OVERVIEW

The year 1938 was a period of transition from the catastrophic Great Depression to World War II. Women’s fashion was exuberant: vibrant colors, Surrealist accessories, ornate hats with minimal embellishments were key trends. However, the overall silhouette was simple, clean, and sophisticated. Hemlines began to fall down below the knees. Restrained, structured shoulders evolved into the iconic puff sleeve. Public figures such as the Duchess of Windsor inspired women in their everyday dress.

Womenswear

The fashion of the 1930s can perhaps best be described as “Aspirations of Glamour” with trends greatly influenced by Hollywood stars and other celebrities. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Fig. 1) were primary influences on late 1930s fashion, especially following the duke’s abdication from the British throne. The duchess had more of a severe, “hard chic” style; whereas the duke was known for his more casual approach towards menswear.

Accessories became a huge part of people’s everyday style, with Surrealist inventions (Fig. 2) like those from Schiaparelli particularly popular. Small, flamboyant hats (Fig. 3) were yet another key trend. Hollywood started hiring its own costume designers like Gilbert Adrian, who produced hits like the “Letty Lynton” dress (Fig. 4), which was the most copied garment of the decade.

Wallis Simpson - Style File

Fig. 1 - Vogue UK. Wallis Simpson - Style File, 1939. Source: The Vogue Archive

Shocking de Schiaparelli

Fig. 2 - Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890-1973). Shocking de Schiaparelli, Vol. 19, Iss. 3, (Dec 1938): 91. Source: The Harper's Bazaar Archives

Vogue (New York)

Fig. 3 - "Fashion: Hat Story: Success Story". Vogue (New York), Vol. 94, Iss. 9, (Nov 1, 1939): 51. Source: The Vogue Archives

Letty Lynton dress

Fig. 4 - Gilbert Adrian (American, 1903-1959). Letty Lynton dress, 1932. Source: Jay Jorgensen, Donald L. Scoggins

Deborah Torrens elaborates on the Spring 1938 womenswear trends (Figs. 5-6) in Fashion Illustrated: A Review of Women’s Dress, 1920-1950:

“The pencil outline is finished. Be flared or tiered, pleated or billowy, but not straight up and down. Look subtly bunched, suggest an hour-glass rather than a needle. Wear waisted tunics, jutting out at hip or knee. Full skirted redingotes with pouchy backs. At night be picturesque in crinolined Winterhalter fashion, or moulded as a Grecian urn. Put swing, by flares or pleating, into day-time skirts, and keep them shorter than a bedtime story!” (171)

Vogue (New York)

Fig. 5 - "Fashion: For Two Generations". Vogue (New York), (Sep 1, 1938): 114, 115. Source: The Vogue Archive

In the Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s, curator Colleen Hill quotes Vogue on the importance of accessories:

“‘You could tell, from the Paris Openings, that this was going to be a wonderful year for accessories,’ Vogue informed its readers in 1938. ‘A year when they’d be colorful, gay, imaginative. A year when they could actually make a costume: steal the show.’ While this may have been true, it is also evident that the exquisite accessories of the 1930s had, in fact, been stealing the show for many years already.”’  (Mears 242)

Surrealism

The year 1938 was a continuation of Surrealist fashion inventions, especially accessories. In 20th Century Fashion (1999), Valerie Mendes and Amy de la Haye note the Surrealist hats invented by Schiaparelli (Fig. 7) that shocked the world:

“It was millinery which provided the designer with an opportunity to explore new forms. In 1936 she presented her shoe hat, an inverted design of a high-heeled court shoe, made in plain black or black and shocking pink velvet. This extraordinary design has been seen both as a fetishistc object and as an example of Surrealist displacement: there is a famous photograph of Dali with a shoe balanced in his head. Schiaparelli teamed the shoe hat with a tailored, black cocktail suit featuring erotic, appliqued lips around the pocket opening. She also designed a ‘Lamp Chop Hat’ in 1937, reflecting Dali’s obsession with a meat, and a quirky ‘Inkpot Hat’ in 1938.”  (99)

In Vintage Hats & Bonnets 1770-1970: Identification & Values, Susan Langley speaks about prominent millinery styles and designers of 1938 (Fig. 8).

“To close out the decade, by 1938 tiny toy or doll hats that resembled saucers piled with flowers, fruits, and feathers tipped over everyone’s foreheads. Some of the most prominent designers of hats in the thirties were Elsa Schiaparelli, Agnes, Reboux, Suzy, Rose Descat, Rose Valois, Lanvin, Louise Bourbon, Suzanne Talbot; and American milliners, Gilbert Adrian, John-Frederics, Hattie Carnegie, Lily Dache (303).”

