Q. Who were the “Dress Doctors”?
A. The Dress Doctors were three groups of people. The biggest group was the one who was trained in home economics. Very often they worked at the land-grant universities, either in costume or textile departments, and ran what were called “extension programs,” which we would think of as public outreach programs that were sponsored by the USDA. They also wrote textbooks for junior high school girls, high school girls, and college texts for people who were planning on working in costume and textile [industries].
The second group was a smaller group that worked in retail. They also wrote books and trained people who ran department stores, and were buyers for various departments in stores. The thing to keep in mind was that there was a point in time when sales clerks were actually trained in helping people pick out what to buy. Today we’re pretty much left on our own in a large store.
The third group of women were what I call “the Independents.” These women had different backgrounds, but they taught and wrote books on dress design and sewing. They often ran their own academies and their books were referred to by other dress doctors as well. So even though they were not affiliated with large institutions, they were quite influential as well.
How did you first learn about these groups of women?
You know, at first I had no inkling that these women existed or had such important professional lives at the universities. My first inkling was when I came across a book called “Clothes For You.” It was an enormous book about the art of dress and the science of sewing. One of the things that really drew my attention to the book was that it had reading lists, and I started to collect the different books referenced in the reading lists which brought me further and further back in time.
It also brought my attention to a number of pamphlets that the USDA had written about clothing. And when you first think about the USDA teaching people how to dress, it just makes no damn sense.And then I figured out that the Bureau of Home Economics was based at the USDA.While men were going to be in charge of agriculture and mechanics, women were going to be in charge of the domestic world, so there was this special professional niche for women where they didn’t have to fight with men for space or power. As a result, the group of home economics was founded in 1923 by the USDA. So subsequently the USDA actually became the largest employer of women scientists in the country.
What was their fashion philosophy?
These women drew upon the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement, which started in Britain in the 19th century. Their idea was that things that were not useful were not beautiful. So, for example, if you can’t walk in your shoes they weren’t considered beautiful because the human body is beautiful—the healthy, in-motion, functioning human body is beautiful—so they always had this balance between utility that really merged with the decorative arts. A vase that can’t hold water isn’t a very useful vase, right? [To them,] a dress in which a woman can’t fully walk, like the hobble skirt like in the 1910’s which got really narrow at the anklewasn’t beautiful either.
They were really taking some 19th century ideas about how god’s creation is beautiful. Women in the 19th century were believed to be more spiritual than men, and therefore they had some sort of understanding, a special sensitivity to beauty, because all beauty in effect, is a kind of patterning after god’s patterning that you see in nature. [To them,] beauty was not just for wealthy people, it wasn’t just bought by money—it could be accomplished by knowledge and application of principles. You didn’t need a big wardrobe, you just needed a beautiful wardrobe. And that can be really small, that can be just a few pieces.
What do you make of fashion today and how do you feel about thrift stores?
Thrift stores are near and dear to my heart. There are a couple of things that are going on today that really make this a different world for fashion. One is that clothing has become so much cheaper. And so I think one of the reasons people are drawn to vintage clothing is not just the general higher quality, but also the quality found in the details. I mean you can’t look at a dress that was made before the 1970’s and not be really struck by the enormous creative thought that went into it. Part of that is that you just saw such attention to detail, in the colors, lines and other details.In many ways, the 1960’s was the turning point, as things started to simplify to the point of, what I’d say, “simplicity to stupidity.”
For example, the first time I started going through sewing magazines from the 1930’s, I actually started to prefer sewing magazines to fashion magazines in some ways. Because in order to sell a pattern, they had to show you every line, because you weren’t going to buy the pattern if you didn’t understand exactly how the dress was cut. But when I first started going through them, I was just floored by the collars. By the 1970s, we didn’t really have that many options for types of collars. But in the 1930’s everyone was doing what these “dress doctors” were telling them to, which was to emphasize the face. Clothing tried to bring attention and detail as far up the body as possible. So the necklines, the collars, the ways in which things were flounced and tied, bowed and trimmed—it was just like, “Wow, I haven’t seen this type of variety in an entire year of looking at department store [catalogs], as I had in a couple pages of a 1930’s magazine.”
What kind of impact has capitalism and business had on clothing?
It has been true across the centuries—industrialists chase the cheapest labor—they went wherever it was. When it was in the American south, that’s where they went; when it moved overseas, that’s where they went. Realize today that people spend maybe 6% of their income on clothing, whereas you needed like 15% in the 1920’s, 30’s, or 40’s. Clothing has become cheaper, but one of the ways in which it has become cheaper is through that simplification.There used to a lot more sweat equity that went into making clothing. That’s why the flour sack dresses [from the Great Depression era] were so great because the fabric needed to be bleached, needed to be dyed, etc. And when manufacturers figured out what women were doing, they decided to start competing on the print fabrics used to hold their flour under the thinking, “if we offer more beautiful prints, they might start buying more of our flour.”
Those women would’ve had a very small wardrobe, and so each piece in it had to be something that they really loved, that really suited their lives, because they weren’t going to buy 20 shirts like we can today. They were going to have, maybe, three dresses.
For more information about 'The Lost Art of Dress', check out the New York Times' book review here.
Dr. Przybyszewski's book can be purchased here.
Dr. Linda Przybyszewski is an Associate Professor of United States History at the University of Notre Dame. Her most recent book, 'The Lost Art of Dress', examines 20th century American fashion and the professional women, dubbed the "the Dress Doctors", who taught others how to dress and "once made America stylish." Dr. Przybyszewski received her B.A. from Northwestern University and her Ph.D. in U.S. History from Stanford University.