In the 1920s, a boyish, square silhouette dominated women’s fashion. Geometric art deco patterns and colors abounded, and screen sirens donned low-waisted shift dresses with a flat silhouette. The decade of the ’30s brought with it a more feminine, flowing sense of fashion, and the Great Depression had Americans running to the movies to escape into a world of lavish Hollywood glamour and fashion. Dresses went from straight to slinky and even risque, and the more luxurious, the better.
America’s obsession with Hollywood glamour and luxury fostered a designer gown trend. Coco Chanel revolutionized evening wear by designing simple, drapey gowns with comfortable fabrics like jersey, which had only previously been used for work or sports clothing. This was the exception, however, as most dresses were made with slinky, shimmery material. Elsa Schiaparelli designed whimsical gowns like the Duchess of Windsor’s lobster evening gown, an empire-cut gown that featured an image of the creature.
The Bias Cut Gown
When Madeline Vionnet introduced the bias cut in the 1930s, it helped define the decade’s female silhouette. The cut meant that slinky fabrics like silks and chiffons could be cut diagonal to the fabric grain, helping them cling to the body, creating a long and lean silhouette. Glamour Hollywood gowns were the pinnacle of this style, moving from the 1920s geometric patterns to intricate geometric seaming. Evening gowns were often backless, and a true Hollywood siren had a gown that was completely smooth from the hip through the thigh. Jean Harlow’s gowns exemplify this trend.
Fluttery and Draping Gowns
When ’30s Hollywood didn’t have its sirens clad in slinky, shimmery satin, they were wearing soft and fluttery evening gowns. Designers like Chanel and Madeleine Vionnett, creator of the bias cut, designed dresses with tiered, fluttery skirts. Evening gowns might have a tail or taper near the calf, then flutter slightly. Asymmetrical dresses that were shorter in the front than the back were also all the rage. Long and elegant shawls and neck scarves were common in evening gowns, but the fabric was always thin and slinky, accentuating the lean silhouette.
A Gown Alternative: Pants
Though a movie scene with a screen siren wearing pants instead of a glamorous gown at a ball was highly atypical, women began to wear pants during the ’30s — though not often. Marlene Dietrich was escorted to Paris city limits by the Chief of Police when she wore pants in the city, and Katherine Hepburn allegedly took her pants off on the MGM backlot when Louis B. Mayer commented that she shouldn’t be wearing them. Women still had to wear men’s pants at the time, so they were high-waisted, belted and full.
References and ResourcesFashion Era: Stylish Thirties Fashion History
NMSU Costume History Thtr 307; 1930s; Deb Brunson