The Victoria & Albert Museum in their “Introduction to 20th-Century Fashion” writes of this period:

“The late 1930s witnessed a move away from this body-skimming line in favour of historically inspired corsetted dresses with crinolines and bustles for evening wear. This trend can be seen in Molyneux’s pale-pink ribbed-silk evening dress of 1939 which has a double-tiered full skirt held out by four bone hoops. A less extreme example of the vogue for period revivalism can be seen in Elsa Schiaparelli’s black, satin-backed rayon marocain evening suit of 1938. (Marocain is a heavy crepe fabric.) This ensemble’s leg-of-mutton sleeves, tight bodice with nipped-in waist, use of marocain fabric and ostrich feather-plumed hat were all features of late nineteenth-century fashion. However, the rayon fibre and the bold plastic ‘Lightning’ zip from ICI were progressive and characteristic Schiaparelli touches.”

Of  1930s womenswear specifically they write:

“The drop-waist androgyny of the previous decade gave way to a slinky femininity in the 1930s. Parisian couturiers introduced the bias-cut into their designs, which caused the fabric to skim over the body’s curves. Long, simple and clinging evening gowns, made of satin were popular. Often the dresses had low scooping backs. During the day, wool suits with shoulder pads, and fluted knee-length skirts were worn. Fox fur stoles and collars were popular, as were small hats embellished with decorative feather or floral details, worn at an angle. Hair was set short and close to the head, often with gentle ‘finger waves’ at the hairline. Sports and beach-wear influenced fashionable dress, and the sun-tan was coveted for the first time.”

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard

Fig. 1 - Photographer unknown. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, March, 1939. Source: Robert Matzen


Of 1930s menswear the V&A notes:

“Men now generally wore three-piece suits for work or formal occasions only. Two-piece suits (without a waistcoat) and casual day wear were becoming increasingly common, including knitted cardigans, tank-tops, and soft collared or open necked shirts. For the first time it was not obligatory to wear a tie. Trousers were very wide, with turned up hems and sharp creases down the leg. They were belted high at the abdomen. It was common for men to be clean-shaven, and bowler hats were now generally only seen by city businessmen.”



Historical Context

Wikipedia: 1930-1939
  • 1930 – As fashion becomes more conservative, dresses are generally styled with a lower hemline.
  • 1932- Flying Down to Rio pairs Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the first time. Astaire was an impeccable dresser on and off the screen, favoring suits made on London’s Savile Row. The movie Letty Lynton by MGM, starring Joan Crawford, begins a craze for padded shoulders in the US.
  • 1934 – The word “brassiere” is gradually shortened to “bra” through the decade. According to a survey by Harper’s Bazaar, “bra” is the most commonly used expression among college women for the brassiere. Women’s sports clothes become briefer than ever. Bathing suits are slashed and backless, and shorts begin to be seen on the tennis court.
  • 1935 – Italian-born Elsa Schiaparelli opens her first designer Boutique at 21 Place Vendome, Paris, France. Nylon is invented by Wallace Carothers at DuPont’s research facility. It is used as a substitute for silk in many different products.
  • 1936 – Edward VII abdicated the throne of England. His American mistress, Mrs. Wallis Simpson, is dressed by Mainbocher for their wedding. As more women take on paid employment, daytime looks are tailored and angular, with square epauletted shoulders, frogging, plumed hats, low heels, and gauntlet gloves.
  • 1937 – The Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga opens his couture house in Paris. He had boutiques in Spain since 1918.
  • 1939 – England and France declare war on Germany in September 1939. Clothes have to be practical. Vogue patterns are now pants for volunteer drivers. Sweaters become the basis of most looks; skirts are long and full.  Gone With The Wind is released, picking up brilliantly on the air of insecurity and emphasizing a feminine, romantic note in a fashion that would not be seen again until Dior’s New Look in 1947.

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