1930–1945 in Western fashion

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Actress Mary Pickford with President Herbert Hoover, 1931

The most characteristic North American fashion trend from the 1930s to the end of World War II 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"[citation needed]) 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.[1][2]

Fashion trendsetters in the period included The Prince of Wales (King Edward VIII from January 1936 until his abdication that December) and his companion Wallis Simpson (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from their marriage in June 1937), socialites like Nicolas de Gunzburg, Daisy Fellowes and Mona von Bismarck and such Hollywood movie stars as Fred Astaire, Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford.


Width at the shoulders was achieved by many means. In Dorothy Gish's outfit of 1932, the width is in the sleeve cap, which is pleated into the armscye.
Elizabeth Arden's coat features broad, rounded shoulders cut in one piece with the yoke, 1939.

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 in an attempt to bring back the traditional "womanly" look. 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.

Fashion and the movies
Indian saree made from chiffon fabric, inspired by the evening dresses of Hollywood starlets.

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, a second influence vied with the Paris couturiers as a wellspring for ideas: the American cinema.[3] 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.[4]

The 1890s leg-o-mutton sleeves designed by Walter Plunkett for Irene Dunne in 1931's Cimarron helped to launch the broad-shouldered look,[5] and Adrian's little velvet hat worn tipped over one eye by Greta Garbo in Romance (1930) became the "Empress Eugenie hat ... Universally copied in a wide price range, it influenced how women wore their hats for the rest of the decade."[5] 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.[6] The most influential film of all was 1939's Gone with the Wind. 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.[5]

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.

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.[5]

Hard chic and feminine flutters
Queen Elizabeth wears long gloves with a short-sleeved dress and dramatic hat to visit the 1939 New York World's Fair.

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.[7]

But it is Schiaparelli who is credited with "changing the outline of fashion from soft to hard, from vague to definite."[7] 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.[7] Wide shoulders would remain a staple of fashion until after the war.

In contrast with the hard chic worn by the "international set".[7] 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"[8] wardrobe for the new Queen Elizabeth's 1938 state visit to Paris started a brief rage for all-white clothing[9]

Feminine curves were highlighted in the 1930s through the use of the bias-cut in dresses. Madeleine Vionnet was the innovator of the bias-cut and used this method to create sculptural dresses that molded and shaped over the body's contours as it draped the female form.[10]

Advertisement for women's fashion at McWhirters department store, Brisbane, Australia, 1941

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.[2][7] 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;[11] 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.[12]

Accessories were vital components of an outfit, this 1943 black business suit was accessorized with a halo hat, black gloves and pink clutch bag

Gloves were "enormously important" in this period.[9] Evening gowns were accompanied by elbow length gloves, and day costumes were worn with short or opera-length gloves of fabric or leather.

Manufacturers and retailers introduced coordinating ensembles of hat, gloves and shoes, or gloves and scarf, or hat and bag, often in striking colours.[9] For spring 1936, Chicago's Marshall Field's department store offered a black hat by Lilly Daché trimmed with an antelope leather bow in "Pernod green, apple blossom pink, mimosa yellow or carnation blush" and suggested a handbag to match the bow.[13]

Draped turbans – sometimes fashioned from headscarves – also made an appearance in fashion, representing the working woman of the period. These were worn by women of all classes. Hats were one of the few pieces of clothing that was not rationed during WWII, therefore there was a lot of attention paid to these headpieces. Styles ranged from turbans to straw hats.[14]

The 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.[15]:{{{3}}} When nylon stockings reappeared in the shops there were "nylon riots" as customers fought over the first deliveries.[16]

In Britain, clothing was strictly rationed, with a system of "points", and the Board of Trade issued regulations for "Utility Clothes" in 1941.[9] In America the War Production Board issued its Regulation L85 on March 8, 1942, specifying restrictions for every item of women's clothing.[17] Because the military used so much green and brown dye, manufacturers used more red dye in clothing.[15] 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.[12] The combination of neat blouses and sensibly tailored suits became the distinctive attire of the working woman, college girl, and young society matron.[18]

The shirtwaist dress, an all-purpose garment, also emerged as a classic 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.[18]

Because of the war, current European fashion was no longer available to women in the United States. In 1941, hatmakers failed to popularize Chinese and American Indian-based designs, causing one milliner to lament "How different when Paris was the fountainhead of style". As with hosiery hatmakers feared that bareheadness would become popular, and introduced new designs such as "Winged Victory Turbans" and "Commando Caps" in "Victory Gold".[15]:{{{3}}} American designers, who were often overlooked, became more popular as American women began to wear their designs. American designers of ready-to-wear contributed in other ways too. They made improvements to sizing standards and began to use fiber content and care labels in clothing.[19]

