Exhibition Archives: 1930s Fashion and Photographs

The American stock market collapsed on 29 October 1929. After a slight upwards movement, the market collapsed again. The ensuing financial crisis became one of the defining moments of US history as an entire country’s economy came down like a house of cards. The Great Depression had global implications as the effect of the economic downturn spread like a wave. Great Britain and Europe were particularly hard hit: Americans who had flocked to the Continent during the 1920s suddenly stopped coming as resources dwindled or vanished altogether.

Women’s fashions, which had reached giddy heights of youthful freedom (and brevity) during the Roaring Twenties, reflected the more mature and sober decade that followed. By the end of the 1920s the styles had already begun to change as the flapper grew up. Waists returned to a normal, rather than dropped position. Skirts, which had begun to dip in the back by 1927–28, fully descended to the knee and mid-calf for suiting, and the ankle for afternoon and evening dresses. Structure infiltrated the relaxed shapes of 1920s’ dressing; ‘hard chic’ became a watchword as couture houses such as Schiaparelli introduced a stylised and emphatic shoulder line.

As a decade the 1930s presented the extremes: from the depths of poverty for many to a sparkling party-filled escape for the wealthy international set. The progressive and liberal left vied for dominance against the conservative traditionalists; at its farthest reaches fascism waged war with communism. By the end of the 1930s, another world war erupted, belying the ‘war to end all wars’ sloganeering in the aftermath of the First World War.

Sunny Side of the Street

Navigating the bustle of the city provided both entertainment and escapism for the 1930s’ urban flâneuse. The influence of America in the interwar period extended beyond the culture of music, dance and cinema into the very materiality of the metropolis, its architecture and retail establishments. Like the cinema, Oxford Street in London proffered the idea of a better future where dreams could become reality. Watching the shoppers and looking at the brightly lit shop windows became part of the process of learning about the outside world, expanding horizons and echoing the panoramic cinematic experience.

While the act of shopping was for most women a ritual often in honour of a special occasion and willingly saved up for, window shopping, on the other hand, offered regular enjoyment and entertainment akin to the cinema or dancing. When Mass Observation – a social anthropological research group founded 1937 – talked to women about shopping, it found that most women preferred to window shop first, before perusing magazines and studying photographs of film stars and royalty for inspiration. 

On a practical level, the 1930s witnessed the creation of two extremely useful resources for those finding their way round the city. In 1931 Harry Beck, a former London Underground engineering draughtsman, designed the iconic topological map of the London Underground that is still used today, while in 1936 Phyllis Pearsall walked the 23,000 streets of London compiling the A–Z of London, a map that could be used for both business and pleasure. 

Over the Rainbow

The interwar years saw the creation of numerous cinema buildings, with the old Egyptian, Graeco-Roman and rococo extravaganzas giving way to ‘dream palaces’: streamlined, curved, modern Art Deco buildings epitomised by the iconic Odeons that seemed to echo the Manhattan metropolis as well as gleaming ocean liners. By 1935, London alone had 258 cinemas, offering comfort, luxury and an escape from the realities of the world to an imaginary ‘somewhere else’ free from the constraints of class and accepted convention. By the mid-1930s, going to the ‘pictures’ was considered a respectable activity for married middle-class women who could enjoy a matinée and be home in time for their children’s return from school.

Silent films gave way to ‘talkies’ that allowed more complicated narratives and deeper characterisation, while the various genres of films, including the popular musicals of the decade, created different fashion possibilities. Magazines encouraged their readers to identify with a particular film star and copy their style, although this sometimes resulted in problems for the fashion industry: milliners, for example, demanded the recall of a photograph of Dorothy Lamour wearing a bandana as it prompted thousands of women to stop buying hats.

As film stars became key fashion influencers, Hollywood and Paris colluded in providing what women wanted. While Hollywood costume designers took inspiration from Parisian style upping the glamour and exaggerating the detail, Paris ensured that women could access the glamour of the films in a variety of ways. The pattern companies, seeing an opportunity, adapted stars’ gowns for mass production and copies of Joan Crawford’s Letty Lynton dress, for example, could be purchased in shops nationwide.

Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries

The 1930s saw a spectacular private house-building boom as mortgages became more easily available and increasingly housing became the key indicator of the distinction between the working and middle classes. Middle-class demand fuelled a suburban expansion creating a pattern of suburban growth and ribbon development that spread throughout Britain. By the mid- to late 1930s, more than 350,00 houses were being completed a year. 

The advertisements of building societies and estate developers gave a utopian vision of life in the suburbs, depicting a perfect nuclear family smiling against a background of sunshine and greenery. But life was not always perfect for the suburban housewife with more free time on her hands and fewer household tasks to perform thanks to new kitchen gadgets. However, any housework she did do could double up as exercise: ‘Sweeping is excellent for the shoulders, arms and waistline…’ (Woman’s Own, 10 November 1934).

Fashion and Textile Museum launch their winter 2018 exhibition at The Fashion and Textile Museum on October 11, 2018 in London, England.

