Fashion History of the 1930s

Fashion History of the 1930s

From dark times of depression to Hollywood glamour to World War 2

The glamorous images that were portrayed in films and photos from the 1930s were a far cry from that of what life was actually life during this period. The history books tell us stories of despair, poverty, and violence. From the onset of the 30’s we see an effect from the crash of ’29; and at the end of the era-a start of a bloody war. These events directly affected the fashion industry. Hollywood films were an escape from reality. While I can certainly admire the long, silky, bias cut gowns worn on the silver screen; I also realize that a small percentage of women could own those types of garments in her closet.

We can easily break the styles of the 1930s into three different categories: The start of the Depression era, the Mid 30s, and the late 30s(wartime fashion).

The Early 30s

We can see the same silhouettes during this era as in the later 1920s for both men and women alike. Women wore dresses cut in the same shape (lower waistline, shapeless bodice) and hems were right past the knee. Often a belt or sash was added to the waist- to show a more natural waistline. You will notice the glitz from the Jazz Age has diminished by 1930. Fabrics were more affordable choices. Women were encouraged to mend old clothing or sew their own clothing (and their families’)by making it at home. Sears and Roebuck catalog offered a line of “SEMI-MADE” garments for sale. These pieces had most of the darts, pleats and tailoring completed-leaving side seams, shoulder seams, sleeves, and hems to be customized and completed at home. The ad states proudly “predicted to be the most successful style idea ever advanced” .

Excerpt from “Everyday Fashions of the 1930s as Pictured in Sears Catalog

Another advancement in the fashion world for women- overalls. For the first time ever, women could wear overalls that were designed for women. The overalls were sewn with pockets and a loose fit; mainly in denim. Previously, women had to fit into mens’ work wear if they wanted to work a labor intensive job. With the crash of ’29 forcing many families to lose their homes or live in poverty, many women had to join the workforce. These jobs were typically secretarial, nursing or teaching jobs at first but also agriculture and others. Overalls were also marketed as beachwear in printed cottons.

From “Everyday Fashions of the 1930s as Pictured in Sears Catalogs”

Menswear didn’t change much either from the late 1920s. A three piece suit with a tie and a handkerchief was standard. Sweaters of all types were common for casual wear, for boys as well. Newsboys caps and oxfords were wardrobe staples for the average man in the 1930s. New fashions included “boxer shorts” for undergarments; influenced by the professional boxers of the time. Much of the mens’ fashions we see in this decade are stable through the 40s. The trousers started to get much wider through the whole leg. Pin stripes were also very common.

Children’s wear usually imitated the adult fashions except hemlines were much shorter. Boys wore shorts with suit jackets and socks. Stripes, floral and plaids were common for children as were sailor suits. Girls too would wear knee socks with boots or maryjane shoes.

Typical fashions for early to mid 30s in this antique family photo.


The Mid 30s

Jean Harlow in a bias cut satin evening gown and William Powell in Reckless (1935)

The 1930s were the start of the golden era of Hollywood, and we can certainly see why. Stars like Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Vivien Leigh and even the adorable Shirley Temple lit up screens and gave the nation joy through some dark days. Hollywood actors weren’t the only famous people influencing the masses. Gangsters and outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde became the antiheroes of the time. A cartoonist had been gaining popularity with his animated shorts. Soon, Mickey Mouse would be everywhere-including watches and sweaters. Later in the decade, Mr. Disney was able to debut his first full length animated picture, Snow White.

Excerpt from “Everyday Fashions of the 1930s as Pictured in Sears Catalog”

Sleeves for women’s dresses in the 30s were very exaggerated. Full, gathered sleeves or flutter “fly away” sleeves were very common. Hemlines dropped to mid calf although it varied depending on the occasion. Many dresses were cut on the bias- meaning cut diagonally and pieces sewn together to save fabric. This allows more stretch to the fabric. It gave it more liquid or draped look.

Hair and Makeup

Hair was still cut shorter, but seen with softer looking finger waves. With starlets being such an influence, many women were bleaching their hair platinum for the first time in history. Makeup on screen was often dramatic, with a dark lip, and thin rounded eyebrows. Often natural, softer looks were worn for everyday American women. If you are looking for a great 1930s red, I highly recommend this Besame Cosmetics. They have a variety of authentic reproduction shades!

Bette Davis

Fabrics, Prints and Accessories

Fabrics commonly seen were silk, satin,(silk) velvet, chiffon, and rayon. Woolen blends for winter along with knit sweaters. Hats changed from the previous cloche styles to more of a small crown style with forward swooshing brims. Other hats such as berets were very popular.

Popular prints for the decade as a whole-

  • Polka dots
  • Checks
  • Leopard
  • Stripes
  • Plaid
  • FLORAL of all kinds. Mostly dainty flowers

The Late 30s/Early Wartime Era

Women were encouraged to include dresses that could be accessorized many ways.

Separates were a bit more common towards the end of the decade- suits for ladies and also pleated skirts with button up blouses. Summer styles would include playsuits to lounge outdoors in.

As silhouettes evolved in the 1930s, they would come to a halt at the start of WW2. With such a high demand for fabrics for military use, there were strict limitations in clothing production. The silk, seamed stockings were soon replaced by nylon ones. In 1939, they debuted and actually sold out for sometime due to such a high demand. Women would be forced to fake the seamed look by drawing lines on their own legs if they wanted to look fashionable!

For the duration of the war, there were many restrictions on clothing-including skirt fullness, pocket sizes, and hems. I will be discussing this more as I move onto the next decade!

Onto the 40s…

I would sum up the 1930s as a evolutionary decade but one of simplicity. Glamour had a backseat to realistic functionality and frugality.

Now that you are caught up on some fashion history, go enjoy a 1930s film 

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