The Lost Art of Dress

lost-art-of-dress The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, by Linda Przybyszewski. Published in 2014. 400 pages.

This is a book I wasn’t quite sure how to review because there were so many angles to explore it from that I didn’t know quite where to begin. So I decided to simply give you all the rundown, add a few quotes, and offer my recommendation or lack thereof.

In the early 20th century, right up until the “youth quake” of the 50’s and 60’s there were a group of women in various areas of the fashion, education, and home economy sectors known as “The Dress Doctors”. With the full support and backing of the federal government and education system, they taught women and girls how to dress themselves properly.

When I say they taught women to dress themselves properly, I don’t mean an out of touch, overly sophisticated, or expensive approach to fashion. Oh no! These ladies were all about looking the best you could for the task at hand, within the budget you had available. No matter how small that budget might have been, these women could show you how to work what you had to your advantage without breaking the bank. In fact one of the largest chapters in the book is the one on thrift. In other words, The Lost Art of Dress could easily be considered the every woman’s alternative to another vintage fashion book I reviewed here, Wife Dressing.

It covers the perils of high heels:

“If you cannot walk more than a block in your shoes, they are not shoes; they are pretty sculptures that you happen to have attached to your feet. You could hang them from your wrists for all the good they are doing you in terms of locomotion. Better to put them on a shelf and admire them from afar.”

No, I’m not giving mine up. A spare of flats mitigates any issues for me.

They covered issues of proper fit, noting that just because a garment isn’t bursting at the seams doesn’t mean it fits properly. She reviewed the Dress Doctors notes on the combination of thrift, art and femininity. The range of clothing subjects they covered left no stone unturned.

Unfortunately, in the 1960’s, as the youth quake combined with the feminist revolution kicked into high gear, the Dress Doctors were suddenly obsolete. In chapter 5, titled, The Fall of the Dress Doctors, she expounds:

What were the leaders of the American Home Economics Association expecting when they invited “militant women’s lib advocate” Robin Morgan to speak at their annual meeting in 1972? They must have read about how she and a hundred other women had thrown their bras, girdles,curlers, false eyelashes, and wigs into a Freedom Trash Can at the Anti-Miss America demonstration in Atlantic City in 1968. Morgan was scheduled to talk about women’s liberation, and they got an earful: “I am here addressing the enemy,” she announced.

Morgan accused home economists of turning young women into a “limp, jibbering mass of jelly waiting for marriage.”

This, along with the worship of all things youth which quenched girls’ natural desire to grow up and wear grown-up clothes like their mothers, signaled the end of the Dress Doctors and their impact of women’s fashion.

Thankfully, the advice within the book is timeless and I highly recommend giving it a read. It’s a wonderful combination of history, style, beauty, culture, and practicality. We are lone overdue for a resurrection of something resembling the Dress Doctors.

Grade: B+

Going Gray: What I Learned About…

going-gray-book

Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty,Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity and Everything Else That Really Matters, by Anne Kreamer. Originally published in 2007. 224 pages.

This is another one of those books which caught my eye as I was perusing the library shelves. I almost left it there because it would probably be best to finish the stack of books in the queue before adding another one to it. However, since the topic is one that interests me for a number of reasons, I picked it up. I’m glad I checked it out. Despite the fact that it started to go off point at about the half way mark, the first half was worth the time I spent reading it.

Kreamer started out with an excellent premise after being taken aback a bit by a photo of her 49-year-old self with her dyed brown hair. She wondered about the authenticity of the choice she’d made many years earlier to start dyeing her hair, since she began to gray a little earlier than usual. This epiphany of sorts led her not only to begin the process of letting her gray hair grow in uncolored, but also on an exploration of the how’s, why’s, and wherefore’s of a culture where 2/3 of women over aged 40 dye our hair.

I color my hair as well, but just as my greater journey towards health led me to stop chemically straightening my hair, I have recently begun to wonder if I should stop coloring it also. I haven’t gotten off the bottle yet, but the urge to do so is getting stronger and stronger the healthier and stronger my body becomes.

The best parts of this book are to be found in the first 100 pages. Kreamer starts with the day she embarked on her journey, and then transitions into the history of events which have gotten us to where we are today. She explores the beginnings of the cosmetic and chemical “advances” that put hair coloring within the reach of average women:

Three or four decades after the baby boomers’ countercultural transformation of the culture, we have held on to the hedonistic forever young part of our Woodstock dreams much more tenaciously than the -open-and-honest-and-authentic part. p. 38

She continues:

Our present era of mainstreamed artificial hair color began in the 1950s and 60s. But the tipping point came, I believe, during the 1980s–when the oldest baby boomers entered middle age and the grand illusion of permanent physical youthfulness really became widespread and almost obligatory. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Ronald Reagan, a man with *impossibly black hair in his seventies (as well as glowing, ruddy skin) blithely and belovedly presided over the country during that decade. p.39

She touches on the technological advances in mass media that give average women hope that they can look youthful until the day they breather their last. She uses her Hollywood insider contacts to get the take of those whose livelihoods depend on appearances. She interviews many friends, acquaintances, and relatives of all ages to get a read on the thoughts, fears, and motivations which compel them to color (or in a few cases NOT color) their hair. The passionate engagement she documents-on both sides of the issue- serve to reveal the emotion bubbling beneath the surface on the topic of our hair, aging, and what our hair represents as we age.

