1930s Fashion History - Despair And Fantasy


For more information on this decade in fashion history, check out our list of books and reviews at Recommended Reading. Also please visit our Links page.

For bibliography referencing, the author of this page is April Ainsworth.



Women's Vintage Fashions of the 1930s

Silhouette     For the first time in centuries, the natural, though slim, silhouette became the style. Hair was waved and shoulder-length. Shoulders were emphasized by puffs or padding, especially towards World War II (1939). Fashion magazines showcased a long, sleek appearance.

Common Designs in Vintage Clothing

  • Unusually cut and pieced day and evening dresses, with oddly puffed and fitted sleeves
  • Bias-cut, high-waisted evening dresses and nightgowns
  • Two-piece suits with square-shaped jackets, large buttons and narrow, lean skirts in thin materials

Fabrics Available     Natural fibers (sometimes linen, but mostly cotton, wool, and silk), acetate, and rayon, all in light- to medium weights (velvet, georgette, crepe, organdy, satin) for day or evening.

Popular Colors and Prints     Colors were often muted or deeper hues, but brighter color was accepted. Prints were of soft to medium hues, and though they were still small to medium in size, they were more varied. Besides florals, geometric and abstract prints became popular; these were of two or more contrasting shades in streamlined designs that appear a little quirky today. In particular, cotton feedsack fabrics (literally printed on feed and flour sacks) featured these unusual combinations. In high-status culture, surrealism also influenced prints, as artist Salvador Dali designed textiles for haute fashion collections.

Trims and Detailing     Many 30s details depended on novelty-shaped plackets, lapels, pockets, cuffs, belts, or necklines, often with button accents. Large collar and cuff sets were very popular. Usually designs had either a medieval or ultra-Deco air to them. A standard motif throughout the decade was the two-piece belt or jacket clasp, worn at the center waist. To summarize, more trim was seen in daywear, with evening a showcase for cut and fabric drapery.

Hemlines Day and Night     Day hems dropped to mid-calf in '29 and rose through the decade to below the knee. At night, dress was floor-length.

The Latest Fads

  • Schiaparelli's controversial color, shocking pink
  • The first appearance of the midriff, seen not only in swimwear but also in formal gowns and considered scandalous
  • Highly unusual sleeves, often with long fitted cuffs and a section of puffed sleeve
  • Surrealist influence
  • Novelty buttons, another Schiaparelli idea
  • Very low back bodices, known as being "backless" or having "back interest"
  • Tanned "movie star" skin


  • Nylon invented in 1939
  • First mass-manufacture of zippers in 1935
  • Accepted use of costume jewelry by society, introduced by Chanel in the '20s
  • Development of two-way stretch weaves in fabric
  • Platforms on high-heeled dress shoes, invented by shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo