Having coffee with Linda Przybyszewski: What to wear

Author: Kerry Temple ’74


We had agreed to meet for coffee and talk fashion. I was wearing khaki chinos and a green plaid shirt—pretty much my daily uniform (though I don’t usually have toothpaste sprinkles on the front of my shirt as I do today). I don’t know what Linda Przybyszewski looks like (or how to pronounce her name), but I suspect she will be wearing something nice. I also suspect she may have made it herself (tipoff from a mutual friend) but know better than to ask (tipoff from my mother—years ago, the thinking being that your inquiry suggests the outfit must look suspiciously homemade).

She spots me first, and I notice she is wearing a well-tailored suit-skirt ensemble. It has a collar and is constructed of a gray and lavender checkery material. It fits her shape nicely and sure looks store-bought to me. As we talk I learn she did make it herself, and not only the handsome and well-fitted suit but also her gray faux-fur-lined winter coat and her matching gloves and hat. This amazes me (although, once our conversation enters Linda’s world, I lose confidence in assessing relative merit to homemade and store-bought), and I am grateful she doesn’t comment on my rumply attire and the green plaid shirt with the toothpaste sprinkles—not even as she describes her book-in-progress (working title: A Nation of Slobs) and goes on about the “mental make-overs” she instinctively performs at parties and weddings, professional conventions and airports.

“Actually what’s funny,” she says, “is that long before I came up with the idea for this book, I would go to scholarly conferences and look around and do mental makeovers. I really would. I have been prepping for this book my entire life, I realize, because I used to go there and, you know, someone would walk by and I’d say, ‘Ya know, she’s got red hair and she’s just wearing all the wrong colors.’ And to be red-headed is to be truly blessed with the most amazing coloring, which allows you to use the full range of autumnal colors like rust and paprika and really lovely mauve and greens. I talked about this so much a friend said I should print up a little card and give people advice.”

Przybyszewski (pronounce it preh-beh-SHEV-ski), 46, an associate professor of history, may be a Stanford-educated scholar in American legal and constitutional history, with books on civil rights and a 19th-century battle over teaching the Bible in Cincinnati public schools, but she really likes to talk fashion. Call it a zest for the subject and her What Not to Wear approach to people-watching. But—and this is crucial—she’s also equipped with a mental library of accumulated knowledge. One of her beefs, and the impetus for her book-in-progress, is that fashion expertise is a lost art in contemporary society. One of her principle theses is that the disappearance of home economics from the American educational system has left generations of women unschooled and unskilled in the ways of dress.

The rules of dressing
“I actually think, and this is what the book is about,” says Przybyszewski, "is that I—because my mother sewed and taught me how to sew and I kept sewing and I kept reading—that I learned all this knowledge about color and design lines and style lines that a whole lot of women never got taught who would have been taught in an earlier era when home economics classes taught dressmaking and design.

“And I didn’t realize that until I was rummaging around in a bookstore, and I came across this book called Clothes for You. It’s huge. It’s like 500 pages. It’s this amazing sort of tome about rules of dress and also about dressmaking and colors and design and line. And it’s also—because it was written in the 1950s—it’s about rules, rules we don’t have anymore because we live on the other side of the dress revolution.”

The dress revolution she’s referring to came in the 1960s—and not the 1920s version when women abandoned corsets, cleavage and “an incredible, almost painful hour-glass figure” to adopt “straight lines dropping straight from the shoulder.” That flapper-era look pointed women toward a girlish, pre-puberty ideal and attire that allowed them “to move around and play and use their bodies.” It coincided, like its ’60s counterpart, with a sexual revolution, liberating roles for women and other societal shifts. Through the 1950s, Przybyszewski says, “people thought they should pretty much wear what the designers told them” until the Boomer generation “erased all boundaries of age and gender, formality, even town and country.”

I take this cue to talk about my favorite fashion statement—blue jeans, which Przybyszewski calls “dungarees.” I tell her I feel most comfortable, most like myself when I wear a good ol’ pair of jeans. And she talks about her grandfather, who worked in dungarees—originally conceived and produced to withstand hard labor—but who wouldn’t have worn them anywhere else. So I joke about the time my mother told me she thought I had outgrown blue jeans, and Przybyszewski asks if I’ve seen Monkey Business in which Cary Grant takes a youth serum, becoming a little boy playing in dungarees. “The message,” she notes, “is how idiotic he looks, not that he’s relaxed, and you see how far the dress revolution has shifted things.”

“Being on this side of the dress revolution” gives us lots to talk about, I can see—about the T-shirt dress (“please, dear God, no more”); the college scene where people dress “on automatic pilot”; designer-branded clothing (“your chest should not be available as a billboard”); and students who say they value “individuality when they’re all wearing the same thing.”

This—and her amusement at seniors being so apparently uncomfortable dressed for job interviews with all the gray-suit-wearing recruiters who come to campus—prompts my announcing my very own Chief Theory of Couture: People dress to be identified with the tribe they want to belong to.

We also talk about the sinister ways of fashion magazines, the evils of shopping, bare midriffs, cowboy boots, super models and dressing according to one’s age. “Aging,” she says, “is both natural and appropriate. It’s not as though aging means you’re getting worse.”

I learn that dressmaking is all about using two-dimensional material to make a three-dimensional statement, that making clothes is a fulfilling exercise of creativity, style and manual dexterity. And we have so much fun talking—and Przybyszewski’s desire to give readers the eye, the vocabulary and the skills to take control of their fashion selves is so infectious—that I almost forget to ask her what’s the deal with women and their shoes.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine. Email him at temple.1@nd.edu.

Photo of Linda Przybyszewski by Matt Cashore ’94