Learning About 1930s Style

Recently, as part of the Documenting Fashion MA, we visited the Night and Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum. The exhibition features many glamorous evening dresses set out in tableaux and a number of colourful day outfits laid out thematically, from holiday wear to work wear. I previously had little knowledge of 1930s styles as, in my experience, they have often been eclipsed in the popular consciousness by the more famous 1920s Flapper fashions or the ‘New Look’ hourglass designs of the mid-twentieth century. 1930s styles were simple and elegant, yet bold and playful, which is perhaps why many elements of fashion from this period have endured. At the exhibition, I was struck by how much of the day wear contained features which were previously, in my mind, associated with the 1970s; yellow, brown and orange colour combinations, floating fabrics, long skirts and fluted sleeves. Apparently, I was told by my course mates, this is because in the 1970s there was a popular trend towards vintage – particularly 1930s – clothing and styles. One garment which highlights this interrelation between 1930s fashions and later styles is a long summer dress made of fine, white cotton or chiffon, decorated with brightly coloured polka dots. The layered skirt and ruffled sleeves are striking yet elegant, and it is possible to see how such elements were reinterpreted in 1970s fashions. Furthermore, the delicate fabric and stylish pattern would not be out of place among summer garments today.

What also struck me about the 1930s dresses, particularly the evening gowns, was how figure-hugging they were, with silks – as well as newly invented synthetic silk-like fabrics, such as rayon – closely skimming the shape of the body. We were told by our guide that these garments were so tightly-fitted that no underwear could be worn with them as it would have shown through the thin silk and ruined the elegant sweep of the dress. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this trend for figure-hugging evening wear coincided with a vogue for fitness and health, which encouraged women to work towards the ‘ideal’ sporty body. This close-fitting style appears sensual and noticeably revealing even to the modern eye, displaying an attractive and alluring silhouette.  I love many of the garments in the exhibition, but one of my particular favourites is a beautiful, bright yellow silk gown with a subtle ruffle of fabric around the shoulders and bust. The colour is strikingly modern, reminiscent of the currently fashionable ‘Gen-Z Yellow’, and stands out even among the array of brightly coloured dresses. Another favourite is a peach gown which makes great use of the bias cut, popular in the 1930s, which meant that the fabric would have rippled gently down the body. The cut-out detailing on the back is reminiscent of Art Deco geometric patterns which were in fashion, particularly for home wear, during this period.

The 1930s fashions we saw in this exhibition are elegant, colourful and glamorous. They have a definite air of chic refinement but also utilise bold patterns and innovative styles which give them a sense of vibrant modernity. This fusion may be why elements of these styles have endured for nearly 100 years yet still appear modern today.

Photos by Lily-Evelina England and Jeordy Raines with permission from the Fashion and Textile Museum.