SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — No one is sure when super-tight clothing, visible bra straps, flip flops and cleavage on display became ubiquitous in the workplace, but Linda Przybyszewski knows one thing.
The 1960s had a lot to do with it.
“In the 1950s, the goal was to look sophisticated,” said Przybyszewski, a University of Notre Dame history professor and author of the new book “The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish.”
After the 1960s, the goal of looking sophisticated was abandoned and largely forgotten, she told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/1trfezg ).
“The Lost Art of Dress” chronicles the careers of a group of women in the first half of the 20th century — Przybyszewski calls them the Dress Doctors — who taught girls and women how to sew and dress based on principles of art, design and economy. The Dress Doctors offered advice in home economics classes, on radio shows, at women’s clubs and in popular magazines.
In Przybyszewski’s view, American women have forgotten how to dress for work or leisure — chasing trends, choosing the wrong materials, and donning garments for the sake of fad rather than elegance or sophistication.
The book has struck a chord. It made the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, and Przybyszewski has been interviewed on national radio shows and was featured on “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Popular TV shows, including “Downton Abbey” and “Mad Men,” have made Americans curious about earlier eras when people dressed more formally and elegantly.
At Notre, Dame, Przybyszewski — her students have nicknamed her “Professor Pski” — teaches a course titled “A Nation of Slobs.” It’s an interdisciplinary class that examines the history of dress during the 20th century, the economics of the garment industry and the shifts in public tastes regarding clothing.
“I draw attention to two enormous shifts,” she said. The first was during the 1920s, when hem lines rose to knee level and women abandoned corsets. The second was during the 1960s when women gave up girdles and popular fashion turned from elegance to grown women wanting to dress as youthful as possible, including in thigh-high baby doll dresses.
Emma Terhaar, 20, a Notre Dame senior, took Przybyszewski’s course. She said the class made her consider fashion and clothing with a more discerning eye.
“It made me think more about dressing my age,” Terhaar said. For example, she thinks cutoff shorts are a teen style and she’s moving away from that look.
As a result of the course, Terhaar said she’s more likely to spend a bit more money on a well-made, classic item of clothing that she expects to wear a long time.
Przybyszewski grew up in suburban Chicago and has been sewing her own clothes since childhood. She still sews, sometimes on a 1952 Singer Slant-O-Matic sewing machine she inherited from her grandmother.
For this interview, the professor was wearing a sleeveless blue- and white-striped sundress that she sewed from a vintage dress pattern. In the 1950s, such a dress would have been appropriate for a gathering of friends on a suburban patio, she said. Worn in the city, fashion would have required a jacket, she said.
There is an unwritten dress code that college students follow, including those at Notre Dame, Przybyszewski said. The accepted code is generally pants, shorts and other casual attire. If students dare to dress differently, such as wearing a tie or a tailored skirt, they’ll find themselves facing such questions as, “Do you have a job interview?” she said.
She doesn’t limit her critique to women, referring to today’s unofficial uniform among young men of cargo shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps. “I think our standards for male clothing are so low, people are just hoping they bathe,” she said.
In the days of the Dress Doctors, women learned to choose clothing carefully, examining details of design, seeking out quality fabric and cuts, and expecting to wear a dress for at least three years. “Americans have been chasing cheap prices for so long, we’ve hit bottom (in terms of quality),” the professor said.
Przybyszewski hasn’t given up hope that Americans will develop an interest in learning to dress elegantly and appropriately. Just as trends in cooking have created “foodies” who seek out information and try new approaches in the kitchen, that same sort of trend could catch on regarding clothing, she said.
“I do believe it’s possible, if you introduce people to a body of knowledge, it may change their behavior,” she said.
After all, that’s what the Dress Doctors accomplished.
Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com