Design Advice from the Dress Doctors

I cannot adequately express how much I love this book — The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish.

Author Linda Przybyszewski tells the story of the early 20th century “Dress Doctors,” scores of women who worked through the Depression, World Wars, and social upheaval to help women dress attractively, appropriately, and economically.  These women had studied art, science, and industry, but had a hard time being hired in those fields, and were relegated to teaching only topics of the “women’s sphere.” Although they themselves were forerunners among professional women, and provided advice for working women as well as homemakers and volunteers, by the 1960s and 70s, they were dismissed as backwards. Home economics as a field was thought of as an area that limited women’s choices, and as a result, these women’s contributions to society have been overlooked for decades.

I would find their story interesting reading even if it were told in a dry manner, but what really makes this book for me is the informal, chatty tone Przybyszewski uses.  Having read over 700 books and pamphlets by the Dress Doctors, and constructed garments from their patterns, she is as familiar with them as if they were family members.  Flitting through the decades as she quotes from them, she sums up their common themes but brings out their individual personalities.   Some of the more memorable ones are Harriet and Vetta Goldstein, sisters with contagious enthusiasm for beauty, who taught together at the University of Minnesota for 30 years, and Mildred Graves Ryan, whom Przybyszewski compares to a cranky aunt.

Here is an excerpt on “emphasis,” illustrating how Przybyszewski freely laces together examples and quotes:

A black satin evening gown sailed down the runway in the spring of 1934.  Across one shoulder and the front bodice sprawled a seagull in full flight.  A seagull in flight is a beautiful thing, but a fake one, stuffed and sewn across the bust line, is bizarre.  if this were an event to raise money to save the seagulls, there would have been some excuse.  At a dinner party there was none at all.  The seagull dress is an example of misplaced emphasis: nobody will pay any attention to the woman wearing it.

There are plenty of other examples of goofy emphasis, some carefully preserved in museums of art.  Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous Lobster Dress looks like an advertisement for a seafood place….

Compare those monstrosities with a long, white silk jersey gown described…in 1943: ‘There is a beautiful movement of corded shirring across the shoulders, and the fullness of the garment is confined at the front with a simple tie belt.  Payed against this extreme simplicity is the owner’s beautiful topaz jewelry — a necklace, brooch, and earrings.’ The eye sweeps up the length of the gown to the shoulders, where the jewelry draws its attention, before it settles on the face.

All good dress design moves the eye upward on a garment so that it can come to rest on the face — not the breasts, not the hips, not the seagull, not the lobster….

A corollary is that anything that draws attention from the face — be it elaborate cuffs, pockets, or buckles — is ‘poor design.’  Junior-high textbooks advised students to stand in front of a full-length mirror and ask them selves a question: ‘Is the face the center of interest in your design?’  Or, God forbid, ‘Did you come to school today with a flower or bow in your hair, with a bright-colored sweater with pins, with a brilliant plaid skirt, gay ankle socks, dirty saddle shoes…?’ asked Mildred Graves Ryan. ‘Did you by any chance have the idea that you looked charming?  I hope not.’ The Goldsteins called such a look a three-ring circus.  Even too many matching accessories — hat, gloves, shoes, scarf — all in the same lively color force the eye to jump from place to place without ever settling.  Without a point of emphasis, ‘the eye grows weary and the mind confused.’  The Dress Doctors called such outfits ‘spotty.’ (pp. 69 – 71)

Looking at the fashions illustrated in the 1947 McCall’s magazine I mentioned in my previous posts, we can see that the dress patterns followed this advice.  They have clean lines but interesting details.


College dresses from McCalls’, August 1947.



Dior's "New Look" appeared in Feb. 1947. These McCall patterns were titled "A new and different look", published in Aug. 1947.

Dior’s “New Look” appeared in Feb. 1947. These McCall patterns were titled “A new and different look”, published in Aug. 1947.

“Dress, the Dress Doctors said, is one of our social duties for two reasons.  First, because the world has to look at us whether it wants to or not.  Second, because the world has work to do, and an inappropriately dressed individual can be distracting.  These two reasons explain why ‘making the most of your looks is not vanity.’ The effort ‘indicates proper self-regard and consideration of others.’  If a young woman follows the Five Art Principles, she will not be a public eyesore.  If she learns how to ‘Dress for the Occasion,’ she will not distract from the task at hand.” (p. 78)

This is a book I read from the Introduction through the Acknowledgements and deep into the Notes.  It was here that I learned about HEARTH, the archive of home economics resources at Cornell University.  And in researching for this post, I found out that there is a lot more of this information at the National Archives in Kansas City, all cataloged but not scanned or transcribed!  I hear it calling me…

Some books by the Dress Doctors that have complete editions online:

Art in Every Day Life by Harriet Goldstein and Vetta Goldstein, 1929

The Secrets of Distinctive Dress by Mary Brooks Picken, 1918 (the book that tells the origin of the phrase “Dress Doctor”)

Clothes for You by Mildred Graves Ryan and Velma Phillips, 1954