Surrealism also influenced the staging of fashion shoots in 1938 as seen in this Vogue 1938 boudoir scene (Fig. 9).

Sea Worthy Styles/ Fashion Illustration

Fig. 6 - Edward Molyneux (British, 1891-1974). Sea Worthy Styles/ Fashion Illustration, Spring 1938. Source: Fashion Illustrated p. 170

Harper's Bazaar (New York)

Fig. 7 - "Harper's Folie's". Harper's Bazaar (New York), Vol. 71, Iss. 2707, (Mar 15, 1938): 71. Source: The Harper's Bazaar Archives

Vogue (New York)

Fig. 8 - "Fashion: From Croatia to New York". Vogue (New York), Vol. 91, Iss. 9, (May 1, 1938): 96, 97. Source: The Vogue Archive

Vogue (New York)

Fig. 9 - "Fashion: 1900 - Boudoir Scene - 1938". Vogue (New York), Vol. 92, Iss. 8, (Oct 15, 1938): 70. Source: The Vogue Archives

Vogue (New York)

Fig. 10 - "The Duke and Duchess of Windsor's House “La Croe" at Cap d'Antibes". Vogue (New York), Vol. 92, Iss. 8, (Oct 15, 1938): 65. Source: The Vogue Archives

Fashion Icon: Wallis Simpson

Public criticism and attention was unavoidable for the American divorcee who charmed King Edward VIII (Fig. 1). Their life together was regularly featured in American fashion magazines of the day, as in this spread about their house in Cap d’Antibes (Fig. 10). However, her sense of sophisticated yet free style inspired  women (Fig. 11). In “Wallis Simpson: A Life in Style,” the editors of Stylist describe the fashion icon of the late 1930s:

“she also gained a reputation for her sense of style. With an incredible couture collection and a penchant for wearing the most current fashions of the time–from flapper dresses and pearls in her youth to wasp-waisted ballgowns and mod shift dresses in her later life –Wallis’s wardrobe continues to fascinate.”

Simpson in Schiaparelli's Lobster dress

Fig. 11 - Elsa Schiaparelli (Italian, 1890-1973). Simpson in Schiaparelli's Lobster dress, Vogue (1937). Photo by Cecil Beaton. Source: Vogue

Holiday

Fig. 12 - George Cukor (American, 1899-1983). Holiday, 1938. Source: Museum of Modern Art

Hollywood Glamour

The impact of Hollywood on this period was phenomenal. Glamourous films like Holiday (Fig. 12) inspired people during a time of economic darkness. Fashion magzines regularly featured “Hollywood Fashions” in photo spreads. (Fig. 13).

Hollywood hiring its own designers to create fashion had huge impacts on the fashion industry. Designers such as Gilbert Adrian and Travis Banton were highly talented designers. However, Hollywood continued using French fashion houses in as well. In the History of Modern Fashion from 1850, Daniel James Cole and Nancy Diehl note:

“Despite the depth of design talent in Hollywood, several studios actively courted French fashion houses. For example, the 1938 film Artists and Models Abroad, while credited to Edith Head at Paramount, also listed contributions from Alix, Lanvin, Lelong, Pacquin, Patou, Rouff, Schiaparelli, and Worth.” (185)

In The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ‘40s and Our World Since Then, Marsha Hunt makes a distinction between everyday wear and Hollywood fashion:

“The wet blanket the Great Depression threw over the nation’s long wild party was reflected in changes of style. Down came the hemlines to mid and lower calf, back up to the waist came the belts… Colors were subdued, lines more natural and less extreme… Movies, on the other hand, were quite another matter. Recognizing the public’s need of relief from gloom, for some escape and fantasy, Hollywood provided just that.” (9)

In Hollywood Costume, Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland elaborate on the costume for the movie Jezebel, which featured a popular, much-publicized gown (Fig. 14).

“the costumes for Jezebel were the most widely publicized, in particular the notorious ‘red’ ballgown that Jezebel wore to shock her beau and those at a ball. The gown was made up in red, although the film was black-and-white, but it had to be remade because it looked black in the movie. The second try was more successful, and Jezebel turned up in a rust satin that photographed like a terrific red.” (152)

Sportswear

In American Ingenuity: Sportswear, 1930s–1970s, curator Richard Martin describes American sportswear, and its impact on this era (Figs. 15-16):

“Beginning in the early 1930s, American designer sportswear came into its own, later becoming a major force in fashion that continued into the 1990s to influence the way women dress. Designers such as Bonnie Cashin, Tina Leser, Vera Maxwell, Claire McCardell, Clare Potter, and Emily Wilkens initiated a new standard of dressing, one that is right for the lifestyle of the modern woman and that is purely American in its practicality, simplicity, and democratic elements. This was clothing for comfort and versatility that rationally answered the needs of women and was created mostly by women. In 1932, a legendary retailer at Lord & Taylor, Dorothy Shaver, presented a series of showings in the store of new American sportswear trends, for the first time bringing the designers together and specifically naming them. The new sensibility was toward freedom of movement and freedom of choice, and the clothing included mix-and-match ensembles, playsuits, pants, and a variety of activewear.”

