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1946 patternMy seamstress friend Dianne Frewer and I were poring over a complex vintage pattern (or so it was to me) one day when Frewer mentioned Madame Vionnet. She was shocked that I didn’t know the designer who once rivaled Chanel and Schiaparelli.

05AThat led us to a Google search, where we tripped across pattern after mind-blowing Vionnet pattern. If you’ve ever struggled over the assembly of a Simplicity pattern, prepare to have your molecules rearranged when you see a Vionnet design.

How did I miss Madame Vionnet? A French designer who flourished in the 1930s, Vionnet is known as the master of bias cuts and sublime, Greek-inspired designs. She was mesmerized by minute details, and she manipulated fabric to accommodate the geometry of the human body.

What a wonder—clothes that make you look divine when you dance, move from place to place, or even when you sit on a subway, climb in and out of a car or bend over to retrieve a piece of luggage. In such a world, my clothes are your art and your clothes are my art. We dress intentionally for ourselves, for each other and most of all, for the occasion. You could almost say this line of thought is a thing of the past.

Our backward glance reminds me of a recent interview with Linda Przybyszewski, Ph.D. for Pattern. “The garment industry has found a way to give us what we want—inexpensive clothes,” she says. “It’s hard to find a ready-to-wear dress that has more than four pieces or any significant details. Clothes are inexpensive because they are simple.”

An accomplished seamstress, Przybyszewski is also a fashion historian who teaches history at the University of Notre Dame and recently authored The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish. In her retrospective on America’s fashion influences, Przybyszewski takes you back to a time when even the poorest people had abundant access to information that made them look their best, no matter how little they had to spend on clothes.

Our mothers and grandmothers learned to clothe their families using the resources they had, which was often nothing more than the fabric from a feed sack. They got their ideas about style from the nation’s so-called Dress Doctors, the women who dispensed fashion advice from university home economics departments, radio shows and newspaper columns.

Yes, fashion advice was prolific and free decades before the Internet. What’s more, it was based on timeless principles of art—a far cry from what guides many of us today as we choose what to wear, according to Przybyszewski.

Despite the explosion of the fashion blog, we don’t hold a candle to some of our well-dressed predecessors. Even as fashion soars in popular culture, The Lost Art of Dress suggests that we may need to backtrack if we are to cure the ills of our no-holds-barred approach to fashion. Among them:

Fear of fat. “Americans have this obsession that we must wear our clothes tight so no one thinks we are fat,” Przybyszewski says. “A lot of people have trouble recognizing when something fits. We think it fits if the seams are about to burst.” Not everyone sews, but Przybyszewski says many fit problems can be remedied by a good seamstress or tailor.

Addiction to trends. “Every so often someone announces that everyone must have a white shirt,” she says. “These are bad calls. There is just no justification for that other than to sell clothes. You don’t have to wear everything that comes along. Trends and fads may influence your lines, but there are many things that make absolutely no sense for some figures unless they are reinterpreted.” (Case in point: the pencil skirt.)

Boring black. When it comes to formal wear, Przybyszewski thinks we’ve moved from simple to boring. Her main beef is the ubiquitous black dress. What’s more interesting for evening? Emerald, ruby, maroon, midnight blue, scarlet and other jewel tones.

Inappropriate attire. From the low necklines and short skirts we wear to work, to the sweat pants we wear to the grocery or around the house, Przybyszewski says we’ve lost our ability to dress for the occasion—one of the fundamental principles of style. In times past, women expected clothes to be stylish, comfortable and practical for their intended use. In fact, the Dress Doctors encouraged every woman to have something beautiful and comfortable to slip into at the end of the day. “It’s so unfortunate that we’ve become accustomed to the idea that beauty is discomfort,” says Przybyszewski. “Why would we consider something beautiful if it hampers movement in a healthy human body?”

Figure nly

Vogue Pattern Catalog Spring 1952. Vogue ® V1152 Copyright ©1952 All rights reserved. Images courtesy of the McCall Pattern Company

She makes a lot of sense, doesn’t she? If you’d like to hear more wisdom derived from the Dress Doctors, buy her book. Or better yet, come to Przybyszewski’s free public lecture at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at 6 p.m. Prior to her IMA lecture on the descent of design, Przybyszewski will appear at a book signing and fundraiser co-hosted by two Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) affiliates—the Alliance and the Fashion Arts Society.

Sponsored by Somerset CPAs and Advisors, High Tea: The Evolution of a Fashionable Ritual starts at 3:30 p.m. with a champagne reception and silent auction, followed by high tea at 4 p.m. Proceeds support fashion acquisitions and family education at the IMA. The cost of the event for members of the IMA’s Alliance or Fashion Arts Society is $55 and $65 for non-members. The early registration date is August 14, with the final deadline on August 21.

Visit the Indianapolis Museum of Art for registration details. High tea guests receive preferred seating (as space allows) at the public lecture that follows. Additional sponsors for the tea are Leading Reads, Saks Fifth Avenue and Worth New York. 

Are you going? If you live in the Indianapolis area and you plan to go, let me know. Perhaps we can ask to sit together!

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.