The decade of the 1930s was dominated by one enormous historical event – the Great Depression borne out of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Gradually, as the magnitude of this economic disaster sank in, people began to realize they lived in a new era of austerity. In terms of fashion, this meant that the excesses and extravagances of the previous decade, as people were coming out of the gloom and horrors of World War One, was replaced by cheaper, simpler and more practical fashions.
The 1930s saw an end to the Edwardian styles and practices of changing clothes or outfits throughout the day were discarded in favor of more frugal methods of dressing. The wide-shoulder suit became popular in an attempt to present the male torso in as favorable light as possible. Suits were made square across the shoulder to gain this effect and the double-breasted suit also appeared as a precursor to the modern suit of today. V-necked sweaters also debuted again in another attempt to enhance masculinity in a time of austerity. Plaids became a popular motif, as well.
Women’s fashions were also influenced by austerity, yet there was still an emphasis on dressing for different times of day and occasions. Greta Garbo, the style icon of the time, was hugely influential and many women aspired to copy her sophisticated look. Long and sleek was in vogue and clinging fabrics were enormously popular. Daytime hemlines were raised slightly yet significantly to mid-calf while full-ankle hems were still the fashion in the evenings. Hair was short and wavy and because tanning was frowned upon as lower class, women brightened their faces with rouge, lipstick, eyeshadow and artificial lashes.
The new austerity meant that there was a new emphasis on recycling or repairing clothing. Women accessorized to change their look rather than buy new fashions with every changing season. For men and women, sportswear and casual attire became in vogue. V-necked vests and sweaters were added to the traditional three-piece suit. In swimwear, designs became more colorful and with the changing social norms, more and more flesh was being revealed.
There were two important developments in the 1930s that were to have a lasting and highly influential effect on fashion for decades to come. In 1927, Dr. Wallace Carothers was experimenting with new polymers and eventually Polyamide. This was taken up by the DuPont Company, which began commercially producing nylon in the late 1930s. This new fabric was enthusiastically received by women offering a sheer and sleek covering that felt and looked good. And in the 1930s, highly influential Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli made the zipper into part of everyday fashion. Whereas before it had been a rugged, durable form of fastening, Schiaparelli incorporated it into her dresses and designs and helped it become a lasting and iconic fastener.