulous...
REHMGalas, right, the New York Times featured that just a few months ago. Then you talk about two sisters, Harriet and Vita Goldstein. Who were they?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIThe Goldstein's are a wonderful story. They were first generation immigrants born in the United States. Their parents were Jewish and they lived in Michigan. And then they went and got training at the Art Institute of Chicago and what is now Parsons School of Design in New York. They both got jobs at the University of Minnesota. And in 1925 they wrote sort of the Seminole text Art in Everyday Life. And you can see it there right in the title, Art in Everyday Life, the idea that democratic progressive impulse to bring art to the people, to bring beauty into their lives so that every day they have something beautiful to look at that will bring joy to their spirits as well.
REHMNot only to themselves but to the others who lay eyes on them.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIThat's true. The idea was you could give pleasure as well to...
REHMBut you have to start by giving yourself pleasure.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYes. You have to start by understanding and appreciating beauty and art really. And once you do that they argue you will partaking in this larger -- not only the western tradition of art but also in their eyes in the beauty and order which is in God's creation.
REHMIt's interesting to me that in this book you really do mourn the loss of the Dress Doctors when you look at today's workplace. Tell us why.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIOh well, I mourn the loss in part because I think that they figured out things that were true. They argue that the art principles transcend time. And I think they're right. But if you aim at artistic repose following their rules, you know, applying them in the many varied occasions that you might live in, well, you will achieve that.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIIn the workplace, I mean, I feel that -- first of all, I should say the Dress Doctors laid out six occasions for dress, one of them which is business work or travel or street wear, which were all kind of put together. And their argument was that if you're working, you want to reflect the best ideals of business. So you want to be precise. You want to be formal, not personal. And you want to look efficient like you are a competent person.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIAnd I do believe that a lot of fashion today has done a disservice to young women because the emphasis is always on sexy. You have to look sexy all the time.
REHMAnd the décolletage is right there.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIRight. Yes, right. Lots of cleavage. And it then becomes hard to take women seriously as competent working people because if, you know, their most obvious attribute is they're sexy, what about they're intelligent, right? What about they're competent. What about they're efficient? What about rationality, etcetera?
REHMSo you think women are doing themselves a disservice by following the sexier line of clothing because they're somehow affecting their image in negative ways.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah, I think they are and I think it's because fashion magazines have come to really focus on celebrities and actresses who necessarily, as part of their jobs -- I mean, that's their job to look sexy most of the time. And the rest of us, that's not our job, right. Our jobs happen in cubicles. They don't happen on a Hollywood screen. So...
REHMAnd you think too many young women are imitating those sexy actresses.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, I have talked to enough people who interview young women for jobs who have been sort of stunned at what they wear to interviews.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What they wear to interviews such as...
PRZYBYSZEWSKIOh, very low cut blouses or tops, very tight, also very short. It's interesting because we don't ask men to reveal as much of their form and flash as we ask women to. And if you think about the 1970s and those were actually people -- the women's movement, they really criticized dress size so we can talk about that later. But they were complaining women are being treated as sex objects. Well, today it's almost if you don't want to compete as a sex object, then somehow you're not fashionable.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIAnd I think it's hard for young women. And if they -- I will tell you, college women on my campus have learned to cope with the very short, very low cut dress by wearing leggings underneath and a T-shirt underneath. So they basically turn these dresses into tops.
REHMWe've got lots of callers waiting.
REHMLet's open the phones, 800-433--8850. Let's go first to Denise in Tampa, Fla. Hi, you're on the air.
DENISEGood day, Ms. Rehm.
DENISEVery interesting, lovely lady guest. I have a bit of a frivolous comment, but it's what I call the naked (unintelligible). And that is prevalent in Europe and United States. Now I think it's a throwback to this fertility goddess syndrome, for I did a year of archeology as part of my biosciences degree. And these pictures were in the textbooks quite a lot.
