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1930s Fashion in Detail

1930s Fashion in Detail
1930s Fashion in Detail

1930s Fashion in Detail

Written by Hannah Mae Webster

The 1930s were undeniably an era of glamour with styles and silhouettes gradually becoming more feminine and elegant than the shapeless, boyish silhouettes that had developed during the 1920s. There was a great influence from film with stars such as Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, and Marlene Dietrich inspiring styles. The 30s experienced a reintroduction of some of the conservative styles that had been lost during the decadence of the 20s. 

Jean Harlow had a great influence on 1930s trends and her short platinum blonde hair inspired countless women to make the change. She was known for her status as a “blonde bombshell” and embraced daring, glamorous styles. Jean Harlow wore some stunning looks including bias-cut gowns, sequins, and spaghetti strap gowns. She forged her style status after starring in the 1933 film “Bombshell” and the 1931 film “Platinum Blonde,” so it is not surprising that she was highly recognizable. 

“I’m not a great actress, and I never thought I was. But I happen to have something the public likes.”

Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow

Bette Davis was a powerful 30s actress who refused to conform, thus forging an unforgettable Hollywood legacy. She remains an inspiration for her strong defiance and influence, but also her memorable 1930s style. Bette Davis wore an array of styles including elegant skirt suits, glamorous evening gowns, hats, fur, and gloves. Although she did not appear to take daring style risks, Bette Davis would still embrace a dramatic element in her outfits, often including a bold lipstick, puffed sleeves or shoulder pads. Like Jean Harlow, Davis also had her hair dyed in a striking platinum blonde. 

“This became a credo of mine...attempt the impossible in order to improve your work.”

 Bette Davis

Bette Davis

German actress Marlene Dietrich was an unconventional 1930s style icon as she blurred the lines between gendered fashion and became a powerful fashion inspiration. Marlene Dietrich could easily embrace highly feminine styles and menswear, something that made her an unusual and interesting icon. 

“I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.” 

Marlene Dietrich

Her figure was different to the typical 30s feminine shape as she commented “I have always had to have clothes made for me because of my unusual shape – broad shoulders, narrow hips. I can see if something goes wrong during the making. And I stop it.”

Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich

One moment that proved Marlene Dietrich’s defiance against expectation was in 1933 when she controversially wore a white pantsuit when traveling to Paris on a steamboat and was rumored to have been threatened with an arrest if she wore them on arrival in Paris. This was due to the law against women wearing trousers in Paris at the time. Dietrich’s ability to retain her alluring femininity whilst in menswear is something that contributed to her public fascination and popularity. Alongside Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich was one of the first women to publicly embrace androgyny in modern fashion. Dietrich can be considered a style hybrid, as she could seamlessly pull off masculine and highly feminine styles. 

Marlene Dietrich style staples:

 - Blazer

- Wide leg trousers

- Trench coat

- Side beret

- Pencil skirt

- Silky blouse

- Fur

Kate Moss

Katharine Hepburn’s image was unlike the popular platinum blonde actresses favored by Hollywood at the time, yet she successfully forged her own popularity and her unique qualities contributed to her fame. Hepburn favored practical trouser suits and low pumps, a contrast to the typical film star style. Similar to Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn embraced typically masculine styles such as shirts, blazers, and loafers. Hepburn and Dietrich’s style drew attention due to the lack of 30s fashion icons with such versatility. 

“If you obey all of the rules, you miss all of the fun.”

Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn

Another unforgettable actress and fashion icon was Joan Crawford. Her onscreen style was unforgettable, and Adrian Adolph Greenburg was responsible for creating many of these looks.

A selection of Joan Crawford’s top 1930s onscreen fashion moments:

The “Letty Lynton” dress, 1932:

The famous Letty Lynton dress was designed by Adrian Adolph Greenberg, known as just Adrian, in 1932. The gown was created for the film ‘Letty Lynton’ and featured dramatic puffed sleeves and a loose flowing shape. It is said that this creation helped to popularize the padded shoulder trend despite the dress being untypical of 1930s sleek gowns. 

