March 13, 2015

1930's fashion photographs

Wow! You've come up with so many great comments about my attempt at making myself a 1930's dress. Both here and on We Sew Retro-Sew and Tell
Among many other things, I've learned that: Yes very soft and limp fabrics are very important for the 1930's look, the original dresses my have been very unshaped and fashion illustrations are very fanciful whatever the era...

In the mean time, I've finished the dress and I will take proper pictures and talk a bit more about it and the experience of making it in the weekend. Oh, and for those of you who wondered about the (short) length: I followed the pattern exactly. The only reason it's longer in the first muslin is that I didn't fold up the 3 5/8" hem there. I had also expected the dress to be longer but the waist length is right and the hem hits my leg at the same point as it does in the illustration. 

Today, I thought it would be nice to look at some fashion photographs from the 1930's. I figured that would be the best way to learn about what was considered to be the proper fit of a dress, what an ideal body shape looked like and how the fashionable silhouette changed over the decade. 

These first pictures are from the Dutch Mode- en Handwerkalbum from spring 1933. 

Shapes are not that loose (not really close-fitted either but certainly not as baggy as that first toile of mine) but belts are definitely not used to cinch waists, like in the 1950's. And the ideal figure seems to have very little difference between waist and hip. Nor between bust and waist, for that matter. 

This one image comes from the French sewing magazine La Femme Elegante which, unfortunately, only published photographs of its knitting patterns. The shape seems pretty much unchanged.

The following pictures are probably the most interesting in relation to my dress. They are from the same year, 1937 but the dress I made came from the USA, these pictures were published in the German magazine Beyer's Mode.

This first suit actually looks quite 1940's to me. And isn't it great they've printed the illustration of the same outfit next to it?

The dresses, on the other hand, look as you would expect for 1930's. Pretty sleek fitting though. And is it my imagination or has the waist-to-hip ratio increased a bit?

There are more design elements which add width at the hips: The occasional A-line skirt, tunics, peplums. All of that makes me feel like these styles would be friendlier to a girl with hips...

Oh, and there are pyjama's in this magazine, meant to be worn in the morning, at home. Those trousers are very wide but rather alluring in those thin drape-y fabrics.

And finally, a couple of pictures from Libelle. These are from there report about the Paris shows for autumn/winter 1939/40 so it shouldn't be surprising that everything here looks 1940's.

And can I draw any conclusions based on this? Well... Some, I think. Of course, all the pictures above are carefully styled, photographed and retouched images of (very likely) professional models. Normal women probably didn't look quite so sleek and poised. It does tell us something about the beauty ideals at the time though. According to these pictures, on the perfect figure, fashionable dresses should fit smoothly. That perfect figure is not super-skinny but has very few curves at the beginning of the decade and slowly gains shape towards 1940. Quite to my surprise, there were no huge shoulders in any of these images (I have seen those in pictures from the 1940's). Gathered, pleated or darted sleeve caps and extra room at the upper arm, yes, but no high padded constructs. 
So, it seems I wasn't wrong in wanting my 1937 dress to fit more closely but I probably can't get a 'real' 1930's look because my body shape isn't right for that.  


  1. I really wouldn't bother that much about body shape because women always came in all shapes and still they would all have worn pretty much the same dresses - especially in the 20ies and 30ies.
    Many years ago I dived into the world of clothing of these years - make it 1927-1943 and I am quite good nowadays in deciding which year is shown. So when you take a look at the late 20ies, skirts were worn fitted at the hips (and at the waist underneath those blouses!) and reached the part between knees and calves. The waistline began to reappear little by little and was back 1930. BUT the form of the dress itself did not yet change: the top was still quite loose (no darts coming from the waist), the seam between top and skirt still near hipline. The hemline went down and the belt gave the silhouette.
    Undergarments were still "only" for wearing comfort and hygiene, not for forming the figure - that explains the straighter figure shape in the early 30ies. Next came girdles for the hips whereas the bust was still only clothed not that much formed - makes the figure look smaller in the hips and quite straight at top. The way the models stood and posed helped making them appear more like the idealized drawings. Also the slightly higher waist makes hips appear less pronounced.
    When in the midthirties hemlines began to rise a little bit and bras offered more support, the waist was at a natural hight - the figure shape seemed to be more curvy. The tops of dresses became a bit tighter too, the hemline gathered more width and the basic pattern itself was more close to the figure, too - those shapes you could make with your own block quite easily.

    Sorry for writing so much, but perhaps this helped a bit? Last year I tried to make an early 30ies-dress using pattern making instructions from 1932 - it was a desaster. And I began to think that I might not be the right shape for it. But a few weeks ago I started again and actually now love the shape on me - although my hip-waist ratio is not small :-D
    You can have a laught at this one - way too small :-D

    1. Hi Michou! Great to see you here on the blog ;)
      Of course I don't mind the long comment... Not like this, when it's just because you have a lot of interesting things to tell, which are all appropriate.
      You are definitely right about the developments in under- and shape wear and about the how the model's pose and the camera angle can influence the look.
      But still, my magazine collection gives me some idea about the changing silhouettes of the 1920's and 1930's and those usually suggest a closer fit for the late 1930's, just like the pictures in this post. That's why I was surprised when the 1937 pattern was so big on me...

  2. How interesting Michou. I like the detail on the undergarments, that's such an important factor. Shame I can't read your blog, the pictures are good! I also like your knitting on Ravelry which I have seen sometime ago.

    1. Oh, thank you so much :-) What is your ravelry name? Would you like to add me?
      Pictures on my blog really are not my strongest point :-D

  3. For those drapey garments of the thirties I believe bias cut was very important to get that look of "just skimming the body".

    Did your pattern have instuctions for on grain or bias cut? The model looked to me to be one that benefits from bias cut. It elongates the lines and snugs the garment closer to the body when worn wich might make the too large size just right.

    1. Hi Sofie. That's the thing with 1930's styles: Looking at the illustrations, you often expect a garment to be bias cut but, judging from the patterns in my collection, very few actually are. My 1937 pattern is supposed to be cut on grain and that's what I did. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the sleek dresses worn by celebreties of the day were usually bias cut but dresses for normal women inspired by those were not. After all, cutting on the bias takes a lot of fabric and the 1930's were a time of economical hardship in many parts of the world.

  4. Actually I think the frequent seam lines on the bodice of thirties dresses give the use of bias away. Seams on the bodice of many of the close fitting drapey garment go on the diagonal. I'm guessing that it's because the bodice or all of the dress is cut on the bias and that makes the seams mostly on grain or cross grain wich prevents seams stretching out of shape.

  5. And a couple of layers of soft flowy undergarments help with the soft lines.