Fashion and Flesh

Granted, I had style on the brain.  I don’t often, but I was right in the middle of reading “The Lost Art of Dress:  The Women Who Once Made America Stylish” by Linda Przybyszewski (which I beg you to spare me from pronouncing out loud).  To then immerse myself in the visual shock that is the varying degree of near nudity at a U.S. beach, why, that is a recipe for some strong opinions.

The book, ah I adored it.  The history of the Dress Doctors, ladies who guided American ladies from the late 1800’s through the early 1960’s into thrifty, dignified, elegant, and beautiful sewing and assembling of their wardrobes.  They guided women into lovely suits that made men take them seriously in the new areas of employment that were grudgingly being opened up to them.  They showed farm wives how to sew attractive house dresses from cotton seed sacks.  This was no shallow endeavor orbiting around the whims of haute couture.  They gave patterns not just for clothing, but for beauty, modesty, dignity, and frugality.

Linda gathered up all the lost wisdom that the sixties booted out in the name of liberation, such as:  how to age gracefully and beautifully through choices in colors and fabrics that flatter the aging body, what cuts and colors are best for which complexions, how to use a few basic garments to make a wide variety of attractive ensembles, how drawing attention to the face, via a scarf or another accessory is far more effective at engaging people than putting the interest down at your feet via cute footwear, that a balance must be struck between revealment and concealment; too much revealing at once negating the effect hoped for, etc.

To go from this engaging read to the parade of bikini-clad bodies from toddlers to elderly women caused a bit of cognitive whiplash.  One elderly lady in particular struck me.  She had a rather nice shape, one could tell that she had cared for her body and that it still served her well.  But she wore a bikini, which revealed between the patches of fabric the undulating waves of wrinkles and spilling skin across her belly, sagging down to half cover the bottoms.  The whole of her beauty was stunted by the sight of that unruly swath of skin.  The Dress Doctors would have been shocked that she would display herself this way, not because of their own sensitivities, but in reaction to how the woman had violated her own dignity.  While part of me cheers her for not caring and wearing what she wanted, another part said that she had lost by her liberty.

The Dress Doctors would encourage us to emphasize our best features and minimize our flaws.  Beautiful eyes but pudgy arms?  Wear a color that draws out the color of the eyes and wear a little bolero jacket over sleeveless outfits.  As I gazed out over the beachgoers today it was painfully clear that these hints are needed more than ever.  The fashion houses here fail us.  The magazine covers too.  Here we need the wisdom that used to be common knowledge, the advice that would lead us gracefully through life’s bodily stages in dignity and beauty, rather than a mono-style of endless youth.

So, read the book, will you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  And me?  I am downright inspired.


6 thoughts on “Fashion and Flesh

  1. My mom somehow picked up some 80s book on the same- colors, patterns, shoe types for types of legs- and Deb and I pored over that in our tweens. Since I love knowing “what´s right” it provided a good base for my own style choices and learning to be content, if not proud, with my “good” features rather than lamenting the “less than good ones”… A little guidance is always helpful if only to help us take more ownership of our bodies and taste. I think Deb thinks “screw all that” but I do wonder how much of that book speaks to her from her subconcious 😉

  2. I just came across Professor Pski’s website ( and book this week (can’t remember where). I was particularly struck by the Dress Doctors’ advice on “how to age gracefully and beautifully through choices in colors and fabrics that flatter the aging body.” This aging body needs to know how to age gracefully. What a contrast, as you described, from the current thinking of how to look young at all costs.

    I am old enough to have had one of the first Barbie dolls, and I looked forward to the time I was old enough to wear the beautiful styles Barbie had. I felt cheated when I was older and the mini-skirt became de rigueur. No crinoline petticoats, no circle skirts. Sigh. Maybe I’ll just have to sew them myself as Professor Pski has.

    1. Oh yes, Constance. If we were neighbors, I’d suggest a weekly sewing time together :). I’ve tossed around the idea for years of dressing just exactly in the clothes that I think loveliest (Regency era dresses, 1950’s house dresses, etc), but keep coming up at the impediments of cost and lack of know-how, alongside a lingering sense that my friends would be embarrassed to be seen with me, HA! What I desire is to take the Dress Doctor’s advice and weave it with clothes that don’t demand attention by their oddness, neither bend to all current trends. I do believe it quite possible to achieve that ideal, even with my many children afoot :).

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