1930–1945 in Fashion

1930–1945 in Fashion

1930–1945 in Western fashion

The most characteristic North American fashion trend from the 1930s to 1945 was attention at the shoulder, with butterfly sleeves and banjo sleeves, and exaggerated shoulder pads for both men and women by the 1940s. The period also saw the first widespread use of man-made fibers, especially rayon for dresses and viscose for linings and lingerie, and synthetic nylon stockings. The zipper became widely used. These essentially U.S. developments were echoed, in varying degrees, in Britain and Europe. Suntans (called at the time "sunburns") became fashionable in the early 1930s, along with travel to the resorts along the Mediterranean, in the Bahamas, and on the east coast of Florida where one can acquire a tan, leading to new categories of clothes: white dinner jackets for men and beach pajamas, halter tops, and bare midriffs for women.

Fashion trendsetters in the period included Edward VIII and his companion Wallis Simpson, socialites like Nicolas de Gunzburg, Daisy Fellowes and Mona von Bismarck and such Hollywood movie stars as Fred Astaire, Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford.

1930s Womenswear

The lighthearted, forward-looking attitude and fashions of the late 1920s lingered through most of 1930, but by the end of that year the effects of the Great Depression began to affect the public, and a more conservative approach to fashion displaced that of the 1920s. For women, skirts became longer and the waist-line was returned up to its normal position. Other aspects of fashion from the 1920s took longer to phase out. Cloche hats remained popular until about 1933 while short hair remained popular for many women until late in the 1930s and even in the early 1940s. The Great Depression took its toll on the 1930s womenswear due to World War II which dates from 1939-1945. This greatly affected the fashion of how women dressed during the 1940s era. According to Shrimpton "Committed to ensuring the fair distribution of scarce but essential resources, namely food, clothing, and furniture, the government introduced a comprehensive rationing scheme based on allocation of coupons - a system deriving, ironically, from the German rationing plan devised in November 1930."

Because of the economic crash, designers were forced to slash prices for clothing in order to keep their business afloat, especially those working in couture houses. Designers were also forced to use cheaper fabric and materials, and dress patterns also grew in popularity as many women knew how to sew.  Hence, clothing was made more accessible, and there was also a continuation of mass production, which was rising in popularity since the 1920s. The 1930s allowed women from all classes and socio backgrounds to be fashionable, regardless of wealth. With prices slashes on types of fabrics utilized for designing, new inventions such as the zip made garments quicker and cheaper to make. This was also influenced by the rise in women entering the workforce alongside the rise of the business girl, as they still were able to afford to dress well and stay in style. Daywear also had to be functional, but it never lost its touch of elegance or femininity, as the dresses would still naturally highlight the female or womanly shape with cinched waistlines, skirts fitted to the hip and fullness added to the hem with flared gores or pleats. Frilled rayon blouses also went with the cinched waist.

Because clothes were rationed and fabric was scarcer, the hem lines of dresses rose to knee length. The main sort of dress in the 1940s included features such as an hour glass shape figure, broad shoulders, nipped in high waist tops and A line skirts that came down to just at the knee. Many different celebrities who embraced this type of style such as Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Syanwyck, and Ava Gardner. Even though daywear dresses were influenced by the war, evening dresses remained glamorous. Women's undergarments became the soul of fashion in the 1940sbecause it maintained the critical hourglass shape with smooth lines. Clothes became utilitarian. Pants or trousers were considered a menswear item only until the 1940s. Women working in factories first wore men's pants but over time, factories began to make pants for women out of fabric such as cotton, denim, or wool. Coats were long and down to the knee for warmth.

Major fashion magazines at the time including Vogue continued to cater to the fashionable and wealthy women of the 1930s to continue reporting and reflecting the most popular trends in that time period, despite the impact the economic crash had on them. The wealthiest still managed to afford and keep up with the most high-end or the most coveted designs and maintain their lifestyle.

Fashion and the movies

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, a second influence vied with Paris couturiers as a wellspring for ideas: the American cinema. As Hollywood movies gained their popularities, general public idolized movie stars as their role models. Paris-based fashion houses were losing their power and influences in most major fashion trends during these years. Many American and European moviegoers were fascinated by and got interested in overall fashion including clothes and hairstyles of movie stars which led to various fashion trends. After the movie Tarzan, animal prints became popular. On the other hand, different styles such as bias-cut, satin, Jean Harlow-style evening dresses and the casual look of Katharine Hepburn also became famous. Paris designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Lucien Lelong acknowledged the impact of film costumes on their work. LeLong said "We, the couturiers, can no longer live without the cinema any more than the cinema can live without us. We corroborate each others' instinct.
The 1890s leg-o-mutton sleeves designed by Walter Plunkett for Irene Dunne in 1931's Cimarron helped to launch the broad-shouldered look, and Adrian's little velvet hat worn tipped over one eye by Greta Garbo in Romance (1930) became the "Empress Eugénie hat ... Universally copied in a wide price range, it influenced how women wore their hats for the rest of the decade." During late 1920s to early 1940s, Gilbert Adrian was the head of the costume department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most prestigious and famous Hollywood movie studio. He produced numerous signature styles for the top actresses of the period, as well as countless fashion fads during those times. One of his popular dresses was gingham dress, a cotton dress with a checked or striped pattern, that he made for Judy Garland for the movie The Wizard of Oz in 1939, and for Katharine Hepburn for the movie The Philadelphia Story in 1940. Movie costumes were covered not only in film fan magazines, but in influential fashion magazines such as Women's Wear Daily, Harper's Bazaar, and Vogue.

Adrian's puff-sleeved gown for Joan Crawford Letty Lynton was copied by Macy's in 1932 and sold over 500,000 copies nationwide. The dress was appraised as one of the most influential pieces in the era’s fashion, inspiring numerous designers to showcase similar styles in their own work. One of Crawford’s widely influential pieces was a white organdy dress with ruffle adornments. With the use of shoulder pads, the dress made the movement freer, emphasizing the back by removing adornments previously popularized in the 1920s.

One of the most stylistically influential films of the 1930s was 1939's Gone with the Wind. The dresses in the movie were designed with simplified adornments and a mixture of different monotone hues as opposed to using a varied color palette. This was considered to be Plunkett's intentional design to utilize modernism, the emerging aesthetic of the 1930s. Plunkett received praise for producing costumes that adequately harmonized the era of the movie with the aesthetic sense of the late 1930s. The costumes brought back the Neo-Victorian style, as well as strong use of symbolic color. It inspired the Princess Ballgown, a Victorian style dress reduced to full A line skirts with petticoats underneath for fullness. It was the most popular style for teens going to prom. Plunkett's "barbecue dress" for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara was the most widely copied dress after the Duchess of Windsor's wedding costume, and Vogue credited the "Scarlett O'Hara" look with bringing full skirts worn over crinolines back into wedding fashion after a decade of sleek, figure-hugging styles.

Lana Turner's 1937 film They Won't Forget made her the first Sweater girl, an informal look for young women relying on large breasts pushed up and out by bras, which continued to be influential into the 1950s, and was arguably the first major style of youth fashion.

Travis Banton gained his fame by, after working at a couture house in New York, designing costumes for Marlene Dietrich as a head designer of Paramount. His style was softer and more alluring than Adrian's, embodying femininity by his sense of balance with the use of Vionnet's bias-cut, and was known for refined concepts of simple lines and classic styles. Many famous movie stars during the 1930s such as Magdalene Dietrich and Mae West at Paramount became the models of wit, intellect and beauty through Banton's elegant costumes. The costumes he made for Dietrich for various movies such as Shanghai Express 1932, and The Scarlet Empress 1934 portray her sharp regality.

Retail clothing and accessories inspired by the period costumes of Adrian, Plunkett, Travis Banton, Howard Greer, and others influenced what women wore until war-time restrictions on fabric stopped the flow of lavish costumes from Hollywood.

Hard chic and feminine flutters

Jean Patou, who had first raised hemlines to 18" off the floor with his "flapper" dresses of 1924, had begun lowering them again in 1927, using Vionnet's handkerchief hemline to disguise the change. By 1930, longer skirts and natural waists were shown everywhere.
But it is Schiaparelli who is credited with "changing the outline of fashion from soft to hard, from vague to definite." She introduced the zipper, synthetic fabrics, simple suits with bold color accents, tailored evening gowns with matching jackets, wide shoulders, and the color shocking pink to the fashion world. By 1933, the trend toward wide shoulders and narrow waists had eclipsed the emphasis on the hips of the later 1920s.[16] Wide shoulders would remain a staple of fashion until after World War II.

In contrast with the hard chic worn by the "international set".[16] designers such as Britain's Norman Hartnell made soft, pretty dresses with fluttering or puffed sleeves and loose calf-length skirts suited to a feminine figure. His "white mourning" wardrobe for the new Queen Elizabeth's 1938 state visit to Paris started a brief rage for all-white clothing

Feminine curves were highlighted in the 1930s through the use of the bias-cut. Madeleine Vionnet was an early innovator of the bias-cut, using it to create clinging dresses that draped over the body's contours

Through the mid-1930s, the natural waistline was often accompanied by emphasis on an empire line. Short bolero jackets, capelets, and dresses cut with fitted midriffs or seams below the bust increased the focus on breadth at the shoulder. By the late 1930s, emphasis was moving to the back, with halter necklines and high-necked but backless evening gowns with sleeves. Evening gowns with matching jackets were worn to the theatre, nightclubs, and elegant restaurants.
Skirts remained at mid-calf length for day, but the end of the 1930s Paris designers were showing fuller skirts reaching just below the knee;[20] this practical length (without the wasteful fullness) would remain in style for day dresses through the war years.

Other notable fashion trends in this period include the introduction of the ensemble (matching dresses or skirts and coats) and the handkerchief skirt, which had many panels, insets, pleats or gathers. The clutch coat was fashionable in this period as well; it had to be held shut as there was no fastening. By 1945, adolescents began wearing loose, poncho-like sweaters called sloppy joes. Full, gathered skirts, known as the dirndl skirt, became popular around 1945.

War years

Wartime austerity led to restrictions on the number of new clothes that people bought and the amount of fabric that clothing manufacturers could use. Women working on war service adopted trousers as a practical necessity. The United States government requisitioned all silk supplies, forcing the hosiery industry to completely switch to nylon. In March 1942 the government then requisitioned all nylon for parachutes and other war uses, leaving only the unpopular cotton and rayon stockings. The industry feared that not wearing stockings would become a fad, and advised stores to increase hosiery advertising. When nylon stockings reappeared in the shops there were "nylon riots" as customers fought over the first deliveries.

In Britain, clothing was strictly rationed, with a system of "points", and the Board of Trade issued regulations for "Utility Clothes" in 1941. In America the War Production Board issued its Regulation L85 on March 8, 1942, specifying restrictions for every item of women's clothing. Because the military used so much green and brown dye, manufacturers used more red dye in clothing. Easily laddered stockings were a particular concern in Britain; women were forced to either paint them on (including the back seam) or to join the WRNS, who continued to issue them, in a cunning aid to recruitment. Later in the war, American soldiers became a source of the new nylon stockings.

Most women wore skirts at or near knee-length, with simply-cut blouses or shirts and square-shouldered jackets. Popular magazines and pattern companies advised women on how to remake men's suits into smart outfits, since the men were in uniform and the cloth would otherwise sit unused. Eisenhower jackets became popular in this period. Influenced by the military, these jackets were bloused at the chest and fitted at the waist with a belt. The combination of neat blouses and sensibly tailored suits became the distinctive attire of the working woman, college girl, and young society matron.

The shirtwaist dress, an all-purpose garment, also emerged during the 1930s. The shirtwaist dress was worn for all occasions, besides those that were extremely formal, and were modest in design. The dress could either have long or short sleeves, a modest neckline and skirt that fell below the knee. The bust was rounded but not particularly emphasized and the waistline was often belted in its normal position. Pockets were both functional and used for decoration and were accompanied by buttons down the front, around the sides or up the back of the dress. These dresses often were accompanied by coordination coats, which were made out of contrasting fabric but lined with the dress fabric. The jacket was often constructed in a boxy fashion and had wide lapels, wide shoulders and numerous pockets. The dress and coat combination created an overall effect of sensibility, modesty and girl next door lifestyle that contrasted the very popular, second-skin like style of the bias-cut evening gown.


An important style that became popular due to the war was the two-piece swimsuit which later led to the Bikini. In 1942, the War Production Board passed a law called the L-85 which put restrictions on clothing production. For swimwear companies the L-85 meant they had to use 10 percent less fabric in all their designs, as a result swimsuits became smaller. Swimsuits had been becoming more minimal for a while but in 1944 Tina Leser debuted one of the first two-piece swimsuits. Even though the bottoms were high waisted, cut low on the legs, and paired with a modest bandeau. Lesers’ two piece was still considered a daring style for the era.

According to Sarah Kennedy, author of The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashion, unlike the bikini the two-piece was created out of necessity and was not meant to be shocking. Apparently there was an unspoken rule that bellybuttons must never show which accounts for the high waisted bottoms. Despite it being scandalous to some, the two-piece was eventually accepted because there really wasn't another option. The L-85 did not only make swimsuits smaller, but it also pushed designers to become more creative with their designs, this led to suits that accentuated and drew attention to women's bodies. This was done by putting boning in the swimwear. Two years after Leser debuted one of the first two-pieces, the bikini was invented in 1946 by a French engineer named Louis Réard. It was apparently named after the Bikini Atoll, which was the site of a nuclear bomb test in 1946, because Réard hoped its impact would be explosive in the fashion world. The bikini was even more daring than the two-piece, thus it did not become popular until 1953 when Brigitte Bardot was photographed in one at the Cannes Film Festival. Although the bikini did become popular in Europe in 1953 it did not become popular in the United States until the 1960s.

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