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… Continue reading
A Brief History of Women’s Fashion Pt. 2: The Depression, The Bias & Return of the Waistline, 1930’s
As anyone who has seen Gloria Swanson freak out in Sunset Boulevard knows, in the 20’s, the actors had faces. Also, they had fashion. Often, actors in silent films were portraying archetypal characters who were easily identified and defined by their clothing, hair, and makeup. For women, this meant two main categories of characters: the virgin and the vamp. Beneath these two umbrella archetypes were a variety of personas- the flapper, the ingénue, the girl next door, the “It” girl. Fashion in film helped to define these characters to the American public, and in turn says something about how women were defined by what they wore during that era. Film also helped to spread fashion trends out of the city to outlying or rural towns, giving the rest of the country a taste of the new styles emerging from a city center like New York. Ultimately, film played an integral role in defining the ideal style for the twenties woman, and comments silently about what clothing projects about the wearer.
Above: Box-office gold, Colleen Moore, in the many costumes of the ideal flapper.
Perhaps the most iconic persona of the silent screen, the archetypal flapper is also the most responsible of all the film personas when it comes to inspiring the fashion, both of the twenties and the modern era. Actress Colleen Moore personifies this character, with her bold, parisienne-esque fashion choices depicted above. From the long, lean, deep-v flapper evening dress, to the androgynous garçonne, to the eastern-inspired turbans and head-wraps, Moore’s on-screen style runs the gamut of flapper fashion. Moore starred in films with titles like Flaming Youth, Painted People, and The Perfect Flapper, and became a sort of icon of the flapper to the American public. Her characters were fun, carefree, adventurous, and free-spirited, but never vampy or obscene (unless you count putting perfume on your lips as obscene). Her portrayals helped make the flapper accessible to the public, while Moore’s on-camera style gave dreamy girls who saw her films something to look up to, fashion-wise. When most girls owned one, maybe two dresses, seeing Moore wear a different dress, usually heavily beaded or trimmed in fur, or covered in an ultra-modern art deco print, in every scene of Flaming Youth provided a sort of perfect ideal of this mysterious modern woman, the flapper, who everyone was trying to understand and explain.
Other notable flappers: Clara Bow, Josephine Baker, Joan Crawford
A Brief History of Women’s Fashion Pt. 1: The Rise of the Hemline & Disappearance of the Waistline, 1920’s
Women’s fashion trends prior to the twentieth century convey a sense of, well, discomfort to modern ears: s-curve, hobble skirt, corset, bustle. In Joshua Zeitz’ Flapper, the author quotes ‘King of Fashion’ Paul Poiret’s description of the hobble skirt that he designed: “You will remember the tears, the cries, the gnashings of teeth caused by this ukase of fashion. Women complained of being no longer able to walk, not get into a carriage. All their jeremiads pleaded in favor of my innovation . . . Have their complaints or grumblings ever arrested the movement of fashion, or have they not rather, on the contrary, helped it by advertising it?” Clearly, the fashion trends of the late nineteenth century were not targeted towards women who were active or independent, although women were not necessarily expected to be. Yet it still sort of boggles the mind to think that fashion was a part of women’s shackle as early as a hundred years ago, which is sort of a hiccup in the grand scheme of history. Yet, in the 1920’s, thousands of years of women’s fashion became undone and rewritten. Fashion retained its appeal as a status symbol, yet also incorporated new ideas of comfort, movement, and function. Instead of binding and controlling women, it became an expression of their liberation. What changed?
Basically, a combination of social and cultural changes for women allowed for this sort of aberration in fashion history known as the twenties. In America, women were finally granted the right to vote. World War I was over, with America, a late-comer to the war and remote enough to be less devastated from its effects, emerging as prosperous and as a more established world power. Meanwhile, the cultural climate of the West – Europe and America – was changing as well. By cultural climate, I mean the creative output of writers, musicians, and filmmakers who were basically altering the perception of what society valued, what was acceptable, and what was ideal. As everyone knows, the 1920’s heralded the arrival of the much lauded “flapper”, a new concept of the modern woman, who danced, drank, worked, and played at a level (almost) equal to men in a manner that offended the traditional Victorian thinkers but captivated the new generation. The newly popularized medium of film helped to promote this new archetype, while writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald both created and promoted her to the American public. Meanwhile, real-life ‘flappers’, such as Josephine Baker, thrived in liberal communities in Europe, in cities like Paris and Berlin, where the modern woman could express herself even more freely than in America. American writers also formed communities in Europe, especially in France, which helped to further establish this connection between the American and European modern sensibilities.
At the same time, fashion was responding to the new demands of the modern woman. Supply and demand, again, reared its econ 101 head. As early as 1914, Coco Chanel was promoting a new silhouette for women, one that emphasized comfort over decorative frills. By the end of World War I in 1918, her designs were selling throughout France. According to Zeitz, Chanel proclaimed to have “let go of the waistline” as she “came up with a new silhouette”. This ‘new silhouette’ seems pretty tame from modern-day standards, but it was actually quite revolutionary. Playing with androgyny, Chanel’s designs allowed women to take the best parts of men’s fashion – blazers, cardigans, streamlined designs – and make them appropriate for women. The corset was completely unnecessary to achieve the chic Chanel garçonne look: slim, straight, and vertical, with no waistline, and a hemline that emphasized movement rather than modesty. Instead of the ruffles, feathers, bustles, and trims of the previous era, women’s fashion was feminized with ornate beadwork and lightweight fabrics (jersey, silk), and incorporated elements from contemporary art, such as geometric, art deco patterns. Paired with long cardigans (not unlike the ‘boyfriend cardigan’ that pretended it was invented a few years ago) or flowing blazers and topped with a bell-shaped, skull-hugging cap, the cloche, that emphasized the newly popularized bob haircut, the flapper look was born.
What did this mean for women? Other than allowing them to replace binding, restrictive corsets with comfortable, lighter than air bralettes and slips, and to be actually able to move without ‘hobbling’ down the street, it meant a lot. Fashion throughout history didn’t happen in a bubble; what women wore and what women did were connected. The new found freedom in fashion accompanied some new found freedoms socially, from voting to working to being active in a sphere once reserved for men: the social sphere, out of the home and into the public eye. While women’s roles did not change overnight because of a dropped waistline and a raised hemline, such changes in fashion represented the social changes that were affecting women’s lives. The flapper ideal allowed women to borrow from men’s wardrobes, implying that women were also borrowing from men socially and culturally. The ‘separate spheres’ keeping the worlds of men and women apart throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s were coming apart at the seams, as the ‘modern woman’ looked to new avenues for her liberation- the workplace, the university, and anywhere else where she could carve a new path.
Suggested further reading:
Flapper by Joshua Zeitz
Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald