From my previous post about The Roaring Twenties you are probably familiar with fashion of the 20’s. But how did fashion of the 1930’s look exactly? Here I am to answer this question, based on my research, which took nearly a month.
By the way, if you are interested in resource materials, I have credited them at the end of this post. Check them to learn more on the topic of fashion in the 30’s.
Cultural connections to fashion of the 1930’s
To really talk about what was in vogue, we have to understand what shaped it. The Great Depression started in 1929 with a crash on Wall Street. As a result people didn’t have much money to throw on clothes, but at the same time the rich became even richer, broadening the gap between social classes.
It was the time of Hollywood golden years and first colour movies with sound. As you can guess it influenced what people wore and wanted to have. Actors and actresses became true trendsetters with a promise of better days through the easy going life of movie characters.
As most people became alarmingly poor many of them became gangsters, you probably know Bonnie and Clyde, who inspired a lot of movies in later decades.
At the end of the decade, in 1939, France and England declared war on Germany, leading to very practical clothing.
Pop culture and art
To give more context for the type of clothing worn during the 1930’s it is best to look at culture and art styles of the decade. European art styles of modernism and surrealism had an impact on the style of designers like Schiaparelli. Salvator Dali is one of the most known painters of surrealism.
Meanwhile in the USA that felt the consequences of depression the most, regionalism reigned in the art style. It pictured rural life in America, trying to get rid of European influence.
Art Deco in the 30’s tended to incorporate more curvy shapes and new materials like chrome plating or plastic, boasting smooth polished surfaces.
With the introduction of first movies with sound – so called talkies – the movie industry expanded even more. King Kong, Wizard of Oz and Mickey Mouse were created during this decade.
Women clothes that were in fashion of the 1930’s
Moving from the boxy silhouette of the previous decade, the 30’s embraced femininity via decorative necklines, collars and shoulders. Curves and neckline became the focal point of the silhouette, with popular sailor collars.
Garments were delicate, dainty and more natural, lady like, with dropped hemlines to the ankles, or even sweeping the ground in case of dresses.
Fashion for outdoor activities gained in importance, as people spent more time at beaches, or resorts if they were rich. Women also slowly started to wear pants, to the beach or for leisure activities.
Bias cut characteristic to Madeleine Vionnet, who used it back in the 20’s, became popular among other designers, due to its fluidity on the body (once again, accentuating curves)
Lower class women wanted to recreate dresses seen on screen, so they sewed their garments based on sewing patterns. People wanted to resemble the style from movies to run away from dull and depressing reality.
Fashion of the 1930’s – Men’s attire
Overall men’s fashion transitioned from aristocracy oriented, to focus on normal people and sport. Therefore it became more casual, less structured and offered a variety of style options. While suits were still worn for formal occasions and work, casual wear such as knitted sweaters and soft-collared shirts became increasingly popular during the day.
For the influence it created one has to recall an iconic scene from a movie It Happened One Night (1934). Actor Clark Gable skipped wearing an undershirt in one of the scenes, while taking his shirt off. In a result sales of undershirts decreased drastically
Sport also had a big impact on what men wore in the 30’s. Sport activities (mainly golf and tennis) continued to be popular, as a result sport jackets and flannel pants were in demand. Thanks to tennis player Lacoste who established his clothing company in 1933 polo shirts were a new trend.
Let’s talk about pants for a moment. While Oxford pants still were popular, their width decreased significantly. On the other hand pleats were fashionable, often used numerous times in one pair of pants. Jeans were still associated with the working class, but slowly started to occupy the wardrobe as an option for gardening clothing. Moreover Levis started replacing button fly with zipper fly in their jeans in 1937.
As many people couldn’t afford new clothes, they atleast could spark their looks by adding fashionable accessories. Panama hats and decorated low heels could easily add interest to the look.
In addition many women wore gloves, during evening even elbow length gloves, that paired with matching heels elevated the outfit.
For men fedora hats remained a stylish piece of headwear. Wrist watches started to gain popularity pushing away clock watches. Most popular style of glasses was to have them round in a circle shape. It was also the time of sunglasses gaining popularity, as people enjoyed sunbathing. One of the most known sunglasses brands, Ray Ban, was established during the 30’s.