With the enduring effects of the Great Depression and the build-up to the outbreak of World War II the next year, 1938 was a year of economic and social distress. However, the immense difficulties did not supress people’s sense of fashion.

Harper's Bazzar (New York)

Fig. 13 - "Hollywood Fashions". Harper's Bazzar (New York), Vol. 71, Iss. 2711, (Jul 1938): 75. Source: The Harper's Bazaar Archives

Red dress worn by Bette Davis in "Jezebel"

Fig. 14 - Orry-Kelly (Australian-American, 1897-1964). Red dress worn by Bette Davis in "Jezebel", 1938. Source: Pinterest

Harper's Bazaar (London)

Fig. 15 - "Horses and Guns". Harper's Bazaar (London), Vol. 18, Iss. 5, (Aug 1938): 20. Source: The Harper's Bazaar Archives

Harper's Bazaar (London)

Fig. 16 - "For St. Anton". Harper's Bazaar (London), Vol. 17, Iss. 4, (Jan 1938): 43. Source: The Harper's Bazaar Archive

References:

Historical Context

Wikipedia: 1938
Academy Award for Best Picture: The Life of Emile Zola
Events:
  • March 12 – Anschluss. German troops occupy Austria; annexation is declared the following day.
  • August – The RMS Queen Mary breaks the record of the fastest passenger cruise liner.
  • May 25 – During the Spanish Civil War, Alicante is bombed by fascist rebels, resulting in 313 deaths.
  • September 30 – Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy sign the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia.

Primary/Period Sources

Resources for Fashion History Research

To discover primary/period sources, explore the categories below.
Have a primary source to suggest?  Or a newly digitized periodical/book to announce?  Contact us!

Periodicals (Digitized)
French Vogue (Paris, 1920-1940), 1930s. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb343833568/date&rk=42918;4.
Les Modes : revue mensuelle illustrée des Arts décoratifs appliqués à la femme (1902-1937), 1930s. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb32817646w/date.r=les+modes.langEN.
The Harper’s Bazaar Archive (Subscription Required), 1930s. https://www.proquest.com/products-services/Harpers-Bazaar-Archive.html.
Vogue Archive (Subscription Required), 1930s. https://login.voguearchive.com.
Filmography
Borzage, Frank. Mannequin, 1938. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0030413/.
Leisen, Mitchell. Artists and Models Abroad, 1938. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029885/.

Secondary Sources

Also see the 20th-century overview page for more research sources... or browse our Zotero library.

