A Brief Look At Women's Fashions Of The 1930's

by Jacque Nicholson

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During the Roaring Twenties, a decade of liberation, women enjoyed new freedoms that were mirrored in the way they dressed. Boned corsettes were eliminated, hemlines were raised, and the trend was toward a boyish form. But by the late twenties women were moving away from the boyish flapper look to a softer, more feminine style.


Fashions were directly influenced by the Wall Street Crash of October 24, 1929. The 1930 Sears Catalog admonished, "Thrift is the spirit of the day. Reckless spending is a thing of the past."


One would think the financial deprivations suffered by most people during the Depression would have curtailed fashion, but it continued.  It took about a year before the impact of the stock market crash was fully realized, but in spite of hard times women chose to be stylishly dressed, and like women today followed the fads and fashions of the day as much as their circumstances would allow. Many women, skilled in sewing, were able to copy the fashions pictured in women's magazines.


The  decade began with clothing that was elegant and softly feminine. The style of the 1930s was characterized by the long, sleek look; a slim silhouette with a sensuously molded torso. Fashion was cool and chic and heavily influenced by the invention of the bias cut. Glamour and sex appeal came into the mainstream consciousness.

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Day dresses were slender with an easy fitted vertical line and lightly defined waist. The bodice could be bloused or draped with shaped shoulders. Skirts were designed in great detail featuring upper yokes that extended from one hip to the center of the yoke and back to the opposite hip.  They featured a flat hipline or separate hip panel that kept that area fitted; it then flared below with panels, pleats and/or bias-cut flounces. Moderately full skirts accentuated a small waist and minimized the hips. At different times flounces, handkerchief hems, and gathers and pleats, sometimes in tiers, appeared on the bottom of dresses. Dresses were also unusually cut and pieced.  Evening clothes were fit closely to the body and the bias cut figure-molding gowns needed foundation garments to keep the line of the dress. Evening dresses were at least ankle if not floor length, and often featured trains.


Necklines were lowered and often featured wide scallop-edged or ruffled collars. Highly unusual sleeves were frequently seen, usually long fitted cuffs with a section of puffed sleeve; shoulders were squared and emphasized with padding.  Evening dresses reached to the floor. Bodices were designed with inset pieces and yokes.


The popular cloche hat of the 20s disappeared in 1933 and was replaced by berets, pillboxes and brimmed hats often worn at a jaunty angle over the right eye. Turbans became popular toward the end of the decade.


People flocked to the movies as a diversion from the harsh realities of the Depression. Women liked what they saw on screen and adapted Hollywood fashions for themselves, especially in evening wear. Gowns appeared with high Empire waists,  ties at the back and were often bias-cut with perhaps an adornment of a butterfly or fabric flowers placed on one shoulder, the neckline, center waist, or center neckline. Bows were a popular  accent. Large, puffy sleeves were seen. The peplum made its debut in the late 30s. The first appearance of the midriffs, seen in formal gowns, was considered scandalous. Very low bodices, known as being "backless" or having "back interest" became quite fashionable.


If a woman could afford to wear fur, then by all means, she wore fur. Fur of all kinds was worn extensively, both during the day and night. Fur "scarves" (a whole pelt with feet, head and tail still intact, worn over the shoulders or carried on the arm), capes, coats and trimmings adorned dresses. Pelts included something for every budget from rabbit, fox, lamb, wolf,  mink, sable and chinchilla.

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There was a wide variety of shoe styles during the 1930s: rounded toes; thick, wide heels; pumps; flats; ankle straps with moderate heels; slip-ons; lace-ups; buckles; two-toned spectators. Platform shoes made their first 20th century appearance in the late 1930s. Shoes were cut higher on the vamp making them look "chubbier". Sandals were increasingly popular, reflected in strappy evening shoes with open toes that revealed silk stockings. Many women wore low-heeled, sensible footwear that mimicked the men's look.


Beaded and enameled mesh handbags were abundant, but toward the mid-30s leather clutch purses with a generous flap over the front and the owner's initials gained popularity.


The Art Deco movement heavily influenced fashion early in the decade, but by the late 30s a surrealist movement had taken hold. Popular motifs included floral, exotic, Middle Eastern,  geometric and abstract. Dresses were made of natural fibers (sometimes linen, but mostly cotton, wool and silk), acetate, and rayon, all in light-to-medium weights (velvets, georgette, crepe, organdy, satin). The decade saw every color imaginable, including a new one called "shocking pink".


By 1932 hemlines dropped to about 4 inches above the ankle. In 1937 hems rose to between eight and ten inches from the ankle and remained at that length until the end of the decade, when skirts were shortened.


In the summer of 1933 American tennis player, Alice Marble, scandalized the public by wearing shorts for the first time at Wimbledon. By 1934 sports clothes were being worn frequently. Although apparel took on a more feminine look, masculine forms dominated and were adapted for sportswear. Women's sportswear ensembles developed into wide legged mid-thigh shorts, beach pajamas, culottes, halters, tanks, playsuits, skirted bathing suits, middy blouses, wide legged sailor slacks, sport suits, jodhpurs, and leather jackets.


Also appearing in 1934 was the "Hooverette", a smart cotton house dress that wrapped and tied in the back. Zippers or "Slide fasteners" would not come into use until October 1936. Hooverettes commonly sold  two for 95-cents.


Nineteen-thirty-seven was the year of the suit. Tailored suits found favor with women, especially those in the business world who found themselves taken more seriously when attired in more masculine inspired forms of dress. Most suits were belted and form fitting, but some still appeared in a swagger style. The new style jacket was shorter, with high pockets or yoke trims. The jacket dress featured a short waist length jacket with a shawl or tuxedo collar and elbow length sleeves worn over a printed silk dress.


In 1937 sportswear became more "abbreviated", meaning more skin would be shown. Sports clothes in '37 included polo shirts for women worn with sorts of cuffed slacks. Midriff outfits and halter tops were worn with shorts, bloomers or sometimes with a separate button-on skirt became popular. Swing skirts, either in a full circle or gored style were popular for casual dance parties.

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By 1938 Paris designers were showing pants for any occasion, especially for evening wear. Jackets and boleros were being worn to refurbish or dress up last year's evening ensemble. Mid-thigh shorts with inverted pleats and wide legged pants dominated the sportswear look. The new and quite revolutionary fabric, nylon was introduced in 1938. Skirts were shorter, but fuller.


Tightly defined wasp waists with full skirts for both day and evening were in vogue, but in the hearts and minds of many fashion would take a back seat to the troubling news of Germany's invasion of Poland in late 1939. Somber colors such as maroon, black, brown and navy were a precursor of things to come. The outbreak of World War I in Europe altered fashions and the feminine silhouette would disappear until resurrected as "The New Look" in 1947.



Women's Wear of the 1930's with Complete Patterns, Ruth S. Countryman and Elizabeth Weiss Hopper

Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs, Stella Blum

Ladies Fashions of the 1930s, Carol Nolan

A Century in Shoes





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