When most people think of the 1930s, they think of the stock market crash and the Great Depression. The economic boom of the 1920s was over and people had to make do with less in all parts of life.
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This shift in fortunes brought with it inspiring ingenuity as people used what they had to make their lives more cheerful. To help everyday people escape their everyday lives, Hollywood produced a surge of over-the-top films featuring luxury and hopeful stories. Fashion was heavily influenced by both this DIY spirit and the aspirational glamour of the movies. Let’s dive into the world of 1930’s fashion to see these unique styles and the women who wore them!
A New - (yet Unattainable) Silhouette
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The 1930s brought with it a new ideal body type of women. An evolution of the boyish look of the 1920, the ideal ’30s woman was tall and slender with a very small waist and narrow hips.
Because the average woman did not necessarily have this slim figure with a narrow waist, a trend of puffed or padded sleeves came into fashion. Butterfly sleeves, caplets, and large collars were all used to make the waist seem slimmer.
A Time for Cutting Back
To wear some of these new styles, the 1930s woman had to be frugal. “Ready to Wear” clothing became popular, which was made cheaply by machines. Before now, women had clothing tailored but machine innovation led to cheaper, bulk produced clothing in standard sizes we still use today.
Fabrics also were less expensive, and many outfits were made from cotton or coarsely made materials. Zippers came into fashion, partly because buttons were more expensive to make and sew on!
But just because the fabric cheap didn’t mean the women of the era lacked style. It was considered the duty of the women in this time to look “smart” even on a budget. Women turned to deal hunting, upcycling, and sewing their own clothes to make sure they stayed on fashion - and on a budget!
Here are a few of the major trends in 1930’s style that helped define the decade.
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The 1930’s woman had to be smart with every dollar, so she wouldn't waste good clothes for her time around the house. And in 1930, most women were relegated to the domestic sphere, so house clothes were important.
To help save money, the 1930’s women wore homemade clothing around the house. If she wasn't great at sewing, it was fine - the only people who saw her were friends and family! A popular look for these dresses was called the “Hooverette” which has a wrap-around waist, puffed sleeves, and a slim profile fitting the style of the times. It was easy to slip on for a woman around the house.
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The source of the fabric was often either bought in bulk or repurposed. Believe it or not, a flour sack could become a dress! Flour sack producers realized women had to re-use everything, so they started printing sacks with colorful flowers and patterns. Often, bright, bold, and cheerful prints were chosen. Some even had patterns right on them! While no woman would wear a flour sack in public if she could help it, it did make the perfect housedress material.
If a woman was investing in buying fabric, she had to make it count. Double-sided prints were popular, because, with some smart sewing, you could get two dresses in one. Talk about thrifty!
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Once a lady left the house, it was important to keep up “smart” appearances. So she would set her house dress aside for something more professionally made - an afternoon dress. Here the trends of the time were on display. Long, thin silhouettes - often with hems falling near the ankle - and puffy or draped sleeves to slim the waist were very popular.
Most dresses came with a matching belt, again usually in a bright or contrasting print. The material was also a little nicer than a housedress. These dresses were usually silk or rayon crepe, not cotton. Embroidery or buttons were popular ways to fancy up these “city” dresses even more.
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While luxury was out of the average person’s reach in the 1930s, Hollywood was pumping out movies with starlets, monsters, and adventures. Evening wear was influenced by these Old Hollywood stars including Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo.
The style was long and slim, made from fabric like silk that accentuated every curve until they flared out very slightly at the bottom, like a long bell. Puff and caplet sleeves were still in, and later in the decade halter styles with plunging backs were in fashion. With its understated sexiness, the backless gown is a signature of 1930s evening wear. Today, the style on the red carpet still takes inspiration from these glamorous Old Hollywood looks.
Women Wearing the Pants
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While respectable women were still expected to wear dresses, rebellious women began wearing pants in earlier decades anyway, for practicality and freedom. By the 1930s it was perfectly normal for a young lady to wear pants in a variety of outdoor activities. Hiking, picnics, skiing, or tennis or even just watching sports were popular places for women to wear pants or even shorts! A popular beach look was a bathing suit or slim top paired with the oversized pants. The sailor-inspired “sailor middy” two-piece was a popular “sport” outfit.
The pant style was similar to the slim silhouette so popular in dresses. The waist was tight and high, and the pants flared out to a wide leg at the ankle. Keeping with the popular nautical style, the double button “sailor” front was common, as was a side zipper or button closure.
Tops and Blouses
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To complement the wide-leg pants or high waisted skirt, knit tops and frilly blouses both made their way into women’s wardrobes. Blouses were made of cotton usually, and sported collars or ribbon ties to give them a formal look. If a neckline was low, it was popular to put a scarf in the neck for a classy touch!
Knitwear was also very popular. Sweaters, knit tops, and cardigans all became popular in the 1930s. Nautical themes were very popular - especially worn with sailor pants! Knitwear often also had embellished or capped sleeves to add more femininity.
Adding that Extra Touch
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Women in the 1930s were happy to mix and match where they could. Adding hats and belts to an old dress was a great way to give new life to an outfit - all while staying on budget! Women could sew a belt, or buy a matching hat and glove ensemble, and have a whole new look that could be used on multiple dresses.
This era saw a lot of matching belts/bags and hats as a result. Bright colors like green or red were popular for these accessories. Even a simple homemade scarf could brighten up a bad hair day if it had a festive print!
Classy Looks in a Tough Time
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As you can see, the 1930s were a time when a lot was expected of women - while at the same time not offering a lot to work with! Whether it was stretching food or fashion, women were expected to make things work - so they did. The 1930’s fashion and creativity shows that even when times are tough, women will rise up.
While the 1930’s saw a look that was more simple than previous decades, it embraced an elegance and grace that set it apart. The styles worn by its icons continue to make waves today. And the start of the ready-made clothing trend - where items are made ast and cheap - allowed later generations to find fun trends more quickly, and eventually revolutionized fashion. Despite a depression and some tough times, the 1930’s were undoubtedly influential - and stylish!