Homemaking became a conscious leisure activity for less affluent women. The new illustrated women’s magazines encouraged such women to devote more of their spare time to cooking, house-furnishing and dressmaking, which were now considered ‘hobbies’, while also advertising ways in which a woman could use her craft skills to make some extra income. 

Happy Days Are Here Again

The harsh economic realities of the decade paradoxically benefited the British seaside resort. Going abroad was too expensive for most people and deemed unpatriotic. By the mid-1930s, resorts such as Torquay were drawing in the crowds lured by colourful advertisements in newspapers and brochures. The rise in paid holidays culminating in the 1938 Paid Holidays Act allowed people across the social spectrum an annual escape to the seaside.

While Bexhill-on-Sea boasted its Art Deco De La Warr Pavilion, designed by Modernist architects Serge Chermayeff and Erich Mendelsohn, Blackpool had its Tower, a new Modernist casino in the shape of a giant corkscrew and a six-storey Woolworths on its promenade, not to mention the illuminations: ‘27 miles of festoons’, according to Mass Observation. In 1936, Billy Butlin welcomed the first ‘Happy Campers’ to his Skegness holiday camp offering holidaymakers all-day entertainment.

The sun, so elusive in Britain, was a recurring motif of the 1930s reflected in design: from tiled fireplaces to powder compacts. Suntans, popularised by Chanel, were considered ultra chic and according to Vogue sun worshippers from London to Antibes could be found ‘pouring oil on their golden bodies in a sort of rapturous languor.’. 

Outside activities such as hiking and camping were encouraged as austerity sparked public health fears, initiating a fitness craze that was echoed across Europe. In Britain, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain invited Prunella Stack, leader of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, to become the poster girl for a national campaign to promote the importance of physical exercise. In Germany, Adolf Hitler addressed the athletes of the 49 nations participating in the 1936 Berlin Olympics beneath a sea of banners bearing the Olympic rings as well as Nazi swastikas.

The Way You Wear Your Hat

The 1930s saw the growth and development of mass manufacture and the birth of cheaper ready-to-wear fashion with improved sizing and fit spearheaded by American innovation. Women had an increasing variety of shops from which to choose, including small independent shops and new multiples such as Marks and Spencer. Shops thrived in spite of the Depression while the shopping experience underwent major changes. Price tickets were now displayed and the customer was free to wander around open-plan departments looking and touching. The shop assistant had to learn new skills and the class barrier between shopper and shop assistant crumbled. Department stores became part of the London cityscape as well as flourishing in towns and in the suburbs, offering tearooms, hairdressing salons and in some cases a roof garden.

A Mass Observation survey found that women preferred shopping in department stores to independent clothes shops as the staff in the latter were paid on commission and therefore employed more aggressive selling techniques. As well as ready-to-wear fashion, department stores offered levels of dressmaking for different budgets, from ‘Bespoke’ to an inexpensive in-store dressmaking service and lastly the ‘Cut and Fit’ department where customers could bring in their own fabric and pattern to be cut and tacked together for home sewing.

Printed dress fabrics became very popular having the practical advantage of being cheaper than embroidered fabrics as well as less likely to show stains than plain ones. Simple styles from new synthetic fabrics such as rayon, cut to fit the average body, became a sought-after choice. A shop-bought dress was for many a rite of passage into adulthood.

Some Day My Prince Will Come

On the morning of 12 May 1937 the young Princess Elizabeth, dressed in a gown of ‘silk and cream lace’ with ‘little gold bows all the way down the middle’ began her carriage ride to Westminster Abbey to watch her father being crowned King George VI. The Princess recorded the occasion in a special coronation diary addressed to her parents. Although she considered the ceremony wonderful, she thought ‘At the end the service got rather boring as it was all prayers’. By the time ‘Lilibet’ got to bed, her legs ‘ached terribly’. 

For the patriotic British public the coronation marked a return to stability following the abdication crisis triggered by King Edward VIII’s marriage to American divorcée Wallis Simpson. The colourful pomp and circumstance of the ceremony was witnessed by millions listening to the wireless broadcast and in some cases even watching it live on television. 

Across the land bells rang, flags and bunting fluttered in the breeze, while people partied in the streets. Crowds flocked to London to see the spectacle: 1,000 special trains were laid on for the occasion. In Islington there was a huge party attended by London’s Pearly Kings and Queens as well as Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein. In Hungerford, the celebrations lasted several days and included a children’s fancy-dress parade, fireworks and a coronation dance. 

Magazines were full of tips on what to wear and how to decorate your party table. Vogue recommended printed dresses in patriotic colours while the British Council sponsored official ‘Coronation Colours’ that included ‘four pastel colours named after Royal palaces – Marlborough Blue – a forget-me-not shade, Holyrood Green, Buckingham Lilac and St James’ Rose.’ 

If you’d like to see more of Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs, the exhibition is currently on your at The American Museum and Gardens, Bath. Keep an eye on their website for updates on opening dates and times.


We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation, to help us continue our work during this difficult time.

Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum, as soon as we are able.

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