During World War I, a building went up on Boston Common. It was a prefabricated hut owned by the US Department of Agriculture. Its organizer, Mary Schenck Woolman, filled it with exhibits to teach women how to make clothing for their families, cheaply, efficiently, and fashionably. Among her tips for wartime thrift were “patterns to turn a woman’s skirt into a dress for a girl, a man’s shirt into a child’s dress, and long silk gloves into children’s stockings.”
Clothing has always been about more than simply covering the body; it reflects economics, power, gender, race, art, culture, community. In America a century ago, it was one of the few arenas (along with child care) in which women were expected to be knowledgeable and play a role, whether as consumers or creators (usually both).
Advising them were the people Linda Przybyszewski refers to as the “Dress Doctors’’ in her vividly entertaining new book. Largely a history of women’s attire in the first half of the 20th century and the social and aesthetic forces that shaped it, “The Lost Art of Dress’’ also serves as a call to American women to reconsider the importance of personal fashion.
The Notre Dame history professor’s Dress Doctors were not actually a formally organized group. Some taught in classrooms and county extension programs, instructing women and girls in sewing and other domestic arts; others edited magazines and wrote books. In an era infatuated by theories of scientific management, even the federal government stepped in to help women run their homes and lives as efficiently as possible.
Along with usefulness, though, the Dress Doctors promoted beauty, independence, and pride. The advice they gave American women exhorted them to improve not only the way they dressed, but the way they lived.
Woolman was one of the most influential of these women; another was Mary Brooks Pickens of the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in Scranton, Pa., who along with her husband authored articles for women’s magazines about how clothing sense turned “a shabby little stranger” into “the best dressed girl in town.” Despite small differences in perspective, most were white and middle class, and all shared an almost evangelic zeal for the virtues of dressing well.
Although she covers familiar narratives — rising and falling hemlines, style icons, economic bust and boom — her interest centers on the average women, married or single, working or just working at home, who wanted the best possible wardrobe her often-slim budget could provide. “The Dress Doctors,” Przybyszewski writes, “wanted to empower young women by giving them the financial tools they needed to survive as businesswomen or home women.”
Besides efficiency and professionalism, Przybyszewski writes, the Dress Doctors cared about beauty. Not every outfit looks good on every woman (a point that seems obvious, until you find yourself staring at the rack at Ann Taylor), and understanding the aesthetic elements of clothing could help guide any woman.
Przybyszewski arranges her fascinating and valuable book thematically, with diverting digressions into the history, say, of women wearing pants, but one area in which readers might yearn for more is the stories of the Dress Doctors themselves.
We learn about Woolman’s fall from privilege to poverty — and its influence on her later devotion to thrift — but at times it’s hard to keep straight the various women, and some of their biographies cry out for expansion — for instance, Ella Mae Washington, one of the few black Dress Doctors, who wrote a 1949 book, “Color in Dress (For Dark-Skinned Peoples).” The Dress Doctors saw their influence fade as the century wore on. Women began to challenge why being beautiful had to be their job. Some saw fashion as “a sexist ploy to waste women’s time.’’
While the Dress Doctors’ prescriptions could sound severe (“no emotional colors, no revelatory designs or fabrics, no temperamental hats or shoes” for the outfit of a woman at work or traveling), their acceptance and even celebration of women at difference ages and sizes is, Przybyszewski notes, sorely missed in today’s fashion industry. Maybe we can still learn from them. “The Dress Doctors have been forgotten,” she argues, “but they deserve our attention.”