A Brief History of Women’s Fashion Pt. 2: The Depression, The Bias & Return of the Waistline, 1930’s

Typically, when people think of Great Depression-era fashion, exciting thoughts do not necessarily spring to mind.  Marking the end of Jazz Age decadence, the 1930’s are often thought of as a somber decade when it comes to fashion.  However, to be honest, the 1930’s are one of my favorite eras of fashion (besides the 1960’s).  Perhaps it is the existence of extreme opposites that interests me; the 1930’s saw both the bare minimum housedress of the typical woman simultaneously with the escapist Hollywood glamour of the pre-code silver screen.  As a sort of apology for the frivolity of the flapper fashion, women’s dresses dropped their hemlines and were typically constructed of more practical, less ornate fabrics.  The waistline assumed a more traditional, natural position.  The ideal look, however, continued in the art deco fashion- streamlined, long, lean.  Meanwhile, couture fashion pushed boundaries of the silhouette with the increased popularity of bias cut draping, as well as the influence of modern art movements, such as surrealism.  Modern hardware, such as the zipper, was also popularized throughout the 1930’s. In a sense, the 1930’s is the start of the sort of classic period of vintage fashion that lasted up until the early 1960’s, a period marked by ultra-feminine silhouettes existing at a time when women’s roles in America were increasingly traditional, acting as the build up and inspiration for the second wave of feminism.  The Great Depression insisted women stay home to allow for more chances for employment for men, a trend that would last until the factory boom of the 1940’s, only to re-emerge during the nuclear family-centric, suburban docility that was the 1950’s.  Thus, women’s fashion was further feminized and defined, drifting away from the boyish, masculine silhouette of the flapper.  With a few exceptions…

Aviator Inspired Fashion


Beginning in the 1920’s, America’s fascination with aviation continued throughout the 1930’s.  Women pilots such as Amelia Earhart and Elinor Smith (pictured above, at left) captured the public’s imagination, with aviation serving as an escapist ideal during a time of financial hardship at home.  Aviatrixes were real-life heroines whose endeavors served an adventurous distraction for Americans who were struggling after the economic collapse of 1929 and 1930.  At the same time, aviation’s influence on fashion is pretty obvious.  Typically masculine suit silhouettes, as well as the leather jacket and jodhpur-style pants translated easily from aviatrixes to Hollywood fashion.  Above, film stars Carole Lombard and Katharine Hepburn capture the androgynous, aviation-inspired style that defied the stereotypical traditionally feminine 1930’s ideal.

Below, Myrna Loy and Amelia Earhart

Emergence of Sportswear

Following the popularity of ‘the sporting life’ of the 1920’s, the 1930’s also continued to emphasize the necessity for sportswear.  Clothing for active women was a necessity, and the popularity of separates addressed this need.  Instead of simply one-piece frocks, women in the 1930’s were faced with choices: separate tops and bottoms, which ranged from shorts to trousers to skirts, two-piece suits, and the concept of mix-and-matching (well, mostly just entirely matching) wardrobes.  Sportswear brands in Europe began emerging during the 20’s and throughout the 30’s, with activities such as tennis in mind.  While those brands, such as Lacoste, were first introduced for men, women’s clothing followed the trend of sportswear as well, if not quite so literally.  The concept of ready-to-wear did not really exist yet, but sportswear meant that women had more options and choices to present themselves.  Zelda Fitzgerald’s touring pants during the 1920’s would not have caused quite the same stir a decade later.  Androgynous influences from the 1920’s, such as the nautical look and accompanying sailor middy, continued to be popular in women’s fashion.  Above, film’s bad and good girls, Jean Harlow and Norma Shearer, respectively, were both able to wear the pants.

Surrealist Fashion & Bias Goddesses


Meanwhile, artistic expression also found a niche in 1930’s fashion, despite the misconception that the Depression-era was entirely drab and practical.  Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli drew influences from the Surrealist community of Europe that was evident in her trompe l’oeil-inspired knitwear and boundary-pushing couture offerings.  Artists such as Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau contributed to her surrealist-esque designs.  Photographer and artist Man Ray captured the eerie beauty of fashion icons such as Greta Garbo, above, whose streamlined fashion possessed both alluring femininity and Metropolis-like industrial sterility.  In this sense, fashion was elevated to the level of art form, at least in the world of couture.

Meanwhile, the couture world was also being revolutionized on the other end of the artistic spectrum by Madeleine Vionnet.  Instead of drawing inspiration from the ultra-modern, experimental surrealists, Vionnet looked to the past as she emphasized and spirited the bias cut in women’s fashion in order to achieve the romantic drape of Classical Greek fashion.  Like Italian fashion house Fortuny, Vionnet’s silhouettes sought to emphasize the natural curves of a woman through drape and fabric choice.  Cutting fabric on the bias allowed for this natural drape.  Bias-cut skirts abounded during the 1930’s and throughout the 1940’s.  However, cutting along the bias demands several more yards of fabric, which meant it was not always an option for budget-conscious women of the Great Depression.  Nonetheless, there were techniques to achieve the same effect without wasting fabric.  In a pattern I have from the early 1940’s, panels of fabric are used then sewn together to convey a similar flowing bias cut.  From haute couture to daily fashion, the bias changed the way women’s dresses were cut throughout the twentieth century.

Next week…more on escapist fashion from the 1930’s

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Filed under Fashion History, Fashion in Film

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