DENISEAnd also I was a bit amused. One time I opened up a book of Josephus who was a first century historian of Jewish things. And I flipped over and found the (word?) for I'd been down at the Dead Sea in some of their buildings. And it said when a man is out walking with a woman with child, don't look too proud, like, as if, oh look what I did. Now I think it's the woman now has transferred this pride to her, oh look what I've achieved. So I'd be interested in comments. And maybe you could have a survey of certain centers of population in the U.S. and see just where this is going. Thank you.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, I don't know about fertility goddesses per say, but I can tell you I have been struck by the T-shirt and the obvious science and pregnancy, which is the style today. In the earlier eras, pregnancy was camouflaged to some degree. But I don't think it's just prudishness. I also think it's this notion that private affairs are private affairs, right. This is the preface book age. This is the age when you only wore décolleté amongst intimates in the evenings, people you knew very well. You didn't do it on a public street because who are these strangers and why would they have the privilege of seeing that?
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo I think that's one of the things that's going on is that if people do not draw a clear distinction between their public display and their private lives then showing off a pregnancy fits into that very easily.
REHMI think it's fascinating that the T-shirts worn by pregnant women today or the very close-fitting dresses to absolutely proudly display the pregnant woman have become so fashionable. In my day, a long time ago -- our son is 54 years old -- I mean, there were long dresses but they very sort of delicately covered the pregnant stomach. Everybody and every era has its own style and choice. And that's what we're seeing now. Short break here. When we come back, more of your thoughts, your comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Linda Przybyszewski is with me. We're talking about her new book. It's titled, "The Lost Art of Dress." She talks about the women who once, sort of, I don't want to use the word dictated, but they did sort of advise women, across the country, as to the best styles. The way to bring art into the style of dress. And we've had a number of emailers who followed. This one from Louisville, Kentucky.
REHMHow did the "Dress Doctors" change their advice during the years of the Great Depression when the average woman had to economize in all aspects of home and family life? Good question. Linda.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah, the Great Depression really had an enormous impact on Americans. For the "Dress Doctors," I think it simply intensified what they were teaching anyway. Home economics, right? So, economics. They had always emphasized thrift. What happened during the Great Depression, though, is they became -- some of them took on very specific projects in order to figure out how you could create a wardrobe, especially for a 16-year-old girl, who would be taking their kinds of classes.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, at the University of Alabama, for example, when they discovered, and this was through a federal project, they discovered that the average person in the deep south had exactly seven dollars and 52 cents to dress themselves with, during the Great Depression, per year.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIOkay, and obviously, that's much more money in today's terms, but it's not very much money.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, at the University of Alabama, the home economists, the graduate students, worked on creating a wardrobe, and they actually created one. Now, this would have been something a girl put sweat equity into. She would have to sew it herself. That's the only way it could be physically possible. But they came up with actually a rather nice wardrobe. It had three dresses, it had a little pinafore, a blouse, a jacket, a pair of shorts and there was still money left over for underwear and shoes.
REHMNow, was burlap brought into that?
PRZYBYSZEWSKINo, burlap is a very tough fabric. What they were using were cotton sacks. Cotton sacks.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, taking the kind of big flour sacks that people had used, you know, to transport flour, you could dye them. And in fact, the sellers of various kinds of sugars, flours, et cetera, finally figured out what women were doing is recycling these. And they started competing by trying to put pretty prints on them.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo that is -- you could dye these if they were plain. And if they were printed, well, you had a beautiful fabric right there. You just had to take the sack apart and clean it.
REHMYou know, what my mother-in-law taught me to do after my husband and I were married, and she did -- she was in Paris. And then raised her son, my husband, through the Great Depression. She taught me how to turn men's shirt collars and cuffs. And what a great way to save money for men. I mean, the person who's involved in the home economics -- I mean, that shirt is going to get double the length of wear because you have learned to have that collar, which wears out first. And those cuffs, which wear out first, reversed, and last that much longer.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYes. And there was a big push during World War I, with the idea of conserving fabrics, as well. That if a man's suit is worn out, but you could cut a woman's suit out of it. Or a man's sweater is falling apart at the edges, well, there might be enough for a child's sweater that you could cut out of it too.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, these were lessons they taught a lot.
REHMLet's go to Joan in Texarkana, Arkansas. Hi, you're on the air.