“Who would have thought that my entire reputation as a designer would rest on Joan Crawford’s shoulders?”


Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford

‘I Live My Life’ gown, 1935:

This sensationally fluid gown was worn by Joan Crawford in the 1935 film “I Live My Life” and was designed by Adrian.

‘I Live My Life’ gown, 1935:

Another ‘Letty Lynton’ creation, 1932

Another spectacular gown designed by Adrian. The halter neck gown was made from white crepe and black bugle beads and featured a dramatic tie in the center.

Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford

- Greta Garbo

- Vivien Leigh

- Josephine Baker

- Ginger Rogers

- Wallis Simpson

Elsa Schiaparelli 

Known for her surreal and flamboyant designs, Elsa Schiaparelli surged to popularity in the 1930s for her bizarre and absurd creations that built her status as one of the most respected couturiers of the 20th century. Rather than focusing on everyday fashion, Schiaparelli created masterpieces that can be considered more works of art than clothing.

Some of Schiaparelli’s greatest 30s designs included:

The Skeleton Dress, 1938

Created in collaboration with surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, this darkly magnificent piece of evening wear featured exposed bones created from padding and was of Schiaparelli’s quietly shocking creations. The inclusion of visible anatomy was something completely unexpected despite keeping the typical silhouette of 30s evening dresses, perhaps the harsh contrast is what made the gown so memorable.   

Elsa Schiaparelli The Skeleton Dress, 1938
Elsa Schiaparelli The Skeleton Dress, 1938

The Lobster Dress, 1937 

Another design created in collaboration with Salvador Dalí was the unforgettable lobster dress, not quite as shocking as her other designs, the silk organza gown featured a giant lobster design on the bias cut skirt, inspired by Dalí’s 1936 “Lobster Telephone.”

Elsa Schiaparelli The Lobster Dress, 1937
Joan Crawford The Lobster Dress, 1937

The Tears Dress, 1938 

The “Tears Dress” is one of Schiaparelli’s most stunning gowns featuring a design by Salvador Dalí. The gown was made from viscose rayon and silk-blend marocain and featured a matching veil. 

“I myself used to do absurd things. Yes, I mean that. I had to have a laugh, and some of the things were absurd. But they could always be worn by an elegant woman; they did not negate her elegance.” 

Elsa Schiaparelli

Elsa Schiaparelli The Tears Dress, 1938
Joan Crawford The Tears Dress, 1938

- The ‘evening belt’, 1934: this wonderfully absurd, surrealist design featured a pair of hands with painted nails that met in the center of the belt, giving the illusion of arms hugging the natural waist.

- The ‘evening jacket’, 1937: created in collaboration with artist Jean Cocteau featuring an embroidered outline of a woman.

- The ‘suit’, 1938: this fitted, wide shouldered skirt suit featured a high collar. Joan Crawford purchased a few Schiaparelli suits in the 30s.

- The ‘evening ensemble’, 1939: a striking orange draped silk gown with a flowing center tie. 

- The ‘hat’, 1937-38: another collaboration with Salvador Dalí led to the creation of the shoe hat, inspired by a photograph of Dalí. 

French designer Madeleine Vionnet was a game-changing 30s fashion designer who introduced the bias cut dress. The bias cut is a dressmaking technique that involves cutting across the grain of the fabric to create a draped appearance where the fabric naturally clings to the body. 

Madeleine Vionnet took great influence from ancient Greece during the 1930s as she experimented with draping garments. She created draped pieces that didn’t require fastenings and sensational evening dresses. 

“The dress must not hang on the body but follow its lines. 

When a woman smiles, the dress must smile with her.” 

Madeleine Vionnet

Madeleine Vionnet

Coco Chanel introduced a range of delicately feminine gowns during the 30s, a time which is sometimes referred to as her “romantic period,” due to the abundance of lace, tulle, and ruffles. This era of romanticism seemed to differ from the styles and aesthetics of the 30s, however Chanel also created some dramatic black gowns that featured daring elements such as plunging necklines and low backs. 

"Adornment, what a science! Beauty, what a weapon! Modesty, what elegance!" 

