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Dress Doctors prescribed a dose of classic style for Americans

| Monday, May 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

These doctors stitched fashionable clothing.

In the first half of the 20th century, a remarkable group of women — the so-called Dress Doctors — not only taught Americans how to dress well, but they spearheaded a nationwide movement toward beautiful, economical and egalitarian fashion. Knowledge, not money, they insisted, is the key to timeless fashion.

They helped women stretch each yard of fabric and dress well on a budget. 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.

“The Dress Doctors prized practicality and empowered women to design and make clothing for both the workplace and the home,” says Linda Przybyszewski, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, in her book “The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish” (Basic Books, $28.99). “For example, they championed skirts that would allow women to move about freely and campaigned against impractical and painful shoes.”

She addresses topics such as who the Dress Doctors were and where they've gone, along with their principles for beauty.

“The Dress Doctors may have been forgotten, but they deserve our attention,” Przybyszewski says. “How valuable would this advice be today when American women are mired in credit-card debt, urged to shopping frenzy and when the most common yardstick of attractiveness is who's wearing the shortest dress? Many voices offer fashion advice today, but, unlike the Dress Doctors, they say little about overarching principles of style.”

Today, we chase fads, choose inappropriate materials and unattractive cuts and waste energy tottering in heels when we could be moving gracefully, she says.

“Quite simply, we lack the fashion know-how we need to dress professionally and beautifully,” she says.

Przybyszewski collected and studied more than 700 books and magazines on dress and sewing. The first publication she discovered was a 1954 college textbook “Clothes for You” — 500 pages that taught the art and science of dress, explaining that beauty in dress can be achieved only by applying the principles of art to clothing.

She found there were hundreds of books and pamphlets written to teach the American woman how to dress for the 20th century. They were written by a remarkable group of women who worked as teachers, retailers and designers. Przybyszewski called them Dress Doctors after a story told by Mary Brooks Picken, the first among them. A skilled female physician turned to Picken for help. She prescribed a professional wardrobe for the doctor who noticed her colleagues and others treated her with more respect when she dressed well.

Przybyszewski comes from a long line of sewing women. She's won blue ribbons, made cocktail dresses and even fashioned a coat for her dog.

There was a time girls looked forward to the day they could wear sophisticated clothing of grown women. Complicated cuts and draped styles were reserved for the woman over 30. Old age was seen as a time when a woman deserved a stately and magnificent wardrobe.

The women's movement, the Cold War and the fact that suburban life blurred the traditional distinction between formal city clothes and casual country wear all led to the eclipse of the Dress Doctors.

They emphasized simple design principles — harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis — so that modern American women from all classes could learn to dress for all occasions in a way that made them confident, engaged members of society.

“Beautiful clothes should be part of contemporary art,” Przybyszewski says. “Not beautiful clothes just for a few, but beautiful clothes for everybody, and at a cost that all can afford. There was so much intelligence poured into design with the Dress Doctors. There was a wide set of principles that got cast aside.”

Today, Americans are known for their sloppy dressing, but she wants people to know it wasn't always that way.

“An Englishwoman who came to the States after World War II marveled at the inherent good taste of the American woman,” Przybyszewski says. “But American women weren't born with good taste. They learned it from the Dress Doctors. And we can learn it again.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at jharrop@tribweb.com or 412-320-7889.

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