Women’s Fashion in the 1930s

Political and Economic Influences
Evening Dress by Edward Molyneux,
Evening Dress by Edward Molyneux,
1937, CT004031

The 1930s saw a general maturity in attitudes after the exuberance of the “roaring Twenties”. The Wall Street Crash in 1929 lead into the Great Depression, which effected all aspects of life, including fashion, bringing with it a period of austerity.

There was a growing interest in politics amongst the general population. The British Constitution was changed forever during the Abdication crisis of 1936, when Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry the American divorcée, Mrs Wallis Simpson. Throughout the decade, the Royal couple was seen to be the epitome of glamour, with the Duchess of Windsor wearing sharply tailored suits and dresses from the major couturiers of the period.

Most significantly, the decade saw the rise of Fascism, not only under Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, but also in Britain with Sir Oswald Mosley and his Black Shirts, particularly in the East End of London. When Hitler invaded Austria in 1938 and Poland in 1939, another war became inevitable.


Over the course of the 1930s, there was a general change in the style of women’s fashion from that of the previous decade. The androgynous look worn by women in the 1920s, with short, cropped hair and a flattened boyish silhouette, gradually gave way to a more feminine look. The re-introduction of the natural waist line and longer skirt lengths gave the female form a more elegant and slender look.

This slim line was enhanced by cutting clothes on the bias, going across the fabric, which avoided the use of unslightly bunches of gathers at the waist for full skirts, whilst still allowing material to flow and drape. The erogenous zone shifted to the back, especially for evening wear, with dresses being made with low or no backs. Meanwhile, hair was grown long again and began to be worn swept up as the decade moved on.

Ribbon dress, by British designer Charles James,1939, CTLOA000011
Ribbon dress, by British designer Charles James,1939, CTLOA000011

Towards the end of the decade, some designers became nostalgic, looking back towards the 19th century, and in particular the large crinolines of the Second Empire as depicted in the portraits by Franz Xaver Winterhalter of the Empresses Eugenie and Elizabeth. There was a return to a small waist and full, gathered skirt, sometimes with the support of a crinoline. Queen Elizabeth’s White Wardrobe, created for her State visit to France in 1938 by Norman Hartnell, included five romantic, ‘unfashionable’ dresses with full, gathered skirts. Initially made in pastel colours, the dresses were quickly re-made in white when the Queen entered into mourning for her mother, the Countess of Strathmore.

Bali Dress, by Charles James, 1935, CTLOA000001
Bali Dress, by Charles James, 1935, CTLOA000001

The release of the film Gone with the Wind in 1939, starring Vivien Leigh, also inspired a range of look-a-like dresses. However, as the Second World War approached, militaristic styles with square edged shoulder pads, suits and small hats became increasingly popular.

Cinema and Fashion

With the growth of cinema as an emerging art form, women’s ideas of fashion found a new inspiration. The development of the studios and their cultivation of ‘stars’ lead to a far reaching advertising tool for new fashions. With several designers including Schiaparelli and the American, Adrian, dressing leading actresses such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, the question soon arose as to whether fashions originated from Paris – the previously undisputed centre of fashion – or from Hollywood. When Joan Crawford appeared in Letty Lynton in 1932 wearing an evening dress by Adrian, copies soon appeared in stores across America – Macy’s of New York alone sold 500,000 copies.

Beauty Products

Improvements in beauty products, partially developed as result of the film industry in Hollywood, resulted in the ever increasing availability of cosmetics, including perfumes and nail varnishs. Schiaparelli’s perfume “Shocking” was launched and department stores offered a wide range of cheaper alternatives. Meanwhile nylon, a synthetic polymer fibre, was discovered by Dupont in 1930 and in 1939 the first nylon stockings went on sale in America for $1.15 a pair.

Designers, department stores and do-it-yourself 

Evening dress designed by Charles James, 1936, CT004009.
Evening dress designed by Charles James, 1936, CT004009.

The Depression initially saw a decline in the couture business because clientele, especially Americans, were unable to buy as many bespoke dresses as before. However, Paris remained a vibrant centre of fashion. The decade was dominated by the designers Gabrielle Chanel, known as Coco to her friends, and Elsa Schiaparelli, whose styles were seen to be at either ends of the fashion spectrum. Other designers such as Alix, later Madame Grès and Balenciaga began in the 1930s, although their work was not to develop fully until after the Second World War. Meanwhile, the British designer Charles James, who worked mainly in America, created a name with his stylish cutting.

At home, women were encouraged to buy British. Queen Elizabeth patronised one of the top British designers, Norman Hartnell. Meanwhile a growth in the numbers of working and middle class women earning a living saw a rise in mass manufactured ready-to-wear lines, often sold through department stores, such as Fenwick, Peter Robinson and John Lewis, as well as a growth in home dress making as more and more patterns became available.

2 Responses

  1. Sharon O'Brien

    I think it fascinating that the dress designs ranged from sleek and cut on the bias and very romantic, full skirts that gathered at the waist. Since clothing is a signifier for social mores, what did the two very different outlines represent?

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