Wife Dressing: The Fine Art of Being a Well Dressed Wife, with Provocative Notes for the Patient Husband Who Pays the Bills, by Anne Fogarty. Originally published in 1959, then re-released in 2008.
I know this wasn’t on the short list of books I referred to as my summer reading list. I think I’ll refrain from posting what’s in the queue because it changes on a dime with one trip to the library or bookstore. This book, Wife Dressing, is one that I stumbled upon in my local library which instantly captured and sustained my attention from beginning to end.
First up, this is not (I repeat NOT) a book for crunchy girls. If that’s you, save yourself the trouble of reading any further and catch me next week when I review something deep like C.S.Lewis. This book was written almost entirely with the city or suburban wife in mind. Factor in that it was written in the 1950’s and there is all kinds of stuff that would make even the most well dressed 21st century wife cringe. Or at least drop her jaw in disbelief.
There were parts of this book that I genuinely enjoyed, and plan to put into practice. Some of it left me incredulous that I hadn’t thought about these things. We’ll get to that in a minute, but it’s worth noting that Ann Fogarty was a successful fashion designer and New York socialite. In other word, a rich chick whose life was in many ways foreign to most of us. Some of her advice just isn’t transferable. At least not to me.
However, it was entertaining and a lot of it is transferable. It is transferable because when I get dressed, I am “wife dressing” in the truest sense of the phrase. My husband has strong opinions about my appearance, his likes and dislikes, and has no trouble offering an immediate thumbs down (or thumbs up!) to what I drape myself with day to day. That brings me to the first chuckle worthy quote I ran across in Wife Dressing:
The most dangerous threat to successful wife dressing is triumphant cry, “I’m married! The battle is won!”
To paraphrase John Paul Jones: “You have not yet begun to fight.”
The wedding is only the beginning. When your husband’s eyes light up as he comes in at night, you’re in sad shape if it’s only because he smells dinner cooking (p.10)
I agree. You crunchy gals with crunchy husbands have it good, so don’t take it for granted. In another bit of “dated” advice, Fogarty reminds her readers:
Remember that it’s your husband for whom you are dressing. Keep him in mind when you shop. No matter how much your best friends like something,if your husband is critical you’ll find yourself giving it up, even if you’re sure you know more than he does about women’s clothes.
Clearly, Fogarty couldn’t begin to imagine the mind of the 21 century wife. With that admonition, she begins to explores a range of topics related to wife dressing, including color, cut , fit, and dressing appropriately for the occasion.In addition to dressing appropriately for the occasion is the importance of eschewing displays of extravagance among those for whom they will be viewed as arrogant or offensive. For example, the wives of your husband’s subordinates.
Some of her best advice is in the realm of expressing individuality, and being prepared for those days when you have to cover lots of terrain at once. Because our Sundays often include church, followed by family visits, a possible cultural outing (or outdoor event) I especially liked her tips for taking one ensemble and transforming it easily with the simple addition of a well stocked tote in your car. It’s a tip I definitely plan to start using; immediately.
Navigating the unknown for a specific event was another area which offered good tips to remember:
The English language doesn’t seem to cover this situation, so calling your hostess is no good. Save the call. She’ll only say something vague that won’t tell you a thing. “Informal” to some people means corduroys and leotards; to others, “no decorations” will be worn. Conservatism with dash is the best combination for an evening’s journey into the “unknown”.
Unknown, such as the phrase “cute but classy” that our girls and I recently needed to translate, can be a tricky thing to figure out. Conservatism with dash sounds about right
There was a note that I almost decided to leave out because quite frankly I haven’t the slightest idea how to seamlessly include it. However, I want to do it because I find the transition in our particular era to fascinating and worth discussion. That, and it gives me a chance to plug a friend’s work.
Fogarty believed women should always wear girdles under a dress. Despite her middle aged, 18-inch waist, she wore one and strongly admonished her readers not to go dress shopping without wearing foundations similar to those they would be wearing underneath the dress.:
Figure control at all times improves posture and stops you from spreading. The idea of not wearing a girdle under a full skirt is wrong. As for slim, tight skirts, I think there should be a federal law against wearing them girdleless. My mother put me into a girdle when I was 13; I have worn one ever since.
Given the return of corsetry and the marked (well known and proven) results that they offer a woman in terms of posture and keeping a waistline, I wonder if girdles weren’t a very large part of the reason why we didn’t see as much middle aged spread in years gone by despite the fact that women didn’t regularly run or do squats.
Fogarty wrote that during an extended time without wearing her girdle her waist went from 18 inches to 19 and 1/2 (no weight gain, just spread), which immediately and forever seared into her the importance of figure control.
Now girdles ain’t really my thing because I need to breathe, but corsets have always fascinated me a little bit. Hearthie makes beautiful corsets. But like I said, I need to breathe so I wear one of these under most of my dresses and fitted t-shirts. After nearly a year, I can honestly say my waist has shrunk and my posture is absolutely wonderful. My back is stronger too.
Chapters cover everything from proper travel packing, to a strong admonition against boudoir wear outside the boudoir, to distinguishing value and cheap, and resisting the urge to wear white shoes. For some reason, Mrs. Fogarty really disliked white shoes- except on brides and nurses. I kind of agree.
She writes that being a slave to fashion is a terrible idea while simultaneously warning against wearing a dress which was all the rage one season but out of vogue the next. For those of us who don’t (or are to old to) shop based on current trends, the point was moot. Her point on good taste however, is worth adding here:
The sole arbiter of what you wear is your own judgment. Price tags may limit you horizon. Labels may help you recognize designers whose styling has pleased you before. Saleswomen will advise you on what is most becoming. But the breathless words, “I’ll take this one,” are your responsibility alone.
Good taste is harder to define than it is to recognize.
Despite the fact that about 1/3 of the book is way too rich for my blood, this wife dresser found a lot of it quite useful.