Online
Oatman-Stanford, Hunter. “A Shock of Schiaparelli: The Surreal Provocateur Who Forever Altered Fashion.” Collectors Weekly. Accessed February 26, 2019. https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/a-shock-of-schiaparelli/.
“Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973).” The Business of Fashion, August 23, 2015. https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/education/elsa-schiaparelli-1890-1973.
Reeder, Author: Jan Glier. “Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973) | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed February 26, 2019. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/elsa/hd_elsa.htm.
“History of Fashion 1900 - 1970,” July 11, 2013. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/history-of-fashion-1900-1970/.
“Introduction to 20th-Century Fashion,” October 18, 2012. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/i/introduction-to-20th-century-fashion/.
“Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975).” The Business of Fashion, August 23, 2015. https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/education/madeleine-vionnet-1876-1975.
“Maison Schiaparelli - Schiaparelli & the Artists.” Accessed February 26, 2019. https://www.schiaparelli.com/en/21-place-vendome/schiaparelli-and-the-artists/.
Books/Articles
Aubenas, Sylvie, Virginie Chardin, and Xavier Demange. Elegance: The Seeberger Brothers and the Birth of Fashion Photography, 1909-1939. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/71286680.
Barrot, Olivier, and Raymond Chirat. Inoubliables!: visages du cinéma français, 1930-1950. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1986. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/242135594.
Berry, Sarah. Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood. Commerce and Mass Culture, v. 2. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/964247526.
Blum, Stella, ed. Everyday Fashions of the Thirties as Pictured in Sears Catalogs. New York: Dover Publications, 1986. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/868273076.
Bosker, Gideon, Michele Mancini, and John Gramstad. Fabulous Fabrics of the 50s: (And Other Terrific Textiles of the 20s, 30s, and 40s). San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1992. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/990569421.
Boucher, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. Expanded ed. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1987. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/979316852.
Brown, Susan, ed. Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. New York: DK Publishing, 2012. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/840417029.
Bryant, Nancy O. “Insights into the Innovative Cut of Madeleine Vionnet.” Dress 12, no. 1 (January 1, 1986): 73–86. https://doi.org/10.1179/036121186803657508.
Cole, Daniel James, and Nancy Deihl. The History of Modern Fashion from 1850. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/900012311.
Costantino, Maria, and Robert Price. Fashions of a Decade. The 1930s. New York: Facts on File, 1992. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1008545593.
De La Haye, Amy, and Edwina Ehrman, eds. London Couture 1923-1975: British Luxury. London: V&A Publishing, 2015. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/970401931.
Doherty, Thomas Patrick. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. Film and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/43734800.
Dorner, Jane. Fashion in the Twenties & Thirties. London: Allan, 1973. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1008004087.
Ewing, William A., Todd Brandow, and Tobia Bezzola. Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2008. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/227275494.
Framke, Gisela. Künstler ziehen an: Avantgarde-Mode in Europa 1910-1939. Heidelberg: Braus, 1998. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/40061558.
Ganeva, Mila. Women in Weimar Fashion: Discourses and Displays in German Culture, 1918-1933. Screen Cultures. Rochester: Camden House, 2008. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/903890112.
Gerber, E. “The Controlled Development of Collegiate Sport for Women, 1923–1936’.” Journal of Sport History, Summer 1992.
Gnoli, Sofia, and Sofia Gnoli. The Origins of Italian Fashion: 1900-45. London: Victoria & Albert Publishing, 2014. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/963875018.
Grafton, Carol Belanger, ed. Fashions of the Thirties: 476 Authentic Copyright-Free Illustrations. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/808086207.
Hall, Carolyn. The Thirties in Vogue. New York: Harmony Books, 1985. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/990359198.
Harper, Sue. Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film. London: British Film Institute, 1997. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/748991898.
Hill, Daniel Delis. History of World Costume and Fashion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/768100950.
Hunt, Marsha. The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and ’40s and Our World since Then. Fallbrook: Fallbrook Publications, 1996. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/57070968.
Kobal, John, ed. Hollywood Glamour Portraits: 145 Photos of Stars, 1926-1949. New York: Dover Publications, 1976. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/634406150.
Kobal, John. The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers, 1925-1940. Borzoi Book. New York: Knopf, 1980. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/831383589.
Lewis, G. “Sport Youth Culture and Conventionality 1920–1970.” Journal of Sport History, Fall 1993.
Mansfield, A. D., and Phillis Emily Cunnington. Handbook of English Costume in the Twentieth Century, 1900-1950. Boston: Plays, Inc, 1973. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1008080843.
Mears, Patricia, and G. Bruce Boyer, eds. Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/879615697.
Mendes, Valerie D., and Amy De La Haye. Fashion since 1900. 2nd ed. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/751457342.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, and Harold Koda. Fashion: A Timeline in Photographs: 1850 to Today. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc, 2015. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/905518225.
Owen, Elizabeth. Fashion in Photographs, 1920-1940. London: B.T. Batsford, 1993. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1008530926.
Penn, Irving, and Diana Vreeland. Inventive Paris Clothes, 1909-1939: A Photographic Essay. A Studio Book. New York: Viking Press, 1977. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/301546092.
Reilly, Maureen E. Lynn. Swing Style: Fashions of the 1930s-1950s. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub, 2000. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/990427397.
Robinson, Julian. Fashion in the 30’s. London: Oresko Books, 1978. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/16462044.
Robinson, Julian. The Golden Age of Style. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/23361805.
Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men’s Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/993378739.
Seeling, Charlotte, Neil Morris, Ting Morris, and Karen Waloschek. Fashion, the Century of the Designer, 1900-1999. Cologne: Könemann, 2000. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/778990757.
Tortora, Phyllis G., and Sara B. Marcketti. Survey of Historic Costume. Sixth edition. New York: Fairchild Books, 2015. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/972500782.
Wilk, Christopher, ed. Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939. London: V&A Publications, 2006. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/989572205.
Pinterest
“1938 Fashion + Style.” Pinterest, 1938. https://www.pinterest.com/VintageVault01/1938-fashion-+-style/.
“1938 Women’s Fashions.” Pinterest, 1938. https://www.pinterest.com/diananewington/1938-womens-fashions/.
“Holiday 1938 Movie.” Pinterest, 1938. https://www.pinterest.com/catalinalasa/holiday-1938-movie/.