DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Aug 22 2014

Exploring a Lost Art

by Dea Anne M

In 1960, the average woman at Cornell University owned 2.9 pairs of pants. That .9 is really worrying me. Where did the rest of the pants go and, more important, what was left? Were the side seams missing to such an extent that the pants flapped wildly around the poor woman’s legs providing neither warmth nor coverage? Did the pants lack a waistband altogether so that she had to use duct tape to attach them to her skin?

Now I know perfectly well that this .9 is probably the statistical result of some of those women owning 1 pair of pants, some owning 2, and some owning a full complement of 3. Yet the possibility of a .9 pair of pants affects me in a way similar to the way learning as a child that “the average American family” had 2.5 children affected me. Where, I wondered, was my half-sibling? And by “half-sibling” I didn’t envision a child who shared only one parent with me. No. I imagined a literal half-child who was bisected down the middle and wearing half a shirt, half a pair of pants, and one shoe.  She or he was a potentially tragic creature–one that my parents had to be hiding somewhere, but where? Certainly not anywhere in our house–a Central Florida ranch model that had no basement, much less anything resembling an attic. Was there a place in the country for all those .5 children that the average American family kept producing–some haven where each child was allowed ice cream every day and the pet of his or her choice? Childhood poses many such odd questions…or maybe my brain was just a weird place to be.

That 2.9 pants statistic comes from an entertaining new book The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish by Linda Przybyszewski. Przybyszewski is a professor in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame. Among the courses she teaches is A Nation of Slobs, which introduces students to “the art, ethics and losteconomics of dress in Modern America.” According to the book, American women were considered some of the best dressed in the world up through the earlier half of the twentieth century. Since then, we’ve experienced the explosive growth of the garment industry and its subsequent globalization–as well as the impact of far-reaching movements for social change and an increasingly youth-oriented culture. All of these have altered the way we think about attire and its importance. As far as women and their pants go, the book posits that prior to the late 1960’s women simply didn’t have that many occasions to wear them. Trousers were considered “proper” for women when engaged in sports, for at home wear or when in the county or suburbs. The ubiquity of pants in women’s wardrobes today can be traced to the advent of the mini-skirt (introduced by British designer Mary Quant in 1964) and the subsequent (mostly female-led) backlash against such a revealing garment.  Throughout, Przybyszewski argues her points tartly and often humorously–and whether you agree with her or not, the book itself is well worth reading. In fact, I’ve already read it twice!

Dr. Przybyszewski attributes the former wide acceptance of certain standards of women’s dress to a couple of things (and these standards didn’t necessarily embrace an adherence to luxury but rather ideas of appropriateness and artistic harmony). One was that, until fairly recently, American consumers didn’t have the sort of access to low-priced, mass-produced garments that we do today. Instead, the average woman either sewed her own clothes or shopped very carefully for the highest quality garments that she could afford. In fact, it’s surprising how very few clothes were considered necessary to be well dressed.  For work, some experts ruled that 5 outfits were enough and some declared 2 or 3 ample with clever changes of accessories. That’s difficult for many of us these days to consider desirable…or even possible. Though I do love the idea of a well-edited wardrobe and the so-called “capsule wardrobe” really appeals to me.

In any case, I want to upgrade my own clothing and in service to that goal I’m slowly teaching myself to sew. I don’t expect to save money this way. My main focus is on learning to create garments that fit well in colors that flatter me. Most of us who shop for clothes will eventually feel frustrated with the poor fit of so many off-the-rack garments and, as for color, there isn’t always a good choice available. Fortunately, DCPL has plenty of resources to help me in my sewing adventure. If you share my aspirations, these resources could help you too.

Here are a few of the titles that I’ve found helpful:

Sewing Solutions: Tips and Advice for the Savvy Sewist by Nicole Vasbinder

200 Sewing Tips, Techniques and Trade Secrets by Lorna Knight

Sewing In a Straight Line: Quick and Crafty Projects You Can Make by Simply Sewing Straight by Brett Bara

And here are three titles that will be of special interest to those of us who are interested in creating clothing:

The Complete Photo Guide to Clothing Construction by Christine Haynes is technique-based and beautifully illustrated. I’m not ready yet for pleats or contour darts, but when I am, this is the book I will turn to.

Skirt-A-Day Sewing: Create 28 Skirts for a Unique Look Every Day by Nicole Smith provides instruction for making exactly what the title promises. These skirts are adorable and could keep you happily, and beautifully, clothed for some time.

If you’ve already been sewing for a while, How To Use, Adapt, and Design Sewing Patterns by Lee Hollahan will show you how to alter paper patterns for an absolutely perfect fit and personal detail.

I’m still very much a beginner to sewing but I’m happy to say that I’m enjoying the process of learning. Who knows, maybe some day soon you’ll see me wearing a beautiful garment that I made with my own hands!

To go, briefly, back to The Lost Art of Dress, the author frequently mentions Elizabeth Hawes, a clothing designer who was active professionally from the mid-1920’s through 1940.  As a political activist and a champion of gender equality, Hawes was very much ahead of her time. She had plenty of provocative and interesting things to say about clothing and the fashion industry. She was also, in my opinion, a brilliant designer who created some of the most original and beautiful hawesclothes I’ve ever seen (with some of the most interesting names). The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an online archive of its collection where you can view the work of many designers, including Elizabeth Hawes. Check out the amazing evening gown called It Is My own Invention (see photo, right) as an example of her talent (and click here for a larger picture).

Do you sew? Do you enjoy making your own clothes? Guys, you may be feeling left out of this post, but I would love to hear from any men out there who already sew or are interested in learning.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Davis (Lizanne) August 22, 2014 at 11:26 AM

I really enjoyed this book [The Lost Art of Dress] also and might also read it again. I also look forward to learning to sew–for the same reasons mentioned. I don’t know if it’s my age or my values, or both, but I’ve never been fond of the throw-away mentality with clothes (and there’s the cost). I do have a very edited closet as my co-workers can verify (it must be Tuesday because she’s wearing the grey dress) and have yet to feel any pain. Quality counts!

Joseph M August 29, 2014 at 12:55 PM

I’ve long been interested in learning to sew, but have always found a reason to put it off. Actually, I have a very basic grasp of the concept from a brief segment on sewing back in elementary school, but my skill level leaves a lot to be desired. One of these days perhaps I will start practicing in earnest.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: