30s Style Clothing

April 5, 2012

The 1930s: antebellum sophistication and glamour

The 1930s decade in fashion has an unforgettable aura to it. The Great Depression and its ripple effect around the globe, a British Prince marrying an American divorcee, new ways with fabrics, and the beginning of the Second World War shaped the clothing styles of the 1930s.

The early 1930s welcomed the return to feminine, genteel dresses, skirts and outerwear for women. The daywear and casual wear was rather simple, not in the least due to the economic hardship experienced by a huge swath of the population. Keeping clothes neat, sleek, and as fashionable as possible was the underlying motto of the clothing manufacturers and retailers of the day. The mass production of clothes was not yet established, thus the decade was one of the last to be dominated by small-scale local manufacturers. The high end of the fashion scene, however, had an impressive diversity of designers: Mainbocher, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Madame Gres, Robert Piguet, Lucien Lelong, and Coco Chanel.

In the upscale section of the clothing market, the 1930s mark the distinct separation between daywear and eveningwear. Luxurious and less practical designs, especially from novel fabrics, like metallic lame, became reserved for evening occasions. The 1930s eveningwear signifies the birth and the first peak of true glamour. Many of the eveningwear gowns from the 1930s still look relevant today, thanks to the spread of the bias cut method of fabrics. Although even medieval clothes were sometimes made with the bias cut, its worldwide re-introduction can be attributed to the French designer Madeleine Vionnet.
The bias method allowed to tailor splendidly draped or form-fitted garments. Some of Vionnet’s creations are still available for purchase through auctions and certain vintage clothes retailers. The designer also introduced the cowl neck, halter-top, and handkerchief dress.

Those seeking a fashionable alternative to Vionnet’s gorgeous silhouettes and very subdued, pastel colors could turn to the unabashedly colorful, experimental and bold designs of the Italian Elsa Schiaparelli or the House of Chanel. Ms. Schiaparelli is the mind behind the popularization of the zipper and many timeless little black dress designs that cannot be confused with anyone else’s. Garments in turquoise, hyacinth blue, shocking pink, and funky hats stood out from the rest of the mainstream clothing styles. She is also famous for her tailored suits for women with a strong, masculine silhouette to them. Ms. Schiaparelli used shoulder pads in her suits, long before the 1980s craze for them. The masculine lines in suits persisted as a trend well into 1940s. The shift of focus from the hips to the shoulders is one of the signature marks of the 30s style clothing.

Chanel, while not yet at the peak of her popularity, was a big competitor to Schiaparelli. Her clothes, stylish and fashionable, were not as openly risk-taking as those of Schiaparelli, mostly because Chanel had to make sure that her designs were appealing to a much bigger customer base. Chanel did change, practically single handedly, the attitude to cotton by using it in her clothing lines. Post-Chanel, cotton was no longer written off as the cheap fabric good enough only for worker’s overalls or lowly denim.
While this re-invention of cotton opened new venues for design of high-end garments, silk remained the undeniable king of the women’s fashion. Novel materials, like rayon, were extensively used for the lower-end clothing styles. The daywear trends characteristic of the 1930s style clothing include a longer hemline, especially compared to the styles of the 20s, a return to the natural waistline, moderately full skirts, often shorter in the front than in the back, and great attention to necklines. The latter would often have a scalloped edge or an elaborately ruffled collar. Cloche hats gave way to the open forehead and a more coquettishly small, plate-shaped hats, often worn at an angle.

The neckline of the eveningwear was plunging. The gowns were intended to show off the tan resulting from the newly popular sunbathing in much more open swimsuits.

The close of the 1930s saw a shift toward very subdued, simple, even stern designs forced by the arrival of WWII. The collections featured more masculine, square-shouldered silhouettes derived from the military uniforms. Low heels, simple trousers and shirts were designed as if foreseeing years of hardship not conducive to fashion development. One exception to this was the wasp waistline adding a perky feminine touch to the garments shown in the 1939 collections, as if in the last attempt at denial of the advent of the war.

The style icons associated with 30s clothing style include Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Rita Hayworth, William Saroyan, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, and Bette Davis.

The 1930s clothes can be found through specialized vintage and reproduction clothes retailers. With few exceptions, famous 30s fashion houses were closed during the WWII and were never reopened again. Vionnet was revived in 2006 and is currently operating from Italy. Vionnet dressed Natalie Portman, Diane Kruger, Emma Watson, Madonna, and Marion Cotillard.

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