Top Ten Fashion Moments of Pre-Code 1930’s Hollywood

Clockwise from top left: Teresa Wright, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Theresa Harris

Signaling the start of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, Depression-era cinema set the foundation for trends in film, culture, and fashion throughout the first half of the twentieth century.  The star-powered studio system, the moral conduct code, and the typical film personae were crafted and fleshed out during this period.  Directly following the gay twenties and collapsing into the economic disaster of 1929 and 1930, Hollywood sought to keep audiences paying to see films and fought to maintain a theatre-going culture, where seeing a film was an essential part of daily life.  In order to keep attendance high, studios sought the biggest stars, the best talent, and the most intriguing and sometimes raciest story lines.  Known as the pre-code (as in, the period prior to the enforcement of the Hays Code which restricted what was portrayed on film) era, the period from 1930 to about the middle of 1934 allowed for some of the freshest, most provoking portrayals on film the public had and ever would see (at least until the 1960’s).  During this period, women’s roles in films flourished, as pre-code starlets such as Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton, Norma Shearer, and Greta Garbo were given meaty roles that went against the stereotypical ideals of femininity (as seen in the 1920’s archetypes).  Playing divorcees, professional women, ‘loose’ women who were never punished for their sexual depravity, maneaters, women who used men for their own personal gain, and on and on, pre-code actresses were really allowed to let loose on the silver screen.  Some of the most fun to watch performances were given during this period by women who modern film lovers often remember for their latter (more sober and classical) roles during the forties and fifties.

But what does all this mean in terms of fashion? 

Basically that the 1930’s are a vintage fashion lovers dream as far as cinematic representations are concerned.  The women on screen often led glamorous, fast-paced, and action-packed lives with a wardrobe to match.  Rags to riches stories were popular, where the actress began the film dressed as an ordinary woman and ended the film in satin dressing gowns and fur coats.  Whatever moral comprising she did along the way may or may not have been important; what often was emphasized was what she wore while doing it.  Some of the costumes may seem a bit inappropriate or extreme by today’s standards, because literally actresses were often wearing what would be considered haute couture while going out to lunch or just generally going about her business.  And they were dressed from head to toe: impeccably styled hats, accessories, gloves, handbag, shoes, in addition to a beautiful dress straight from the fashion plates of Paris.  Watching women in 1930’s films is inspiring on so many levels, as what they wore sheds light on how trends progressed throughout the forties and fifties.  As seen on film, the 1930’s marked a clear departure fashion-wise from the androgyny of the 1920’s.   From silhouette to hemline to styling, the 1930’s fashion ideal was much more feminized.  The waistline rose to emphasize a traditionally ‘feminine’ figure.  Hemlines dropped but skirts often became narrower.  Evening gowns featured plunging necklines, open backs, and were adorned with fur or matching dress jackets.  The ideal fabrics were chiffon, silk, satin and fur.  Diamonds were preferred over pearls.  Rather than straight, boyish bobs, starlets kept hair short but almost cartoonishly wavey.  Cinematic fashion of the 1930’s offered a drama that defines the era as that ideal golden age, much more so than the somber war-time cinema of the 1940’s or the simplicity of the 1950’s.  Below, what I think are the ten best examples of the beautiful (although, admittedly, purely escapist) fashion of 1930’s Hollywood.

1. Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face (1933)

Playing an ambitious young woman from the wrong side of the tracks who uses Nietzsche to justify sleeping her way to the top, Barbara Stanwyck, playing Lily, goes from average fashion to full-on glamor.  Starting off as a barmaid and prostitute, Lily eventually acquires a million dollars and the gowns to match.


Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face


2. Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930)

When she discovers her husband is cheating, Shearer’s character sleeps with his best friend, divorces him, and goes on a free-wheeling spree through Europe.  With the best wardrobe ever.

3. Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931)

The enigmatic Garbo embodied exoticism, mystery, and, ultimately, self-sacrfice as the beautifully costumed Mata Hari.