Most of the women I talked to for this book admitted that their number one anxiety about letting their hair go gray was not a fear about how quickly they were closing in on their actuarial death dates–rather, it was that they’d instantly be seen as sexless, grandmotherly old ladies.

There’s an entire litany of responses I could offer up to that quote, but this is a book review. It was this part of the book where Kreamer goes off on a weird tangent which I found unnecessary for a woman happily married for more than two decades, whose children are all grown up. I appreciate that there are many women who approach their 40s in relationship situations far less idyllic than myself or Mrs. Kreamer, but her foray into the bar scene and onto Match.com left me cold. I didn’t see the point and because of it I found those parts of the book less satisfying as it moved forward.

Near the end of the book, Kreamer delves more into the practical realities for those women ready to take the plunge and dump the dye. She talks about appropriate clothing, colors, and the wardrobe overhaul necessary so that she didn’t in fact, look like a grandmother. The end of the book, like the beginning, was far better than the middle. She also delves a it into  how gray hair is viewed in the professional realm.

Overall, because of the subject matter and historical context, I enjoyed the book. It isn’t a grand slam, but it was enjoyable enough, and written in a conversational tone which enabled me to read it in two days. I am not a fast reader, so that’s saying something.

On a personal note, it was a good and revelatory experience for me to embrace the truth that the coloring of my hair is an exercise in sleight of hand. Because I have the ethnic advantage of wrinkling late while spending the majority of my time during the week with people of different ethnicities, there is a certain boost that comes with hearing, “You don’t look that old!” Letting the gray come in might certainly interfere with that vain enjoyment. I’ve gotten into the habit of enjoying photographs which remind me that we are simply not the 40-something women of our grandmother’s generation, for better or for worse:

beautiful-gray

That’s my personal take on my journey to embracing the skin I am in. As for the book, I give it a grade of C.

Content advisory: Frank talk about sexuality, including two or three bits of profanity from interviews Kreamer conducted.

*My 92-year-old grandmother is only about 50% gray so it’s not necessarily true that everyone of a certain age has a completely white head. Graying is genetic.

 

E-Book:Wardrobe Communication

Wardrobe Communication: Mastering the Art of Personal Expression, by Amy Fleming. Published August 15, 2016.

Okay, pardon me while I take off my detached reviewer hat. Have I ever worn one of those? I didn’t think so, but what good is a friend with a book blog if she can’t get at least 5 of her impressive 25 followers to go buy her friend’s book?

Hearth Rose’s book, Wardrobe Communication, is live. Because I have had the pleasure of reading it, I’m going to give you my completely unbiased review. Thank God – and Hearth- it is a book chocked full of useful information!

Wardrobe Communication is a short book designed to help its reader ascertain her personal style, her best color palate, and understand that whether we realize it or not, the way we present ourselves to the world around us acts as a form of communication. This, the awareness that my wardrobe acts as communication, was the biggest thing I took away from the book. It certainly however, wasn’t the only thing.

Covering every thing to the difference between style versus fashion to the proper way to wear a bra, Hearth does a masterful job of getting the reader to think about the significance of how we present ourselves without conveying that our clothes are the most important thing about us. On the contrary, rather than asserting that the clothes make the woman, she wants us to understand that our clothes should be an expression of who we are on the inside, whoever that is.

In addition to color and style, she is offers her readers an opportunity to weigh their clothing choices against their vocation, age, and stage of life as these are things we need to consider when deciding what message we want our clothes to display. And again, whether intentional or not, our clothes, just like our words, do send a message.

For example, as a medium toned black woman, I have always known that I look better in saturated autumn colors. What I didn’t realize is that despite the universality of black as a go to color, it should not be a go to color for me. I learned under Hearth’s advice that charcoal gray is my “basic black”, and I’m grateful for that bit of information. In other words, black is not universal and it does not look good on every woman.

I shared some parts of this book with women in my life as I was reading it because the advice was worth sharing. We agree that the best and probably the funniest advice was on the proper way to wear a bra. We laughed together at this right here in my living room:

So, since you are wearing a bra to appear younger and firmer, make it do what it’s there to do.  Your nipple is supposed to be about 3-4” below your armpit – no lower.   And it’s not supposed to show, so if you’ve nursed a baby or two, you might consider a molded cup bra.

Words to live by, indeed.

You really should check out this book. It’s well worth the expense and you will most certainly glean something from it that you can use. Whether you’re a housewife, an office worker, or just a volunteer at your kids pre-school, Hearth can help you put your best foot forward, but not at the expense of who you are.

Grade: B+

 

 

 

Wife Dressing

Wife-Dressing-by-Anne-Fogarty

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.

Grade: B+