The 20th Century is an era that most people know something about, regarding the fashion. A large percentage of the population today (myself included) was born in the 20th century, and we have a lot of popular media portrayals of the various decades. People often have a vague idea of the flapper fashion of the 20s, the poodle skirts of the 50s, the bell bottom jeans of the 70s, and the shoulder pads of the 80s. Those are probably the best-known decades. Most people can even associate the 1910s with Titanic fashion, the 40s with World War II and the 60s with Audrey Hepburn. But what about the 30s? What the heck was fashion like in the 30s? It was the Great Depression then, so they must have not really cared about fashion…. right?
As I have come to realize in my 20th century fashion research, the 1930s is easily one of the best fashion decades of all time. Despite the economic hardship in America at that time, people still made an effort to look nice, and they made the most out of their restrictions on materials. In order to understand the fashion attitudes in the 30s, let’s take a step back and look at the teens and twenties.
I think of the 1910s as a transition era and the 20s as a backlash. The 20s is not my favorite, because they rejected everything I liked about the Edwardian era- the feminine curves, the ruffles, the lace, the sense of dignified elegance. Instead they opted for boxy dresses that are pretty much flattering to no one. Thankfully, they didn’t get rid of ALL the good things- at least they kept the sparkly beading and the overall sense of class that we just don’t seem to have anymore. And there were some benefits to the 1920s, including the fact that no one was forced to cover their ankles anymore, and there was no shame in bare arms or deep necklines.
By the time the 20s came to a close, people had pretty much gotten the backlash attitude out of their systems. After ten years of wearing unflattering dresses, but at the same time making the statement that it’s okay to show a little skin, we started to make actual progress again. Desire to flatter the figure + confidence in showing off the body rather than hiding it + early 20th century classiness = absolutely gorgeous 1930s fashion.
Some of the things I love most about 1930s fashion are the low backs, the figure-hugging silhouette, and the insanely awesome sleeves.
First, let’s talk about the low backs. This was just starting to become a thing in the 30s. People started to say “It’s okay to show the legs and arms now, and a little bit of cleavage, so let’s show off our backs too.”
In addition to the celebrity photos, we also have dress patterns and fashion plates that offer a low back.
One thing to keep in mind about the 30s is that people were pretty skinny, in general. With the Great Depression, people weren’t able to eat as much, and the foods they had were not nearly as fattening as they are today. (They actually had advertisements for supplements you could take to gain weight on purpose!) And if you’re skinny, one of your greatest assets is your back. That’s probably one reason why it was so popular to have those plunging backs in the evening dresses. Keep in mind that this wasn’t the case for day dresses- nobody would be out dressed like this during the day doing their normal activities.
In these pictures, you can also note the silhouette which I really adore. The skirts were slim and clung closely to the hips, and they often had bias-cut (diagonal) seams in order to achieve more of a curve. I also love the flare at the bottom of the skirts, and the accents at the shoulders. 1930s fashion is most flattering to rectangle shaped (boxy) and hourglass figures. The day dresses, while not quite as dramatic as the evening dresses, have this same flattering, elongating silhouette.
(Man, if everyone in college dressed like that today, I would love that so much!)
(Does the style of the above dress look familiar? Cold shoulder tops were actually a thing in the 30s! And a very popular thing, just like it is today. I believe this is when it started.)
(I love those oxford shoes with that classy outfit! Could we just adopt this sort of look as the standard for casual wear again? Please?)
Granted, not everybody was able to dress like that all the time. For the people who were really hitting economic hard times, they didn’t have the means to keep up with the trends like this. But notice how these day dresses and evening dresses are pretty conservative on the use of fabric. The skirts are pretty slim, and usually about knee length for the day dresses. Compare that to the poofy princess skirts of the 1950s, when most people could afford to do that!
Finally, here are some of my favorite examples of Epic 1930s Sleeves. They were so creative with sleeves in this decade- from Grecian cape sleeves to cute ruffled sleeves to peasant sleeves with cool slits…. well, just take a look for yourself!
(The picture above shows more evidence of the cold shoulder.)
(Look at those awesome slit peasant sleeves!! We need to do that today, since peasant blouses are so popular right now.)
There are countless other examples of awesome 1930s fashion. Take a look at my 1920s-50s board on Pinterest. You’ll have to filter through the 20s, 40s and 50s pictures on there too, but pretty much all fashion from the first half of the 20th century is pretty awesome.
All this discussion of the 1930s brings me to the official announcement of my next project….
…a 1930s inspired Snow White gown! Sometime last year I decided to draw Snow White in the style of her movie’s decade.
I never thought I’d be making an actual project out of it, but I found out that this year/next year is the 80th anniversary of Disney’s Snow White (premiered in December 1937, released to the public in February 1938, I believe.) So I thought, how perfect would it be to actually make this dress! I already bought a pattern that I’m going to use for the skirt. I’m going to draft the bodice myself.
I want to make more progress on the 1912 ballgown before moving on to this, so stay tuned!
Plus, Snow White is the only brown-eyed Caucasian princess. (Believe it or not, Belle doesn’t exactly have brown eyes.) She would probably be my best choice for a Disney princess cosplay anyway!
It’s sad that people have forgotten a lot of the cool fashion trends of the 30s, but some of them seem to be coming back. I would love to revive even more of this decade.
I hope you take a look at my Pinterest board, and don’t forget to answer the reader survey if you haven’t already. It will help me get a better feel for the type of people in this audience so I can create more content that’s relevant to you. Thanks for reading!