4. Mae Clarke and Jean Harlow in Three Wise Girls (1932)

The typical girls trying to make it in the city story, but also a classic example of what Hollywood considered lounge or casual wear (pretty fabulous, right?).

5. Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Harlow is one of my favorites from the pre-code era because she was hilarious, didn’t take herself too seriously, and was likeable even when she wasn’t supposed to be.  In Red-Headed Woman, she plays Lil (almost every ‘loose’ woman in 1930’s films are named Lily FYI), an ambitious secretary who sees sleeping with the (married) boss as a way out of her impoverished life.  She ends up marrying up and up until she’s tossing money away at horse tracks in Paris.  She is never punished for her frivolity (which would never be allowed to occur after the code) and basically gets away with everything, including an amazing wardrobe.

Harlow as secretary and lady of leisure in Redheaded Woman.

6. Myrna Loy in When Ladies Meet (1933)

Can we talk about Myrna Loy for a moment?  Her on-screen style was always impeccable, incredibly pulled together but easy, and she never looked like she wasn’t having fun on film.  In this film, she is a little upstaged by Ann Harding, but Loy wins in the fashion department.

7. Bette Davis in Fashions of 1934 (1934)

Not her strongest role script-wise, but that’s because this film was basically an excuse to put her in a bunch of semi-absurd/unneccessary yet drool-worthy ensembles.  Examples:

8. Ruth Chatterton in Female (1933)

In Female, Ruth Chatterton portrayed Alison, the tough, no-nonsense executive of an automobile company who turns the gender-role tables on the men in her office, using them sexually then dismissing them romantically.  She’s basically awesome, with the wardrobe of the ideal 1930’s version of a CEO.

9. Joan Crawford in Sadie Mckee (1934)

“From a girl in calico and cotton,” states the trailer for this Crawford vehicle, “to a dazzling beauty in ermine and orchids.”  A classic rags-to-riches tale, the previous quote exemplifies the status attached to fashion in the 1930’s.  It was an either-or: utter rags or utter riches, with the latter usually symbolizing some kind of closure or happiness.  Perhaps intending to help filmgoers escape the dire economic climate, even if only for 90 minutes, films like Sadie Mckee were immensely popular.  Crawford’s over-the-top “after” fashion shows her character’s rise in social status.

A sensible beaded evening gown.

You really know you've made it when you have a sequined cape.

In a white pantsuit, Crawford really has it all.

10. Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932)

In case you were wondering how many (possibly feathered) outfits one can bring on a train the answer is, um, a lot.  Meanwhile, Wong conveyed a beautiful Eastern simplicity with her classic cheongsam meets 1930’s draped dresses.  The costume design of Shanghai Express emphasized perfectly the 1930’s concept of ‘Oriental’ (ugh, I know) exoticism.

Next time…

The 1940's: Fashion of Working Women



Filed under Fashion History, Fashion in Film

4 responses to “Top Ten Fashion Moments of Pre-Code 1930’s Hollywood

  1. This is a truly wonderful gift to share with us all and also boost your body of work in a productive and fun way. I will try to watch closely for the playful and informative way you go through this fabulous era. It is hard to imagine how much pioneering these women were doing since it all had never been done before (courting the media, mass exposure, etc.).

    • Thank you for the positive feedback! What women wore (and accomplished) during this time is always inspiring to me, so I am happy to share this with others.

      • You just don’t often see people who are capable of relating these kinds of details and do it without pretense.

        On another random note, I wish that the studios often pumping these poor women full of speed was better documented. That and Method Acting really pushed them quite far.

  2. Hello. I recently finished a first book on the Iconic Edwin Bower Hesser. His photos spanned the 1920’s on Broadway to the hills of HollyWood into the 1940’s
    Through his lens he saw HARLOW – LOMBARD – PICKFORD – LOW –
    Doug Foland – Portland OR.

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