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

- Jeanne Lanvin 

- Edward Molyneux

Popular 30s dress types and silhouettes included:

- Bias cut dresses

- House dress

- Puffed sleeve dresses

- Mid calf length dresses

- Afternoon dresses

- Backless gowns

- High neck dresses

- Halter neck dresses

Skirts were also popular in the 30s, some styles included:

- Flared skirt

- Long column skirt

- Pleated skirt

- Long A-line skirt

For a 1930s inspired day dress, check out our Anastasia Midi Dress dress.

Want to learn more about dress types?

Read our article Everything on Dress Types and Body Shapes.

“A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty.” 

Elsa Schiaparelli

Popular 1930s tops included:

- Blouses (tunic, sleeveless, wrap over, puff shoulder, utility)

- Silk or rayon crepe tops and blouses

- Knitted sweaters

- Polo shirts

- T-shirts

- Soft collared shirts

- Butterfly sleeves        

- Wide shoulders

Check out our 30s Puff Sleeve Blouse.

The Great Depression was in full swing in the 1930s, an economic crisis that impacted fashion. Due to these economic issues, cheaper materials such as rayon were used, styles became more modest and minimalistic, and designers such as Chanel suffered with lacking business. Creativity was required to maintain fashion during the Great Depression and mending, upcycling, and hand-me-downs became common. In response to the struggle, it was not uncommon for women to wear socks over stockings to prevent damage and avoid paying for mending. 

Factory-made clothing grew in popularity due to the economic crisis as mass production of clothing was much lower in cost than custom made pieces, fashion houses suffered as a result. 

The Great Depression

Did you know? 

The Art Deco movement influenced women’s fashion in the 20s and 30s. Art Deco style was defined by sleek lines and geometry. Examples of Art Deco fashion in the 30s are Jeanne Lanvin’s simple, flowing, geometrical inspired gowns. 

Coats were a key part of everyday fashion trends in the 1930s and the styles had moved on from the shapeless boyish silhouettes found in the 1920s. Coats in the 30s were designed to be more curve-hugging, often featuring belted waists and a length that would fall slightly above the ankle. Fur collars were also a very common feature on a 1930s coat. 

Other types of 1930s coats included:

- Fur coats 

Fur collared coats

- Wrap coats 

- Princess coats

- Polo coats

- Raincoats

- Stroller coats

- Leather coats

- Blazers

1930s coats

Amongst the styles and trends of the 30s is an area that is sometimes overlooked, bridal style. The 30s introduced some beautiful and elegant wedding gowns that continue to influence brides today. Gowns were streamlined, fluid, and sleek, often featuring low backs and bias cut shapes. Satin wedding gowns were popular as they were considered modern looking compared to traditional lace. Another popular bridal material was rayon crepe, a cheaper alternative in an era when the great depression severely impacted the economy. 

Wallis Simpson’s 1937 wedding to Edward VIII was a great bridal inspiration as she wore an iconic, sleek silk gown with buttons and a gathered waist, further emphasizing her shape. Influences were also taken from favorite stars of the 30s and their onscreen and off-screen gowns, giving a modern, less traditional wedding style. 

Wallis Simpson had some equally iconic style moments aside from her bridal look and forged her status as a 30s style inspiration.

“… the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.” 

Wallis Simpson

1930s Bridal style
1930s Bridal style Wallis Simpson’s 1937 wedding to Edward VIII

1930s footwear styles included:

- Oxford shoes – two toned heeled shoes,  often lace ups.

- T-bar shoes

- Heeled pumps

- Sandals – slingback, wedge, open-toe, heeled, platforms.

- Single strap shoes

- Ghillie lace up sandals – sandals in which the lace ties up to the ankle.

- Saddle shoes

- Satin heels

- Leather heels

- Metallic heels

- Dancing sandals

- Mid calf Boots

Popular 1930s trousers included:

- Wide leg pants

- Beach Pajamas – exaggerated wide leg trousers originally beach attire in the 20s, became a form of casual loungewear.

- High-waisted trousers

- Slacks

- Culottes 

- Flannel trousers

- Overalls

Top 1930s accessories included:

- Hats including cloche hats, beret hats, turban hats and tilted hats. 

