The Lost Art of Dress: An Interview with Author Linda Przybyszewski

I stumbled over the book The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski when I was researching 1930s fashions. I was looking for something - anything - that resembled the common comfortable yet pretty house dress of the 1930s. You know the type. The kind Mrs. Walton wore. The kind my grandmother and maybe your great grandmother wore. Machine washable, flattering, feminine, comfortable. Well, I never did find that dress. I did, however, find Linda's book, and I'm grateful that I did.

The book is excellent. The author chronicles the evolution (or rather, de-volution in my opinion) of fashion from the late Victorian era through the 1970s. Because Dr. P is a historian by profession rather than a fashion designer, she brings a sense of history to the book. It is extraordinarily well-researched and interesting to read. The influence of the times, the changing roles of women, and the baby boomers on how we dress today is fascinating.

Dr. P graciously granted my request for an interview for A Return to Elegance. I will cross post links on The Writer Readers, my book review blog, since this is also a book review of sorts. Thank you to Dr. P and her publicist for the interview!

You can purchase a copy of The Lost Art of Dress from Amazon (this is my affiliate link).

An Interview with Linda Przybyszewski, author of The Lost Art of Dress

Dr. Linda Przybyszewski, author of "The Lost Art of Dress"
 (Image provided by her publicist)

A Return to Elegance (ARTE):  What was your inspiration for writing “The Lost Art of Dress?”  

Linda Przybyszewski (LP): I’ve been sewing my whole life and about 10 years ago I came across a college textbook from the 1950s that taught the art of dress. I was so surprised that such a volume existed that I began collecting books like it. I soon realized there was an entire way of thinking about dress that has been forgotten. It turns out that hundreds of pamphlets and books were written on the topic, and millions of girls read them in 4-H clothing clubs, and in home economics classes. 

ARTE:  You wrote the book as a historian, but I understand from your website that you are also a skilled seamstress and milliner. How did your interest in fashion begin?

LP: Since I was a little kid, I loved to make things with my hands. My mother sewed clothes for my sister and me, and I began sewing too. I was making most of my clothes by the time I was in college. Hat-making is actually a new craft for me that I took on once I realized how important hats had been to a woman’s wardrobe. I wanted to know how they were designed and made. Not to mention that making them is a lot of fun. There’s nothing like thinking up a playful cocktail hat for amusement. 

ARTE: Among the advice dispensed by the Dress Doctors over the decades, can you share what you believe are the three most important tips they dispensed?


1) Dress for the task at hand. If you are at work, you need to wear something that makes clear you are a serious and competent person. That doesn’t mean it has to be boring, but it does need to be more sober than party wear. Darker colors, tailored cuts mean that your clothes won’t distract you or anyone else during working hours. Save your more frivolous and flirty clothes for your more frivolous and flirty social hours. 

2) Emphasize the face. This follows the principle of art that an ensemble should have one point of emphasis and it should be near your face, so that people remember you and what you say. To do that you need to bring a brighter or lighter color, or some design feature, up near your face. The Dress Doctors loved collars, and dresses from the past had an impressive variety of collars, but you could use a piece of jewelry or a scarf. 

3) Now, get on with your life. The Dress Doctors loved clothes and fashion, but they told their students that they should cultivate their whole lives by paying attention to their family, friends, community and nation, and to culture and to sports, not just fashion. They wanted women master the principles that would allow them to dress beautifully and thriftily for the occasions in their lives, and then they wanted them to get on with their lives. Following the frantic trends of “fast fashion” of today would have struck them as a waste of time and money.  

ARTE: In “The Lost Art of Dress,” you present so many ideas from the past that were once integral to a fashionable woman’s notion of dress and style. Among these ideas, which ones do you think today’s woman can incorporate into her lifestyle to dress with elegance and style now?

LP: The Dress Doctors taught that five principles of art created beauty in dress: harmony, rhythm, balance, proportion, and emphasis. I mentioned emphasis above, but harmony was very important too and the idea of harmony of color is an easy one to follow. There are many ways to harmonize colors, but they two that are the most straightforward are single-color harmonies, and neighboring harmonies. Single-color harmonies take one color and then add variations of that color, variations that would be created in paints by adding white or black to it. So a navy blue dress trimmed with a paler blue collar and cuffs is an example. The neighboring color harmonies are next to each other on the color wheel. For example, a dress made out of a print that mixes orange and yellow. Such color harmonies are found in nature, and were common in the past in prints, and they are still pleasing to the eye. 

ARTE: I’m in an online group devoted to dressing femininely and modestly according to the guidelines of my Catholic faith. One of the ladies in our group said that she bought several slips and camisoles at a second hand shop and the teenage cashier asked her what they were - she had never seen slips or camisoles before and had to ask how they were worn, and why. It had never occurred to the young cashier that flashing your bra through a light blouse wasn’t classy.  How can we help young people today develop more style and flair so that they don’t see ripped jeans, short-shorts and flip flops as appropriate garments for work, school, church or funerals? (I’ve seen t-shirts and flip flops at funerals and wakes, unfortunately.)  

LP:  Well, you could give each of them a copy of my book! ;-)  (I actually think that is a GREAT idea - JG)

I suspect that we need to re-introduce the word “occasion” back into our vocabulary in a broader context than special occasions. The Dress Doctors identified six occasions for dress: school, business or travel or street wear, housework, active and spectator sports, afternoon affairs, and evenings. The only one that has really disappeared from our lives is afternoon affairs; most of us don’t take tea anymore as an event. But all the rest are still occasions in our lives. Dressing for the occasion was a social duty then and it still is. The Dress Doctors often wrote that dressing for the occasion showed respect for yourself and for others. It may have helped that in the past young people looked forward to becoming grown-ups with greater privileges and responsibilities, grown-ups who wore more serious and sophisticated clothing than children. After the 1960s, dressing as young as possible became the goal of even grown women. As a result, our culture doesn’t seem to value the dignity that adulthood once conveyed. I should add that they also thought that dressing was a pleasure, a way to bring beauty into our lives.  

ARTE: My readers are very interested in “returning to elegance” - in the home, in their lifestyle, and especially in their clothing choices. Can you recommend any lessons from your book that a modern woman could easily implement today to ‘return to elegance’?

LP: Interestingly, the Dress Doctors did not use the word “elegance” but the word “beauty.” They may have feared that elegance sounded too much like it required money, when they were determined to bring beauty into the life of every American. Beauty in dress requires only knowledge according to them. Even a cotton housedress can be beautiful if its design follows the principles of art in dress. They were borrowing from the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement. One of its founders, William Morris, once wrote, “Have nothing in your house you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Which is still pretty good advice. 

Thank you to Dr. P for taking the time to participate in this interview!  She provided several wonderful excerpts form her book, which I'm delighted to share with you in the upcoming days. We can truly learn a great deal about wearing beautiful clothing that suits our modern lives from the Dress Doctors and The Lost Art of Dress!