JULY / AUG 2011: BY ERICA ELISE
Nothing, not even clothing, exists in a vacuum, since it both influences and is influenced by history. Yet the decade of the 1930’s is a lesson in contradiction. This era is one of the most glamorous in recent fashion history. How could such an elegant time exist when the country was reeling from economic collapse? Incredibly, not only did these beautiful styles exist but the Great Depression inspired them.
The Great Depression began in the United States when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 (Black Tuesday), though there were fits and starts well before that date. The decade prior, the 1920’s, had been marked by great growth and many people felt confident enough to invest in the stock market for the first time, often risking their entire savings whilst knowing little about it because people were making fortunes there. The effects of the crash and subsequent depression were devastating. Entire livelihoods were lost, and unemployment was rampant (as high as 25%). For most the worst had lifted by 1936, but the economy didn’t fully recover until just after WWII ended in 1945.
It has been surmised that people felt the Depression was retribution in part because of the lose morals of the decade previous. And while Hollywood studios did agree to the Hays Code in 1930, people had been working to “clean up” Hollywood for more than a dozen years. This self-censorship was not enforced and flouted until 1934 precisely because of the hard times people were experiencing. The public wanted an escape from the world around them. This likely is the reason for the styles of this stunning age of fashion. The fairly bare style of dress in the 1920’s were abandoned and close-fitting styles adopted. The skin was covered by fabric but it followed so close to the natural form the wearer had every curve visible, looking almost nude other than a layer of silk. This made a more feminine, ladylike appearance rather than the boyish, athletic look popular in the 1920’s.
While the women wore clothing that emphasized their curves, the men strove to appear more masculine by adopting a broad-torso look with the use of shoulder pads and more material in general.
The realities of difficult life comes into play when we look for actual pieces from this period. There is little clothing from that era left, especially casual wear. People wore things until they wore out and then the scraps were recycled. Yet new technology was more accessible and clothing construction changed. Rayon, the first synthetic material, entered common use, and although invented nearly a century before, zippers began appearing in everyday clothing. Like the dichotomy between the depressed conditions of society and the fanciful clothing popular at the time there were advancements in spite of frugal living.
Hair: Women wore a shorter bob softened by curls or finger waves. Women generally wore hats during the day. Men tended to wear their hair cropped short on the sides and a little longer on top. It was slicked down and during the day a hat was worn, though a proper gentleman always removed it upon entering a building.
Day Wear: Women wore skirts that reached 3-4” below their knees with a blouse or sweater. Waists were high and belted. Skirts tended to be tighter at the hips with more fullness at the hem line. These were worn with silk stockings (nylon was not in wide usage until 1938), a hat and gloves.
Men wore pants with high waistlines and a lot of volume in terms of fabric, their torso broadened by shoulder pads.
Evening Wear: The bias cut reigned from at least 1932 on but may have gone back to 1931 as well. Popularized by Madeleine Vionnet (though recent archaeological digs support the fact that it was in existence well before the 1930’s), this construction method utilized the cross grain of the material. To understand, take a piece of material in hand (nothing that is knit). Pull it horizontally and vertically, noticing there is little or no stretch. Now, turn the material at a 45 degree angle and again pull. Nearly all material that is woven will stretch in this direction. Because knit materials were not in use for anything other than stockings and similar items to get the necessary stretch, patterns of the era were turned diagonally on textiles before cutting. When these pieces were sewn together and draped on a human form it caused the material to ease across the hips and flare out at the hem. But most dresses were not entirely cut on the bias; a seam shaped like an inverted “V” located below the bust-line is visible in nearly all evening gowns of the 1930’s. From this seam down the dress was cut on the bias; anything above it was cut on the grain. This allowed the hip curves to be highlighted without compressing the bust, maximizing the curves so valued at this time.
Women’s evening gowns usually extended ten or more inches below the knee and the back tended to be very low cut.
Men wore a coat with tails, dress pants (fine black wool), a white waist coat, starched wing collar and white tie for formal events. Less formal evening wear consisted of a dinner jacket and black bow tie.
Looking at these examples it’s clear to see why so many have lauded the 1930’s as a golden age in fashion, even without acknowledging the hope it instilled when the world was so dark. Now, when conditions are startlingly similar in many ways, we note the trend is coming back around. Perhaps people are again looking for an escape and hoping brighter, more beautiful times will follow. ■