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  • Writer's pictureLonda

Harmony & Shape in Dress: Dress Doctors ‘Lost Art of Dress’

If how we ‘dress’ these days makes you cringe as it does me, I’m confident you’ll enjoy this very intriguing book of history and common sense regarding Clothing:  The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski.

Dress Doctors book

The Lost Art of Dress

Dress Doctors defined:   The author stumbled by a 500 page book from 1954:  Clothes for You that “taught the art and science of dress, explaining that beauty in dress can only be achieved by applying the principles of art to clothing. ”  As one in a long line of family sewers, and with high interest in fashion, she then went on to discover “hundreds of books and pamphlets written to teach the American woman how to dress for the 20th century.  Millions of girls read these in home economics classes and in 4-H clothing clubs. ”  Her discoveries and exhaustive reading led her to realize that “these books and pamphlets were written by a remarkable group of women who worked as teachers, writers, retailers, and designers…who offered advice in classrooms, on radio, at women’s clubs and in magazines.  They even enlisted the federal government in their efforts through the Bureau of Home Economics.”  The author calls these women “The Dress Doctors”. Mary Brooks Picken was the first among them.  For more on Mary Brooks Picken, check out Vintage Notions – another GREAT book.  Find it HERE.  Through April 3, 2016 I’m offering Vintage Notions at 25% savings.  

“Do we not express ourselves through the clothes we wear as much as through what we say and what we do?  asked Picken.   Picken helped found the Costume Institute, which is now a 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 (FIT).  The Dress Doctors felt that beautiful clothes were not for the few, but for everybody, at a cost that all could afford.  World War I called upon women to replace men in factories, while housewives learned to conserve food and clothing.  Six occasions for dress were identified:

  1. School

  2. Business

  3. Housework

  4. Sport

  5. Afternoons

  6. Evenings

This book is so rich in history and observation, I find it hard to flip through pages without sharing it all, but I proceed……  but the Dress Doctors operated on the premise of thought that: “Think of the body as a canvas, the fabric as the oil points, and the woman’s personality as the idea ‘to be given visible form’ through clothing.”  They took their ideas and reworked the into the Five Art Principles.  These exact principles were drilled into my head in both clothing design and interior design classes during my Bachelor’s studies in the early 1970’s at the University of Illinois.  Which is no wonder, as I studied at ‘Bevier Hall’ so named for one of the Dress Doctors, chemist Isabel Bevier!  ( Another of the Dress Doctors, Leona Hope, taught at the University of Illinois as well!

Those Five Art Principles are:  Harmony, Rhythm, Balance, Proportion, and Emphasis

Let’s talk about HARMONY.  It is like a ‘strong family resemblance’.  All the parts of an outfit need to look as though they are related.  Digging even further (and I remember this from numerous lectures), Harmony has 4 elements:  Shape, Texture, Idea, and Color.

To the nitty gritty:  “No dress can be really beautiful which in any way hampers action.” says designer Elizabeth Hawes in 1942.   She goes on:  “When clothing restrains the body or gets in the way, it requires its wearer to use up more psychic and physical energy, which amounts to as much as 10% decrease in efficiency.”

The 2 important violations of the principle of harmony in shape in the early 20th century were Corsets and High, Pointy Shoes.

The death of corsets was celebrated as an end to the days when they rendered women ‘weak, faint’ and frail creatures’.   

And onto SHOES…’ll find this VERY interesting:  

Hats were out of vogue, and women’s most frivolous urges had to be channeled somewhere and SHOES were it!


Leona Hope of the University of Illinois had estimated, in 1919, that half of the young women in her classes had ‘hopelessly enlarged big-toe joints’ from wearing High Heals.  Women were, indeed, crippling themselves.  In 2016, I wonder what she would say regarding pointy shoes worn WITHOUT hosiery, and flipflops worn constantly….. 

From a Girl Scout Magazine of 1927:  “If you want to be graceful, to work with fine freedom and to stand without tiring, don’t mistreat your feet.  Give them their chance to carry your body well.”

Nine years later, women were still mincing along in high heels with pointy toes.  Dress Doctors decided it was because women misunderstood the nature  of beauty.  “They say that the narrow, pointed shoe has more slender lines and graceful proportion than the low-heeled broader-toed shoe:… but “The lines and proportion of the human body are beautiful, and clothing must not contradict those lines and proportions if it is to meet the first requirement of well-designed clothing. ”

To further tempt you to get and enjoy this book along with me: The synopsis of this great book at Amazon HERE reads as follows…

“As a glance down any street in America quickly reveals, American women have forgotten how to dress. We chase fads, choose inappropriate materials and unattractive cuts, and waste energy tottering in heels when we could be moving gracefully. Quite simply, we lack the fashion know-how we need to dress professionally and flatteringly.

As historian and expert dressmaker Linda Przybyszewski reveals in The Lost Art of Dress, it wasn’t always like this. In the first half of the twentieth century, a remarkable group of women—the so-called Dress Doctors—taught American women how to stretch each yard of fabric and dress well on a budget. Knowledge not money, they insisted, is the key to timeless fashion. Based in Home Economics departments across the country, the Dress Doctors offered advice on radio shows, at women’s clubs, and in magazines. Millions of young girls read their books in school and at 4-H clothing clubs. As Przybyszewski shows, the Dress Doctors’ concerns weren’t purely superficial: they prized practicality, and empowered women to design and make clothing for both the workplace and the home. They championed skirts that would allow women to move about freely and campaigned against impractical and painful shoes. Armed with the Dress Doctors’ simple design principles—harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis—modern American women from all classes could learn to dress for all occasions in a way 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.”

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