The phenomena most commonly associated with the 1930s era is the Great Depression. Whilst the world has seen many recessions, bear markets and depressions since, it remains to this day the longest, most severe and most widespread depression of the twentieth century.
Although the causes were varied and numerous, it was largely precipitated by an enormous crash of the US stock market on October 29, 1929. $14 billion was lost in one day; today, that would be the equivalent of $377 000 000 000. Unemployment hovered around 25% for some years, and with no government benefits, the resultant poverty was intense.
The public mood was sombre. Gone were the carefree attitudes, celebrations and hedonism of the 20s. This was a new era, and it was full of financial worry. Despite only around 60% of the population suffering direct effects of the Depression, everyone was nervous about their financial future, and were mindful of their less fortunate counterparts.
All this gloom and doom had innumerable flow-on effects. For many families with reduced incomes, this was the real start of the 'make do and mend' era. Manufacturers started making cheaper dresses, lower-heeled shoes and smaller, plainer hats in order to stay in business and give the public what they could afford.
This was of course an era where most every woman could, and did, sew. Although many women had worked outside the home during the first world war, most returned to homemaking and domestic duties once the men had returned. It was not socially acceptable for married women to take on employment, and the traditional arts of sewing and embroidery were still viewed as desirable and suitable accomplishments for women.
As family budgets stretched further and further, garments were altered and re-altered, handed down and updated. The advent of colourful bakelite in the late 1920s did much to promote the wearing of costume jewellery, so it became easier to update an outfit with cheap accessories, a pair of shoe clips or a few new ribbons and feathers for an old hat.
As moods changed, so did styles. In reaction to the straight silhouette and mannish styles of the 20s, a more conservative and feminine look returned. The waistline resumed its natural position and hemlines were lowered to mid-calf length. Women now wanted to be genteel, ladylike, curvy and refined, but this was no reversion to the stiff corsetry and voluminous skirts of the Victorian era-; this was an elegant yet simplified fashion decade. Clothes were feminine yet allowed for ease of movement.
Detail was all around the sleeves and shoulders; the 1931 movie 'Cimarron', starring Irene Dunne, strongly influenced this trend, with costumes featuring 1890s-style 'leg-o-mutton' sleeves, exaggerated shoulder pads and plenty of ribbons and bows. It was from this point on that American cinema became a lasting upon western fashions. Zips became common, replacing the buttons or press studs previously used on side closures. Synthetic fabrics, particularly rayon, became widely used, as they lent themselves to lustrous fabrics like shimmery lame, thought so elegant for evening wear.
Despite the continued influence of Parisien couturiers, most notably Madame Vionnet, who focussed on pastel colours with swirly chiffon skirts and bias-cut silks, and Elsa Schiaparelli, who not only defined the 30s look with her classic suits and little black dresses, but collaborated with cubist artists to produce a revolutionary array of hats in colours such as cobalt blue and deep fuschia, for the average woman the colours of the 30s matched the public mood. Shades of brown, blue, olive green, maroon, taupe and black abounded. This is not to say that prints and happy colours were unavailable, but they were certainly less prominent.
Sunbathing became popular for the first time. With the turn of the decade, swimwear had become more brief, leaving much more skin exposed than ever before. The rich were able to travel, of course, and warm, beachy destinations such as the Bahamas, Florida and the Mediterranean were in vogue. This in turn influenced fashion itself; in order to show off their tans (or sunburns, as they were then called), men wore white dinner jackets, halter tops and bare midriffs were seen on women, and backless evening dresses, styles which we so strongly associate with 30s movie stars, were the height of elegance.
Furs were a luxury item that every woman aspired to own. Whether worn over the shoulder with a winter suit or as an evening accessory with long gloves, real fur was the height of fashion throughout the 1930s and in fact remained popular until well into the 1950s. Gloves were enormously important; no self-respecting woman would leave the house without them. The length and fabric were tailored to the occasion; usually long gloves for evening and wrist or mid-arm length for daytime. Colour co-ordination was a definite fashion rule; to match ones handbag, shoes, hat and gloves was essential.
All pictures from my own collection of original 1930s watercolours and fashion salesmans sample cards.