JOANGood morning. I love the show today.
JOANIt's bringing -- thank you -- it's bringing back such good memories for me. As the show began, I was in my sewing room sewing a cotton dress for summer, for an upcoming trip next month to Washington, D.C.
REHMOh, great. Good for you.
JOANYes. Yes. And my first trip to Washington D.C. was in 1975. I was a senior Home Ec. student in high school and a State Officer Alternate for Future Homemakers of America.
REHMOh, I see.
JOANAnd the national convention was in Washington, D.C. that year, and I got to go. And it made me remember the hotel that we were staying at, I ran into Arthur Ashe, the tennis player, on the steps, going up to the hotel, and he was so kind and stood there and talked to us for a long time.
JOANIt was a good memory. Yes. And I just wanted to comment that I live in a very rural part of the state, but Texarkana has a Hancock's fabric store, and I go there quite often, and every time I go, the store is packed. They will have a sale and you can't hardly find a spot to park. There are so many women in there buying fabric and patterns and it's not all women -- older women or women my age, which is 55. It's young women, very stylish women, and women with children and looks like professional women and they're all buying material and patterns.
REHMYou know, I do think there is a resurgence, Linda, in this kind of interest.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah. I think so, too. I think "Project Runway" was really an introduction for a lot of young women to the idea that there are people out there who design and sew. And they started thinking, well maybe I could design and sew. And there has been an increase in applications to fashion design schools since that started. I also think some of the shows which show vintage fashion have been a revelation to young people. "Mad Men" is one of them. I also think there's a lot of people very intrigued by the outfits in "Downton Abbey."
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, I think we see -- we see it in Etsy, but we see it in other venues where people are creating. And making and designing, and they are the younger people, as well as the older.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Interlochen in Michigan. Hi there, Stewart. You're on the air.
STEWARTHello. Yeah, I just wanted to -- my mother was in a home economics program way back when she went to Penn State University, and I just wanted to relay something that she had said about her program. I guess they had a house at Penn State University where the students in the Home Ec. program would live for the semester, and they would kind of do different things relating to home economics and one thing that my mom mentioned was that at some point, during that time, when they were at that house, they had an actual baby that they practiced with.
STEWARTWhen -- the more I thought about that, the more I thought it was a little strange, and I wondered if you had heard about that before.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah, I had heard about that before. Usually, the babies were orphans, and that's why they were brought there. And there was a very hands on -- they did everything in the house, so the idea was yes, they could work on raising a child. They would make the draperies. They might even work on checking the electricity in the home itself.
REHMChecking the electricity, so they would take charge of everything.
REHMAll right. And to, let's see, Mike in Dallas, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
MIKEI'm loving the program.
MIKEI just finished a year long, overseas course in Art History. I was particularly interested in the period of art deco and art nouveau. And in many of the exhibitions that I've been to, there seem to be, and hopefully your guest today can comment on this. The relationship between fine art, art deco, art nouveau and the whole fashion surge, particularly in the 1920s, 1930s. Thank you.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISure. One of the things you particularly see in the 1920s is examples of evening dresses with these amazing flat beaded designs. Clothing in the 20s is very...
REHMMy mother had one.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah. And they're remarkable.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIAnd since clothing in the 20s did not fit closely to the body, you had this really nice, wide flat panel and the beading designs are...
PRZYBYSZEWSKIUtterly beautiful. You're right. Absolutely. In the 30s, you get a different fit on the body. The waist comes back and everything was a little more closely fitted. But you do see certain elements of, I would say, I would say, a kind of drapery, a softness, which does seem to me to be more like art nouveau actually, than art deco, which had a hard geometric cast to it. I mean, at the same time, there are people who did have close relationships with artists. Schiaparelli, for example, she did surrealist clothing. Now, this is haute couture, this is not what everybody wore.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIBut, for example, she had a hat that actually looked like you were wearing a big black pump upside down on your head. I mean, in some ways, I'm a little more interested in what everyday people wore, because I think there's been a lot of interest among sisterings for haute couture, but for just the normal, everyday, you know, what were Americans wearing? There's been less work done.
