Clothes in the 1930s

I’ve been toying with writing a novel set in the 1930s and without fail when I mention this I get the following response:

“Why? The clothes were so drab then! Set it in the 1920s!”

Everyone I’ve spoken to seems to think that the Depresssion meant no good clothes were made or worn for an entire decade. I blame Carnivale. My friends have visions of women in faded print dresses and men in worn suits covered in dust.

High fashion in the 1930s was the very opposite of drab. Think of the 1930s movies of Kate Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Carole Lombard. Think about the clothes they wore. Gorgeous! Insane! Over the top!

Yes, most people couldn’t afford those clothes, but that was true in the 1920s, too. Photos of NYC street scenes in the 1920s were just as grey as those of the 1930s.1 And, really, at what point in history have the majority of people worn haute couture?

One of the reasons I want to set my book in the 1930s is because of the sharp contrast between the very rich and everyone else. The clothes speak volumes.

Also the 1930s was the heyday of Madeleine Vionnet who invented the bias cut and totally shaped the look of the 1930s with her (mostly, but not always) slinky clothes. Vionnet is one of my favourite designers.2 She was a genius, who created some of the most beautiful clothes I’ve ever seen.

Photo by Ilan Rubin

This Vionnet dress is from 1938 and according to the New York Times is “made from silk tulle, panne velvet and horsehair with a silver lamé underdress and Lesage embroidery.” I’m betting it was not made in a day.

There were good clothes in the 1930s, okay?

  1. And, no, not just because they’re in black and white. []
  2. Also a really good boss who paid her workers above average wages (unlike, say, Coco Chanel) and covered their healthcare and training. []


  1. marrije on #

    yes! yes! write that novel! just no zombies, ‘kay?

  2. KT Horning on #

    No one could wear antennae like Katharine Hepburn.

  3. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Ouch. Fine, I stand corrected.

    (Clutching my Carnivale CDs and stinging)

  4. Justine on #

    Marrije: yes! yes! write that novel! just no zombies, ‘kay?

    There will always be zombies. Sorry.

    KT: No one could wear antennae like Katharine Hepburn.

    I’m astonished they went out of fashion.

    Diana: Ouch. Fine, I stand corrected.

    It wasn’t just you. You weren’t even the only one to cite Carnivale.

    Lauren: Check out Yves Saint Laurent’s latest collection

    YES!!! I was just looking at the YSL collection on The Guardian site. There’s one dress in particular that fills my heart with desire. Want!

    But, yes, there’s been much hommageing to the 1930s in fashion of late. Makes me SO happy.

    Lori: Who decides when to set a novel based on the *clothes*?

    You mean there are people who don’t? Huh.

  5. Lauren on #

    Check out Yves Saint Laurent’s latest collection on Between that, Balenciaga, and McQueen, there is something very interesting happening right now, which brings to mind (but does not boringly ape) the thirties. Something about strong, serious women in strong serious clothes. I love it. Sadly, the downmarket stores in the US do not appear to be knocking them off, as they are in London. US stores are too busy knocking off Marc Jacobs, who’s okay but who does not make great clothes for great women. I love the elegant and unapologetic power of thirties dressing. That power is very much on display in the Paris shows right now.

  6. Lori S. on #

    Who decides when to set a novel based on the *clothes*?

    I once set a story in the 1910s — at a talent show, so clothes *were* important. I have to say, I’d take the 1930’s over the 1910’s any day.

  7. cassie on #

    woo hoo!

    *runs away*

  8. Eric Luper on #

    My upcoming novel, Bug Boy, is set in the 1930s. 1934 to be exact. As it takes place at Saratoga Racetrack, I had a blast picking out outfits for all the young ladies. Big hats, long gloves, flashy dresses, you name it!

  9. Justine on #

    Cassie: I am ignoring you and your ignorant anti-1930s folly.

    Eric: Proving once again that historical settings are chosen purely because of the clothes!

  10. Eric Luper on #

    The great thing about the racetrack at Saratoga is that the style has not changed in 100 years. Just go there in July or August and you will be overwhelmed with style from yesteryear! And if you decide to come up to the races this summer, be sure to let me know you’re coming. I’ll take you and Scott and great time!

  11. Hillary! on #

    I LOVE YSL! People think I ams so weird because I have two really pretty lipstix and one lip gloss by YSL and my friends think I am weird because I wont share. Do you blame me though!

  12. Melissa Walker on #

    I am all for basing novels on the fashion of the times! And that dress is gorgeous. I prefer horsehair to the human hair that Chris used on Project Runway. Creepy.

  13. Hillary! on #

    OH MY BOB! I KNOW! I was so worried Chris would win! Don’t think I hate him, I totally loved him, I just prefered Rami. WOOT for Rami!

  14. ariel cooke on #

    How could anyone not get 30s glamour? Carole Lombard! Jean Harlow! Satin, bias cuts and curves, yum. And don’t forget the sleek mirrored furniture which is newly fashionable again.

    I’m excited to see what you make of historical fiction, Justine. So few people get a period voice right but I bet you will.

  15. KT Horning on #

    Rami?! Pffft. I’m wooting for Christian on hair alone.

  16. ysa on #

    Hillary said: “I LOVE YSL! People think I ams so weird because I have two really pretty lipstix and one lip gloss by YSL and my friends think I am weird because I wont share. Do you blame me though!”

    do people actually SHARE these items? i’m sorry, but my lipsticks, chapsticks and eye make-up touch my face, and my face only! if it touches my lips, or eyes it stays as clean as possible! sorry hillary, not meaning to pick on you, but your comment just made me go EEEEWWWWWWWWW so loud that my cat gave me a weirdo look.

  17. Kadie-Wa on #



    I want one.

  18. liliya on #

    have you read nancy mitford – ‘love in a cold climate’ or ‘pursuit of love’? lots of delicious stuff there about what the monstrously rich of england were wearing in the 1930s…

  19. Patrick on #

    Oohh.. I need a skull cap like that to protect me from the alien brain readers.

Comments are closed.