Style gallery 1930s
  1. Actress Mae West wears a fur coat and a small asymmetric hat, 1933.
  2. Girl in Dallas, Texas wears a sweater and mid-calf length skirt with pleats, 1934.
  3. Young woman wearing a long, form-fitting dress with puffed sleeves, 1935.
  4. Actress Elisabeth Bergner wears a fashionably tilted hat and a leopard fur coat, 1935.
  5. Young woman wears her hair in short, hard curls framing her face, but smooth at the crown to accommodate her small hat, 1936.
  6. Young woman wears a printed dress fitted through the midriff with short puffed sleeves, Minnesota, 1936.
  7. Window shoppers outside Simpsons department store in Toronto, Canada, 1937.
  8. Middle aged couple, USA, July, 1938
  9. Plastic face protection from snowstorms. Canada, Montreal, 1939
Style gallery 1940–45
  1. Sportswear of 1941 featured square shoulders and flared shorts.
  2. Actress Lana Turner examines cotton stockings, wearing a smart knee-length suit with square shoulders, in this Farm Security Administration photo of 1941
  3. Actress Rita Hayworth in a pink and silver lamé evening gown by Howard Greer, 1941.
  4. Clerk at North American Aviation in California wears a pompadour hairstyle with back hair confined in a floral snood tied with a bow, 1942.
  5. Women employees of the Aluminum Co. of Kingston, Ontario wear knee-length skirts with blouses or sweaters (often with a string of graduated pearls), 1943.
  6. Singer Peggy Lee wears a pompadour hairstyle and an evening gown with a "sweetheart" neckline in the film Stage Door Canteen, 1943.
  7. Writer Lillian Smith wears a dark suit with an open-collared blouse, 1944.
  8. Bathing suits worn by members of the WACs in North Africa, 1944.


Conductor Leonard Bernstein in sportswear of 1945: open-collared shirt, striped blazer, and wide-legged pleated slacks
Men's neckties often had bold, geometric patterns as can be seen in this photograph taken in 1944

For men, the most noticeable effect of the general sobering associated with the Great Depression was that the range of colors became more subdued. The bright colors popular in the 1920s fell out of fashion.


By the early 1930s, the "drape cut" or "London Drape" suit championed by Frederick Scholte, tailor to the Prince of Wales, was taking the world of men's fashion by storm. The new suit was softer and more flexible in construction than the suits of the previous generation; extra fabric in the shoulder and armscye, light padding, a slightly nipped waist, and fuller sleeves tapered at the wrist resulted in a cut with flattering folds or drapes front and back that enhanced a man's figure. The straight leg wide-trousers (the standard size was 23 inches at the cuff) that men had worn in the 1920s also became tapered at the bottom for the first time around 1935. The new suit was adopted enthusiastically by Hollywood stars including Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper, who became the new fashion trendsetters after the Prince's abdication and exile. By the early 1940s, Hollywood tailors had exaggerated the drape to the point of caricature, outfitting film noir mobsters and private eyes in suits with heavily padded chests, enormous shoulders, and wide flowing trousers. Musicians and other fashion experimenters adopted the most extreme form of the drape, the zoot suit, with very high waists, pegged trousers, and long coats.[20][21]

Formal wear

In the early 1930s, new forms of summer evening clothes were introduced as appropriate for the popular seaside resorts. The waist-length white mess jacket, worn with a cummerbund rather than a waistcoat, was modeled after formal clothing of British officers in tropical climates. This was followed by a white dinner jacket, single or double-breasted. Both white jackets were worn black bow ties and black trousers trimmed with braid down the side seams.


By 1933, knickerbockers and plus-fours, which had been commonly worn as sports-clothes in the 1920s had lost favor to casual trousers among the fashionable.


The most common hat of this period was the fedora, often worn tipped down over one eye at a rakish angle. The more conservative Homburg also remained popular, especially among older people and even began to be worn with semi-formal evening clothes in place of the tophat, which in turn became confined to wear with formal. Neckties were wide, and bold geometric designs were popular, including stripes, and quadrilateral designs.

Wartime restrictions

Many things affected the style of clothes that people wore. Austerity also affected men's civilian clothes during the war years. The British "Utility Suit" and American "Victory Suit" were both made of wool-synthetic blend yarns, without pleats, cuffs (turn-ups), sleeve buttons or patch pockets; jackets were shorter, trousers were narrower, and double-breasted suits were made without vests (waistcoats).[1] Men who were not in uniform could, of course, continue to wear pre-war suits they already owned, and many did so.

