Fashion is always a reflection of the events of the time and place around it, and the fashions of the 1930s were no exception. From the poverty of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression to the excesses of the golden years of Hollywood, the clothing reflected the decade.
If you were a housewife or a working girl in the thirties, you would have been extremely careful with your fashion budget. Factory-made clothing became popular and relatively cheap, often purchased from mail-order catalogues such as Sears, Roebuck, and Co. Many women made their own clothing, either with purchased fabric or by repurposing out-of-style garments. Less expensive fabrics such as cotton, rayon, and hard-wearing nylons were all the rage. Some women even used the fabric bags flour and other provisions came in as material for dresses, children’s clothing, or aprons.
A woman on a budget would have several housedresses—sometimes called Hoover dresses after the president who was often blamed for the Depression—to wear at home in order to keep her better dresses from wear and tear. Hoover dresses were made of long-wearing cotton in bright colors, buttoned up the front or closed with zippers (cheaper than buttons!) or a tie waist.
A few good day dresses were essential, along with a skirt and some practical blouses. These would be worn when shopping, doing errands, or going to the cinema or to church. A day dress was often made of light fabric like crepe and complemented with embroidery, shirring, and flowers. Even on a budget, a woman was expected to put effort into her appearance. No lady would leave the house without stockings, gloves, heels, a hat, and her handbag.
The rich and famous—actresses, socialites, and the wives of the wealthy—would of course have a far wider array of fashions in their walk-in closets.
In addition to day dresses, a Hollywood actress would have a selection of sportswear that included high-waisted, wide-legged pants for casual events and shorts and short-sleeved tops for tennis or hiking. Even in California, she would need winter wear for those ski trips to the mountains and several one-piece swimsuits for afternoon pool parties. “Beach pajamas”—loose-fitting, flowing tops and pants—were just the thing for a restful day beside the home pool. Of course, the lingerie closet would have an array of pajamas, negligees, girdles, silk stockings, brassieres, and gloves—cotton for day and silk or velvet for evening.
Then there were the gowns. The wealthy socialite spared no expense on gowns for nights on the town, dancing, and film premieres. Evening wear of the 1930s was all elegant, flowing lines, slim and clinging, with plunging necklines and shockingly bare backs. Gowns were further dazzled with crystals, feathers, beading, and pearls. And of course, no starlet would be caught outside in the evening without a fur wrap, even on those warm California nights.
Despite the disparity between rich and poor, 1930s fashions were all about feminine beauty. Belts and bias cuts accented the waist and hips. Collars and necklines were dramatic, with bows and yokes calling attention to a pretty face and puff sleeves and shoulder pads balancing the hourglass silhouette.
The thirties were a time of both difficulties and excesses, reflected in the fashions as the decade wore on. I’d love to go back to some of the feminine fashions of the 1930s, wouldn’t you?
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Here is Stephanie’s official bio: Stephanie Landsem writes historical fiction because she loves adventure in far-off times and places. In real life, she’s explored ruins, castles, and cathedrals on four continents and has met fascinating characters who sometimes find their way into her fiction. Stephanie is just as happy at home in Minnesota with her husband, four adult children, two cats, and a dog. When she’s not reading, researching, or writing, she’s avoiding housework and dreaming about her next adventure—whether it be in person or on the page.
A Special Thanks to Tyndale House Publishers and Stephanie Landsem for the exclusive article and images.