REHMAnd one of our emailers, Kathleen, says how has the move to the suburbs in the 50s affected how we dress? Do you think that ushered in the casual attitude we have today about how we present ourselves?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYes, the suburbs in the 1950s are one of several different factors that brought informality to dress for most Americans. Traditionally, the divide had been between country wear, which was less formal, and city wear, which is more formal. So, if you think of the suburbs, well, they pretty much fall on the country side. And if people live their entire lives in the suburbs, and didn't go to the cities very often, they would be wearing more informal clothing. Also with the prosperity, which is what made the suburbs possible in the 1950s, more people have time for sports.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISo, they're gonna be wearing sportswear more often. They're gonna be living their lives outside more often, because they have patios, they have pools. And entertaining on a patio is not the same as going to a dinner in the big city. And so, there's definitely an increase in informal wear.
REHMBut, don't you wonder whether that sort of trend toward formal wear in the suburbs has sort of navigated itself into the city, going back to issue of how young women dress, going to work. The flip flops, for example. I mean, I wonder about flip flops as shoes.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah, flip flops are one of the -- well, if you think of the 1960s as a time when more fashion ideas came from the bottom up, or came from young people to older people, I think flip flops are definitely an example of the post 60s. Young people, very casual wear, then being accepted, well, accepted to some degree, by other people. Sort of like shower shoes at my campus, there were boys who wore their shower shoes everywhere.
REHMAnd somebody else wondered whether mens' fashions have made the same kinds of transitions that womens' fashions have.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIWell, to some degree, they have. I do think the move towards informality, which starts in the 50s and really snowballs in the 60s, has affected mens' fashions. If you think, actually, mens' fashions in the 60s and then the 70s -- do you remember the leisure suit?
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYes. Which was a kind of a safari look, polyester, no tie outfit, which my dad wore. Indeed. So, in that way, menswear has done that. At the same time, the sort of formal mens' suit has not really altered that much.
PRZYBYSZEWSKISometimes it gets a little tighter. But it's pretty static.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's see. How about to Heidi in Cincinnati, Ohio. You're on the air.
HEIDIAnd how are you?
REHMI'm good. Thanks.
HEIDII've been sewing all night, so...
REHMGood for you.
HEIDI...for me. I'm 27, and I work two other jobs here in Cincinnati. As catering, and as a waitress. And I do homemade commissions in my neighborhood, on the side, to supplement my income during this economic downturn. My liberation from the work a day world is kind of my sewing. And I participate in a sewing circle at my local arts collective. And I called in to make the point that it's about 60 percent guys.
HEIDIAnd we are all pretty young. Under 40, mostly. And they are making everything from curtains for their own homes, where they live, in a bachelor pad that's actually quite nice. Or more often, we're seeing really creative menswear. So, I know that was a point that was made earlier. And I wanted to call in and say, there is much more creative menswear out there. And a lot of us young folk doing a lot more sewing, just informally and as sort of an art project. So...
PRZYBYSZEWSKIYeah. I do -- I think there has been a rise in young men who are interested in sewing, but I also think this is one of the many crafts, if you think of men were the specialists for tailoring, for example, that men did partake in. But for the home economist, because they just sort of assumed women would be mothers, they would raise children, they would teach the boys how to dress. That's how the textbooks read. But obviously, the human impulse to create beautiful things with your hands is universal, I believe.
REHMHere's a tweet from a young woman, who says she is uncomfortable with the suggestion that choosing sexy means a woman would be taken less seriously. Doing so is a choice, not a natural reaction. She says the suggestion is anti-feminist and anti-woman. Closing comment, Linda?
PRZYBYSZEWSKII guess I'm really uncomfortable with the idea that every choice is equally valuable. And I do think that some choices we make do ourselves more harm than good. And some of them can actually put us ahead in the work world.
REHMI wonder if having gone to certain extremes with our clothing -- we may see a pulling back. You never know. Linda Przybyszewski. Her new book, with a very handsome woman on the cover, is titled "The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish." So good to talk with you.
PRZYBYSZEWSKIThank you very much for having me.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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