Style gallery 1930s
  1. Golfing attire of 1930, worn by Babe Ruth and former New York governor Al Smith - State Archive of Florida.
  2. Double-breasted suits have pocket flaps and functional buttonholes in both lapels. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1934.
  3. Photo of Sydney Cup, Randwick, 1937.
  4. Photo of Walt Disney shows the padded shoulder and widening lapels of 1938.
Style gallery 1940–45
  1. Photo of Charles Spurgeon Johnson wearing a wide-lapelled suit with a striped necktie, c. 1940.
  2. Photo of Stark Young in a herringbone tweed suit, 1940.
  3. Writer William Saroyan wears the wide, patterned necktie fashionable in 1940.
  4. Overcoats of Wendell Willkie, Thorne and Cowles
  5. Jazz bandleader Tiny Bradshaw wears a double-breasted suit with wide lapels and tapered trousers, accessorized with a large pocket square (handkerchief) and a patterned necktie, 1942
  6. Actor Walter Pidgeon wears a houndstooth check jacket, 1942.
  7. Extreme zoot suits of 1942

Working clothes

Both men and women working on war service wore practical trousers or overalls. Women bundled their hair up in caps, scarves, and snoods.

  1. Young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps working in loose-cut trousers and brimmed hats, Virginia, c. 1933.
  2. Shepherd, Montana, 1942.
  3. Women working on war service in Texas wear their hair in snoods, 1942.
  4. Men and women of North American Aviation on lunch break wear short-sleeved shirts and trousers, 1942.
  5. Woman working in the Richmond shipyards wears practical overalls and a cap, 1943.

Children's clothes

  1. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret with their grandmother wearing matching coats and hats.
  2. Children in Michigan Hill, Washington.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wilcox, R. Turner: The Mode in Fashion, 1942; rev. 1958, p. 328–36
  2. 2.0 2.1 Wilcox, R. Turner: The Mode in Fashion, 1942; rev. 1958, pp. 379–84
  3. Ewing, Elizabeth: History of 20th Century Fashion, London, 1974, p. 97, 1997 revised edition, ISBN 0-89676-219-X
  4. Quoted in LaValley, "Hollywood and Seventh Avenue"
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 LaValley, "Hollywood and Seventh Avenue", in Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film
  6. Leese, Elizabeth: Costume Design in the Movies, Dover Books, 1991, ISBN 0-486-26548-X, p. 18
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Brockman, Theory of Fashion Design, pp. 40–52
  8. The Queen's mother had died in June 1938.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Garland, Madge, in J. Anderson Black and Madge Garland, A History of Fashion, pp. 324–239
  10. Bryant, Nancy O. "The interrelationship between decorative and structural design in Madeleine Vionnet's Work", Costume 1991, V 25, pp. 73–88
  11. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Tortora, P., & Eubank, K. (2005). A survey of historic costume. pp 400–450. New York: Fairchild
  13. Marshall Field & Company, Fashions of the Hour, Spring 1936, p. 2
  14. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  16. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  17. WPB "Yardstick" and discussion of L85 regulations at Costumes.org, retrieved 21 October 2007
  18. 18.0 18.1 Kemper, Rachel H: "Costume" (1992) pg. 144
  19. Harris, Kristina, Vintage Fashions for Women, 1920s-1940s, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1996, p. 137.
  20. Boyer (1990).
  21. Walker, Richard: The Savile Row Story, Prion, 1988, ISBN 1-85375-000-X

References and further reading

  • Arnold, Janet: Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen's Dresses and Their Construction c. 1860–1940, Wace 1966, Macmillan 1972. Revised metric edition, Drama Books 1977. ISBN 0-89676-027-8
  • Black, J. Anderson, and Madge Garland, A History of Fashion, New York, Morrow, 1975
  • Boyer, G. Bruce, Eminently Suitable, New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1990, ISBN 978-0-393-02877-5
  • Brockman, Helen, The Theory of Fashion Design, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1965 ISBN 0-471-10586-4
  • Bryant, Nancy O. "The interrelationship between decorative and structural design in Madeleine Vionnet's Work", Costume 1991, V 25, pp. 73–88
  • Hawes, Elizabeth: Fashion is Spinach, New York: Random House, 1938
  • Hunt, Marsha: The Way We Wore: Styles of the 1930s and '40s and Our World Since Then, Fallbrook Pub. Ltd., 1993, ISBN 1-882747-00-3
  • LaValley, Satch: "Hollywood and Seventh Avenue: The Impact of Historical Films on Fashion", in Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film, Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Thames and Hudson, 1987, ISBN 0-500-01422-1
  • Laver, James: The Concise History of Costume and Fashion, Abrams, 1979.
  • Leese, Elizabeth: Costume Design in the Movies, Dover Books, 1991, ISBN 0-486-26548-X
  • Steele, Valerie: Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Oxford University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-19-504465-7
  • Steele, Valerie: The Corset, Yale University Press, 2001
  • Walker, Richard: The Savile Row Story, Prion, 1988, ISBN 1-85375-000-X
  • Wilcox, R. Turner: The Mode in Fashion, 1942; 2nd expanded edition New York: Scribners, 1958.

External links