“The Lost Art of Dress” by Linda Przybyszewski, Basic Books (2014), $28.99, 347 pages


Your mama dressed you funny.

She couldn’t help it, though: frou-frou garments with bows and buttons, snaps and poufs, polka-dots and ruffles were all that were available when you were a child.

And besides, you were so darn cute. At least, that’s what Grandma said. But what the heck was she wearing — and why? Read “The Lost Art of Dress” by Linda Przybyszewski and find out.

Back at the turn of the last century, when more people lived in rural areas than in cities, the Secretary of Agriculture, David F. Houston, grew concerned that farm life was uncomfortable. He sent out a survey to farmwives and was surprised to learn that fashion and “art” were important to them.

In 1914, the USDA answered rural pleas for help through state-run public programs called “cooperatives.” Co-ops allowed an influential group of female experts to teach women and girls, among other things, how to stretch a dollar and to look their best doing it. Przybyszewski calls those experts “dress doctors.”

This came at a time when fashion was simple: there was a dress for church and a dress for everyday. Two dresses were all that most farmwomen had and, when the Depression hit, they were furthermore tasked with clothing family members on less than a dollar apiece for the entire year. The dress doctors had a fix for that.

Through classes, pamphlets, and books they penned, the dress doctors showed that dressing well was relatively easy. They weighed in on thrift, using whatever fabric was at-hand, repurposing garments and getting today’s look with pieces of yesterday’s dresses.

In the post-war years, the dress doctors tried to get women to settle on a standard style, believing that ever-changing fashion was frivolous. They instructed readers to find comfortable shoes, and they explained how to wear one suit to work for up to three weeks. They advised against pants. They taught women — mostly women of “European descent” — about hygiene, modesty, proper times to wear gloves, right ways to find a flattering hat, and what colors to wear — or not. But by the early 1960s, fashion changed radically. Frumpy was out, replaced with miniskirts and jeans. Corset use was dying. Dressing your age was dead. And so, it seemed, was the usefulness of dress doctor advice.

So you haven’t a thing to wear? Then “prepare to feel ashamed,” writes Przybyszewski. And prepare to be at least a little bit wistful about bygone fashions, too, because “The Lost Art of Dress” is surprisingly sentimental.

And yet — this book isn’t about going back in time, clothes-wise. Indeed, Przybyszewski agrees with her dress doctors sometimes, but she also sprinkles history and humor in between modern advice here, entertaining as she instructs. The book is kind of like finding piles of old women’s magazines in Grandma’s attic. For modern-day fashionistas who sometimes love a good throw-back, “The Lost Art of Dress” has that all buttoned up.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3, and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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