- Fur (or faux fur)

- Matching belts

- Gloves – short or elbow length

- Handbags - leather, enamel, beaded, crocheted. 

- Art deco inspired jewelry. 

- Pearls

1930s fashion materials included cotton, rayon crepe, organza, dimity, linen, seersucker, voile, wool, chambray, dotted swiss, flannel, tweed, corduroy, silk, satin, taffeta, velvet, net, and lace.  

Popular 30s colors:

- pastels including sky blue, peach, lilac, light pink, yellow, and green.

- Other popular shades included mustard, red, orange, emerald, burgundy, navy blue, rust, brown, tan, gray, and black. 

Popular 30s prints: 

- Florals

- Polka dots

- Plaid

- Paisley

- Check

- Gingham

- Windowpane

“1. Find your own style and have the courage to stick to it.

2. Choose your clothes for your way of life.

3. Make your wardrobe as versatile as an actress. It should be able to play many roles.

4. Find your happiest colors - the ones that make you feel good.

5. Care for your clothes, like the good friends they are!” 

Joan Crawford

Did you know?

Although the 30s was a decade of increased modesty in many areas of fashion, sheer dresses were also present. These revealing dresses would be worn over a slip dress and were worn as evening attire or even day dresses in warmer seasons. Designers such as Chanel and Vionnet created some striking sheer eveningwear. 

The ideal 1930s female figure was considered to be slim and tall with a narrow waist and narrow hips. Enlarged designs such as puff sleeves, shoulder pads, and collars were used to give the illusion of a smaller frame. Foundation wear and lingerie were also popular for shaping the body beneath clothing.

What is the difference between 1920s and 1930s fashion?

What clothing was popular in the 1930s?

Popular 30s clothing included:

- Bias cut dresses

- Puffed sleeve blouses 

- Outfits with matching belts

- Sleek, geometric, Art Deco inspired evening wear.

- Short jackets

- Dresses with clinging fabrics

- Afternoon dresses

- Tilt hats and fur as accessories

Whilst Hollywood stars set enduring trends, the impact of the Great Depression caused a disparity between those wishing to achieve fashionable looks and the on-screen actresses who were more able to attain a desirable style.

How should I dress for a 1930s party?

1930s party ideas:

Embrace glamorous evening wear: take a look at 30s Hollywood stars for elegant inspiration. You could try a daring low back or plunging neckline, or even a Chanel inspired black lace gown. Style with 30s dancing shoes, faux fur, and perhaps some Art Deco inspired jewelry. 

Bias cut dress: an undeniably 30s inspired party look is a bias cut dress.

Black maxi dress worn by Phoebe played by Lisa Kudrow, 1996

30s Satin Dressstyle our 30s satin dress with gloves and dancing heels for the perfect movable party look.  

Fitted skirt suits: opt for a highly glamorous and feminine skirt suit that hugs your curves. Style with a tilted hat and gloves. 

Marlene Dietrich inspired: if you want to channel fashion icon Marlene Dietrich, style a wide leg trousers suit with a tilted beret style hat and some block heel boots or even a pair of loafers. Don’t forget that Dietrich inspired makeup is essential to channel the German star, try concealing eyebrows and drawing thin straight brows paired with a bold lipstick. 

Puff sleeved blouse and wide leg trousers: check out our 1930s inspired Judy blouse for the perfect party look. Style with a pair of wide leg trousers for an elegant 30s inspired outfit. 

- very thin eyebrows were a popular Hollywood-inspired look.

- thin lipstick with an accentuated cupid’s bow

- subtle eyeshadow and liner to define the eyes but not as bold as 20s styles.

- Lip colors included dark red, maroon and raspberry.

- Mascara on just the upper lashes.

In the 1930s, rebellious women began wearing wide leg pants, high waisted pants, and casual wide leg lounge pants.

Features of depression era fashion:

- Cheaper materials including rayon, cotton, and satin.

- Repurposed clothing

- Factory-made pieces

- Hand-me-down clothing 

- Muted color palettes

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