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The Week in Books: The Lost Art of Dress

I’ve said before that I’ve been clearing out my physical books the past few years; it’s my goal to eventually have my library only on my kindle, because then, when we move, I can just pack all my books in one teeny tiny box.  I’m down to about 2-3 shelves, and working my way through them.  Since I attend librarian and publisher conferences, I’m often tempted by galley copies (though after joining netgalley, that temptation has subsided considerably) and at a recent conference I met Linda Przybyszewski, who wrote The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, and she gave me a copy of the book.

It’s a history book about the Dress Doctors, an informal group of women who founded Home Economics departments in universities, and took the growing knowledge of the Scientific Method, and applied it to creating a lovely home, through cooking, decorating, and of course, dress.  These women continued educating housewives and homemakers in schools and university Home Ec departments until they started to lose popularity after the second wave of the women’s movement in the 60’s, when many women started to see the Dress Doctor’s ideas as quaint and silly.

As a side note, I should say that I had Home Ec in both Junior High and High School.  I failed miserably at making a pair of shorts using a pattern during the sewing portion, and I rebelled against many of the etiquette rules we were taught during the cooking and serving portions (ie wtf is this open faced sandwich, and oh, by the way, I may have started a fire in the oven) but I did get a lot out of the household budgeting unit.  And I still make the coffee cake that we made in 8th grade.

One of the most interesting things I’ve come across so far is the Hobble Skirt, a trend that took America by hobble-skirt-race-1910storm from about 1910-1913 (and of which, it should be noted, the Dress Doctors vehemently disapproved because of how impractical it was…fashion should be both beautiful and practical, they believed.  They would hate Lady Gaga).

The Hobble Skirt was named after a hobble, which was used on livestock to keep them from moving around too much.  It’s a great great grandmother to today’s tight straight skirts that require slits in order for the wearer to sit down.  The skirts had a number of influences, but a French designer called Paul Poiret claimed to have designed them.  The idea is that the skirts are so tight that you can’t walk easily, and you hobble around taking very tiny steps.

It should be noted that this trend caught fire right around the time when women were lobbying to get the vote.  I think there’s something poetic about the fact that women’s fashion embraced tiny strides while at the same time women were making giant strides in politics.

The skirts were borderline dangerous.  There were numerous times when women had to pull their skirts up above their knee to get away from oncoming streetcars.  And trams had to have special Hobble Skirt cars so that women could get in and out of them.  Eighteen year old Ida Goyette even died while making the questionable decision to wear one while walking across a bridge over the Erie Canal.  She tripped stepping over a lock, and in she went.

Eventually hemlines expanded to allow women to walk normally again, but for several years everyone was tottering around in supertight dresses risking death in order to be fashionable.  This book is an interesting history of fashion and the women who helped create and dictate fashion for half a century.