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.

Evening Essential: Grace’s family’s 1930s Minaudière

 

This past week, the Courtauld had its annual winter ball, a chance for students to dress up in their fanciest evening wear and celebrate the end of term. During the 1930s, minaudières became a staple of women’s evening wardrobes. Defined as jewellery, these were miniature oblong cases which acted as purses or bags for cosmetics and other items considered essential for a smart evening out. In 1934, Van Cleef and Arpels patented the design and created luxury metal versions, finished with beautiful stones or lacquer. Even though they were beautiful and highly decorative, these cases were also functional – aimed at optimising space whilst carrying necessary items. Studying these items as dress historians proves most interesting because they reveal what were considered the essentials for an evening out in the 1930s.

This minaudière, which has been passed down the line of women in my family, appears to be from the years following the 1930s. An inscription on one of the clasps shows it is made by L.S. Mayer for ‘Park Lane Deluxe.’ The exterior is in an art deco style faux shagreen, a beautiful pebble green colour with a speckled pattern, and a gold metal frame. It has a chain which would have been worn round the wearer’s wrist whilst dancing at the balls, also making it fulfil the role of a decorative bracelet. In the first section inside there features a very generously sized mirror which runs the entire length of the minaudière, and opposite that there are two compartments which include rouge and powder, complete with the puffs to apply them. There is a fold up tortoiseshell hair comb, and a section at the bottom for a bullet of lipstick or perhaps cigarettes. Each aspect of the design has been carefully thought through to make do with the small space and to maximise its functionality.

On the reverse of the minaudière, there is another mirror and a notepad and pen with a holder. There is also a hidden compartment below this which flaps up to reveal a long and narrow case, which could have contained alcohol or was a cigarette lighter. What makes this minaudière stand out from the rest is that it differs greatly from any usual accessory, because it features a notepad and pen. As my grandmother says, this could have been for women to write down the names of their partners to dance with at the ball. Either way, it asserts the active role women had at the time in terms of fashioning their own identity. The minaudière is also interesting when compared to modern day clutch bags used on nights out such as the Courtauld’s Winter Ball. Usually there is at the very most a tiny zip pocket in clutch bags, and the rest is an empty space. On the one hand, the 1930s minaudières were genius in that they planned out each and every thing that might be needed, and catered for it within the case. On the other hand, nowadays we have much more freedom in choosing which items we consider as essentials in our individual clutch bags, and therefore how our evenings will be defined.

By Grace Lee

All photos author’s own

Dissertation Discussion: Yona

The finale of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, 1939. Romano Archives.

What is your title?

Billy Rose’s Aquacade & The Search for American Identity

The ‘Aquagals’ dressed as the Statue of Liberty, 1939. Romano Archives.

What prompted you to choose this topic?

For my dissertation, I am looking at American identity in the costumes of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, which performed during the 1939 and 1940 New York World’s Fair. Not being aware of the Aquacade’s existence until recently, I came across this topic by chance. During the past year, I have spent considerable time researching American fashion and identity and knew I wanted to continue exploring the subject. When looking for an American film clip archive, I came across the Prelinger Archive, which was founded by Rick Prelinger in 1982 in New York City and consists of around 60,000 ephemeral films. The archive contained amazing amateur films of the New York World’s Fair, which also showed the Aquacade. The Aquacade was the most extraordinary show that I had come across for a long time. Its vast array of different acts included synchronised swimming, diving, dance, skating, fashion, clowns, and performances by important athletes of the time, including Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. Due to its extravagant declarations of Americanness, the Aquacade provides invaluable insight into American identity around the start of World War II.

A birds-eye view of the Aquacade, 1 September 1939. Vogue Archive.

Most interesting research find so far?

One of the most exciting parts of my research has been analysing the use of the American flag and American symbols as an expression of American identity in the Aquacade. During the first New York World’s Fair season, World War II broke out in Europe. Even though the United States did not enter the war until 1941, the American government realised that the US needed a defined identity to be able to unite its people in patriotism. As the US did not have strongly embedded traditions and copied European ideas and design styles until well into the 20th century, identity had to be based on something other than traditions that could be considered unequivocally American. Therefore, American identity focussed on history and symbols, including the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. The Aquacade incorporated the colours, stripes and stars of the American flag in its costumes and props, and even showed 48 dancers dressed as the Statue of Liberty – one for each state (Alaska and Hawaii only became states in 1959).

Four of Billy Rose’s ‘Aquabelles’ stage a fashion show of the past, present and future bathing suit styles at the New York World’s Fair, July 4, 1939. Getty Images.

Favorite place to work?

Even though I am writing on an active performance with important athletes, I have barely moved myself since starting my dissertation work. I have always preferred writing at home as I like the comfort and endless supply of tea and prefer not to have any distractions. As such, I have been living like a hermit, only leaving my room for food and tea.