Fashion of the 1930’s – Colours
Reflecting the general zeitgeist of the decade, its colours were delicate and toned down. Hashed hues like dusty pink, mauve or muted blue were used ubiquitously. It was often accompanied by sea foam tints that are upbeating and comforting.
Sea foam was also often paired with purple, as this colour is comforting and associated with royalty. As you already know, people were obsessed with money.
In addition to that pearl, beige or bronze were also popular. On the other hand we have orange combined with the aforementioned hues. We can’t forget about Schiaparelli and her shocking pink as a response to what was happening in the world.
She wanted to show people the happy side of life and used surrealistic and fun prints. Apart from that prints were rather tiny and delicate, with polka dots as a prevailing motif.
Fashion of the 1930’s – Materials
Materials used in the 30’s were very diversified. High fashion dresses boasted silk and other luxury materials, while the poorest had to sew their clothes from feeding sacks. The latter fact is actually very sad, as there was no other option for them to afford clothing.
Nylon was invented in 1935, It was used as a substitute for silk in many different products. It wasn’t, however, yet perceived as something to be used in high fashion, which will change in later decades thanks to Prada.
Knitwear continued to gain popularity and you could even see knitted dresses. On the other hand wool was used in coats and suits. Speaking about coats, those who could afford it proudly incorporated fur in them, as everyone was obsessed with all things luxurious in this decade.
It was also the rise of zippers used more often in clothing. Schapparelli incorporated them even into dresses
Style icons of the 30’s
Anna May Wong
Like Josephine Baker traiblazed path for women of colour in the 20’s, Anna May Wong did the same for asian american women. Her career started in Hollywood, but back then Hollywood was still very conservative and her roles were rather minor.
To truly embrace her talent, Anna decided to move to Europe, exactly to Berlin where her unique aesthetics and talent amazed people. What is very incredible, she was actually fluent in three languages, English, German and French.
In terms of fashion we have to mention her iconic dragon dress.
I already talked about Marlene Dietrich in my take on the 20’s, however her career truly blossomed during this decade.
Although other actresses like Joan Crawford also boasted men’s suits, Marlene Dietrich holds the biggest contribution to blurring the line between men and women’s attire.
Her style was unconventional and revolutionary, including wearing a tuxedo and hat (one of her iconic looks), or mixing them with femininie clothes. Additionally she popularised pants for women.
Not an actress, but one of the most known aviators of her time. Amelia Earhart had her own luggage company and one for womenswear, which she designed. She acknowledged that many people like her clothes, but couldn’t afford it. Therefore she also sold patterns indicating how to sew her creations. Unfortunately Amelia disappeared during flight above the Atlantic Ocean in 1937.
Yes, this Bonnie, who you know as a partner of duo Bonnie&Clyde. She was a gangster and during her ruffian years killed 18 people, though her sense of style was impeccable.
Especially to people from lower class it was something to follow and also highly influenced attire in the 60’s.
Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn were among the most famous actresses who set a tempo for fashion.
Designers that shaped Fashion of the 1930’s
We can’t talk about the 30’s fashion without mentioning Elsa Schiaparelli. Her style distinguished among the others for its playfulness and abstract details.
She worked closely with artists like Salvador Dali, or Jean Cocteau and was inspired by dadaism, surrealism. In result her dresses and hats were eccentric, as well as shocking pink, that became her signature colour.
Her attention to details was also mind blowing, not to mention her fanciful buttons
In 1933 René Lacoste established his sportswear company. The crocodile logo was inspired by the fact that commentators and fans compared the playstyle of Lacoste to a crocodile. Considering the popularity of tennis in the 30’s it was a wise move to create a sportswear brand, especially when you are a famous tennis player.
Balenciaga was already a successful designer, as he started his career in San Sebastian in Spain. But it wasn’t until 1937, when he opened his boutique in France, to gain wider popularity. I’ve already covered The History of Balenciaga in this post, if you are interested in more details.
Established designers like Madeleine Vionet, Coco Chanel or Jeanne Paquin still actively worked during the 30’s.
I would also like to mention the beginning of the Columbia brand that was established in 1938. You are probably familiar with Columbia Outdoor Wear, but at the beginning they focused on making hats.
“Fashion history from the 18th to the 20th century” -The collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute