TMFD students get a glimpse of fashion's history in American culture

Linda Przybyszewski and Dr. Barbara Trout
Linda Przybyszewski and Dr. Barbara Trout

TMFD students get a glimpse of fashion's history in American culture

27 Apr 2015    

The Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design (TMFD) recently gave students the opportunity to hear an untold side of the story of fashion in America—the tale of the “Dress Doctors,” a group of women in the early 20th century who advised women across the country on how to dress. Dr. Linda Przybyzszewski, Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, visited UNL to discuss her research on the Dress Doctors and speak to classes in TMFD.

A legal historian by training, Dr. Przybyszewski says she “stumbled” into the field of fashion history. While browsing through a used bookstore, Przybyszewski found a 500-page textbook on the art of dress. Amazed that such a topic could warrant such a thick text, she inspected the book further and discovered that each chapter concluded with a list of suggested titles for further reading. A hobbyist’s interest in the subject was born, and she began searching out those additional titles.

As she read through her new collection, Przybyszewski uncovered the story of the Dress Doctors. These professional women, working in the USDA, at land-grant universities and even independently, published texts and taught classes that instructed women on the art of dress. They took a democratic view of art and dress, saying that everyone deserved beauty in their lives and that clothing was the most widely available method of accessing that beauty.

“The Dress Doctors came out of this progressive era movement and there was always a spiritual side to the progressive movement,” said Przybyszewski. “And they said it very clearly, they said look, everyone deserves to have beauty in their life, and the easiest way to do that is through clothing. Because everyone has to put on clothing every morning. You may not be able to afford fine art. You don’t have a sculpture in your apartment, you may not even have a backyard with a garden, you may not have a backyard. But you have to put on clothes every day. And everyone deserves to have that kind of spiritual, you know, lift that comes to the human soul.”

The Dress Doctors taught Americans to apply five principles of art to their attire.

Concepts such as balance and line found their way into the world of the average individual. Fashion was not a frivolous thing, but a way of bringing beauty into the world every day, for every person. The Dress Doctors gave American women from all classes the ability to embrace that beauty in ways that made sense for their lives.

For students in TMFD programs, hearing Przybyszewski speak was a peek into the foundational history of their chosen field. Students are required to take History of Costume, of course, but the story of the Dress Doctors is a more intimate look at how Americans’ view of fashion has developed and evolved over the decades. Department chair Michael James says he believes that’s important for students preparing to enter the industry after graduation.

“I think it’s important for students to understand that there’s a whole history that precedes everything they’re doing in studios in coursework,” said James. “They’re so focused, I think, on the contemporary that they forget that this all comes out of a long history of development. And I think we did that, I think we showed that to them in a way they hadn’t seen before.”

Textiles, Merchandising & Fashion Design