20th Century Fashion History: 1930 – 1940

I often praise the fashion of the 20th Century for being distinct and constantly changing (society too for that matter). Well so is not completely the case of the 1930s or the 1940s. The two decades are quite similar in their style, being tied together by economic crises as well as WWII. So the start of the 1930s sparks of 20 (almost) years of fashion that is more or less a direct reflection of the societal conditions. Here’s the 20th Century Fashion History: 1930 – 1940:

The Society during 1930 – 1940

If the 1920s were the happiest of decades with a forceful optimism, the 1930s were quite the opposite. The economic depression and anxious times partly lead up to WWII. Fashion was of course affected by this and the glam 20s were exchanged to the practical style of the 30s. Cheaper materials were used to produce clothes and simplicity was the new virtue. Simply put: It was tacky to look rich, but crucial to look respectable.

Peculiarly enough, it was during the 1930s that Hollywood got glamorized and movie stars the definite celebrities and fashion icons. The gap between the everyday life of an ordinary citizen and the life of the fortunate increased. People needed something to dream and be amazed about, and luxurious fashion and impeccable movie stars would be that escape. Activities and sports also grew immensly in popularity and followed the fashion of functionalism.

Style of the 1930 – 1940

If there’s one decade in specific where sophisticated elegance originates from, it’s the 1930s. With body defined dresses, a marked waist, and calf-length dresses the 1930s focused on the female body. The economic situation didn’t allow for use of extravagant details, but women had to turn to what already existed. And showing off the female body became a fierce statement with a forceful effect. Instead of getting attention through sequins, the attention was achieved by defined dresses or a low back for eveningwear.

Even though it was tasteless to look rich, no one said that fashion couldn’t be fun! Fun in this case meant fun prints and details that elevated the fashion level. Everything from floral patterns to cars, navy and animals. The patterned dresses were accompanied with fun collars, cute belts and details such as bows and lace. Often kept in small doses though and always in balance with the rest of the look. The economical restriction paved way for creativity, innovation and making the most of what you had.

During the 1930s, two things in specific would mark the decade; wearing pants as a daily clothing piece and elegant evening dresses. Even though the female body was back at being in focus, pants became more of more of an item to count on. Though it was still mainly in sports events, Hollywood stars such as Joan Bennett, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman wore the pants as a fashion item. As for evening dresses, they kept the glam life alive by embodying simplified luxury, but more on that below.

The clothes between 1930 – 1940

Dresses were still the all time wardrobe staple during the decade. They were designed in a way that highlighted the natural curves of the female body, with the waist being defined by a simple belt. There was a slight emphasis on an inverted triangle shape, with short puffed sleeves. The silhouette was further underlined by curly hair and a hat – all which centered the focus to the upper body. Except hats, gloves were an important accessory as well as matching shoes.

The dresses hit right below the knees and was rather feminine with prints of flowers and dots, and shades of dove blue, red, pink and pea green. The collars in combination with the prints made a rather rich detail impression, although the overall look was quite simple and: sophisticated elegance. Buttons, bows, cuts and belts also helped to keep the looks fashionable without the expensive cost. Draped skirts and ruffles were also common features.

Except the dresses, a skirt and amatching blouse was also a common combination. Often with the blouse overthe skirt and of course with a belt that marked the waist. As for the pants, the were high waisted and came with wide legs. Jumpsuits also figured as seen to left.

The evening dresses were the ultimate glam reflection of the daywear. They were true to the female body, but the dresses were floor-length which highlighted women’s bodies even further. The fabrics were shiny, silky, and gave a balmy impression. The backs of the dresses were open and the dresses were often sleeveless (or short sleeved), so women showed quite a lot of skin (at least compared to fashion history)! The cut and drapings of the dresses were in focus, as they emphasized on the curves of a woman. Often with a favorable cut neckline as well as fall of the fabric. Details were barely used, more than ruffles sometimes functioning as the neckline or hemline.

Beauty between 1930 – 1940

The dramatic face expression of the 1920s continued into the 30s, with thin eyebrows, defined eyes and lips. Makeup became more acceptable and used in the daily life. The eyes should look heavy with eyeshadow or eyeliner completing the look. The lashes could be a bit clumpy as it added to the look, and eyeliner looking smudgy worked perfectly for the Hollywood stars. The cheeks were rosy and the lips as well. From a contemporary perspective though, it doesn’t really matter what I say, as the thin and heavily defined eyebrows had a life on their own! And we do know what we all think about them, even though they pulled it off quite fiercely in the 30s compared to 10 years ago.

As for the hair, it was still kept rather short. Instead of looking fully styled as in the 20s, the hair should be curly and look natural. This look worked with hats and gave a simple but elegant look.

Spotlight of 1930 – 1940

One of the main figures within the clash of fashion and art is Elsa Schiaparelli. She was leading in the work of making fashion more artsy, or making art more fashionable. Schiaparelli brought the fun patterns, cuts and details to fashion. She loved surrealism and added fun motives to her evening dresses. She valued a toned down maximalism which made her stand in contrast to her rival, Coco Chanel. Chanel believed in minimalism, classic shades of black and white and functionalism – everything that Schiapparelli thought was boring. If there’s only one creation you should now from this lady, it’s the lobster dress (source: Philadelphia MoA) she made in 1937. A collaboration with Spanish artist Salvador Dalí. It’s quite legendary!

Transition to the 1940s

As stated before the 1930s and 1940s are almost twins in the decades of the 20th century, as the situation of the war/economic crisis kept them together. This meant that the functional fashion of the 30s continued into the 40s with the female body being in focus, lots of dresses and the sophisticated elegance going more sharp. The 1930s remains the decade of contrasts with the simplified daywear and the glamorous eveningwear. Where dreams of a better world took its expression through the playful prints of clothes as well as the glorified status of Hollywood actresses.

This was the 1930s  post in the series of 20th Century Fashion History: 1900 – 2017! Next week it’ll be WWII, ransons, a backlash for feministic fashion and certain Dior that changed the fashion game!

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20 thoughts on “20th Century Fashion History: 1930 – 1940

  1. Wow, there is so much here that I didn’t know. Thanks 1930s for making pants “normal” for women, woohoo! I love dresses but I’m glad I don’t have to wear them every day 🙂

  2. Wow, I had no idea that fun and playful prints on clothing originated during the 1930s! I’ve always associated it with the 50s for some reason. It makes sense when you think of the context of life at the time and how something such as printed clothing can really impact someone’s mood back then, a sense of optimism. I also didn’t know it was during this time that the emphasis returned to the woman’s physique and that the inverted triangle shape took center stage, a huge contrast to the idealistic hourglass of the Victorian Era. Thanks so much for sharing such great info on the evolution of fashion and style during this time, beautiful, it was such a great read! I hope you’re having a wonderful day so far!



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