In previous decades, women would change clothes for every activity and for different times of day. As pockets were pinched by the economic decline in the 1930s, clothes that could be worn for multiple activities began to emerge. While one would not wear one’s house dress out to run errands, fine dresses were marketed as perfect for a day full of different activities. The same 1930s day dresses could be worn from street to afternoon: “From a shopping tour or business, to an important luncheon, tea, or matinee date,” or for “bridge with the girls, dinner, church on Sunday, or an informal evening.”
1930s Afternoon dresses to be worn out of the home for a variety of activities came in many popular styles, but always they strove to adhere to the 1930s ideal shape, summed up beautifully by this ad for Wards in 1937: “wide shoulders, slim fitted waists, swinging lines.”
Sleeves, Necklines, and Collars:
In the early 1930s, sleeves were usually long and slim, even for juniors’ dresses. In 1931 and 1932, larger puff sleeves began to appear on the runways in Paris, and by 1934 day dresses with short shoulder-widening puff sleeves, a hallmark of the decade, were what all the popular fashions boasted.
A variety of 1930s afternoon dress sleeves were employed to create the effect of wider shoulders, mostly variations of puff sleeves with generous gathers at the shoulder seam. “Capelet” sleeves that looked almost like a little cape when the wearer bent her elbows, a less full “flaring” sleeve and ruffle “butterfly” sleeves, even pleated sleeves were among the other varieties.
Most sleeves on misses and juniors dresses were short, ending at the elbow, at the mid forearm, or higher. 1930s day dresses for cooler weather often came with a matching jacket with long sleeves. Dresses for mature and plus-size (called “stout” at the time) women more commonly had long sleeves, along with jackets and coats for all ages. Longer sleeves usually still had generous puffs at the shoulder or at the cuff.
A “push-up” sleeve style that could be worn down, like this red day dress from winter 1938, or “pushed up” the arm to make a shorter and poofier puff, was also in vogue.
1930s Day Dresses Necklines
Necklines and collars were also varied but always high, with no cleavage of any kind. Many day dresses had folded pointed collars, like the common button up shirts today. The size of the collar varied widely, some were embellished with little tie-like bows or flowers at the neck.
Yokes, a seam running between the shoulders on the upper chest, were a popular shoulder widening device. Some yokes were created with a patch of shirring or smocking: both of which are kinds of decorative gathers consisting of two or more rows of gathered fabric. These gathering devices were also used on top of the shoulder between the collar and the sleeve to further increase the visual size of the shoulders.
Boat necks, squarenecks, mandarin collars, and shallow V’s were other fashionable necklines. Some 1930s day dresses had a deeper neckline with a false “vestee” underneath, giving the illusion of 2 layers.
For plus size fashions, wide shoulder accenting was unnecessary. The V-neck and vestee cut were popular in plus size day dresses because it only added bulk to the center line of the silhouette, not the shoulders. Puff sleeves, gathers, and very high necklines were also typically avoided on stout or mature women’s fashions. Bulky fabrics and busy prints were kept to a minimum. The plus size 1930s day dress below is an excellent example of a ’30s sleek and slim silhouette with period appropriate vestee and capelet sleeves, which did not add extra bulk to the design. It is quite becoming on full figures.
Slim Waists — Belts and Bodice Seams:
Perhaps the most dramatic difference between the fashions of the thirties and the previous decade was the emphasis on the slim waist. At the very beginning of the decade, the flat “boyish” loose shape to the bodice of women’s dresses is still apparent. Though the waist is beginning to return, the style is still rather boxy.
By 1933, the boxy drop waist look of the 1920s is completely gone. For the rest of the decade, almost every fashion sported a high natural waist accented with a belt. Belts were usually made to match a 1930s women’s dress exactly, of the same fabric, and were often attached.
Some quintessentially 1930s seams that smoothed, flattened and visually shrank the waist became a ’30s hallmark: an upside-down v-shaped or half-moon shaped seam just under the bust, allowing room for one’s bust while the fabric from the torso to the mid-hips were very snug, smooth and fitted. Often, the upper bodice had gathers above this seam.
Lots of different kinds of embellishment and detail decorated 1930s afternoon dresses to be worn in public: trapunto (a 3-D stuffed kind of quilting), applique, embroidery, fagoting, buttons (fabric covered and metal or even novelty shapes), “nail head” metal studs, faux flowers, decorative pins, lace, pleats, and braided details adorned the collar, bodice and sleeves. The fashion was to create “interest at the top” of the garment. Meanwhile 1930s skirts were simple and lacking decoration, while featuring pleats, gores and other seam styling.
Zippers were new, novel and became a common method of fastening and decoration, so they were visibly featured on some dresses.
Swinging Lines — Skirts, Tunics, and Peplums:
Hemlines went back down after the almost knee-baring 1920’s, to the mid-calf for day dresses. The square drop waist styling disappeared, and skirts for 1930s day and afternoon dresses were fitted through the hips and flared out from the mid-thigh to the mid-calf. Day dresses boasted a variety of gores, pleats and seam details to slim the hips and create stylish “swing” at the bottom of the skirt. Pleat styles included partially sewn pleats, either across the front or in groups at either side of the front panel, and fully pleated 1930s skirts continued to be a perennial classic.
In the early thirties, a fitted “hip yoke” was common, an evolution of the ‘20s drop waist though much more snug. This style was less popular late in the decade, but it was still being made into the late thirties.
Another 1930s skirt style more common in the first half of the decade was multiple panels that curved up over the hips — very flattering and elegant.
Many skirts were just very simple with one front panel.
Tunic and Peplum Day Dresses
In the later 1930s, a tunic style day dress became a trend. It was similar in styling to other day dresses but with a long tunic length layer over the skirt. It was both an afternoon and evening look. While many slipped on overhead, others looked like a coat, belted over a simple sheath dress.
Another similar 1930s day dress trend was a dress that appeared to be two pieces, a blouse with a peplum (a short overskirt that is attached at the waist of the fitted blouse) and a skirt, but was actually a one piece dress. The peplum was shorter than the tunic top and almost always buttoned up the front. It was a style that gained extreme popularity in the 1940s.
1930s Afternoon Dresses- Fabrics
1930s day dresses were made from several different fabrics. Rayon was new and rapidly became a less expensive alternative to silk and wool. Crepes were very popular — both silk crepes and rayons or acetates. Sheers and shantung were for spring; wool, wool/rayon blends, and satin were used the winter. Cotton was also used in higher quality percale shantung and crepe. They could be solids or prints, while house dresses were rarely solids, and more sophisticated dresses for being out and about were just as likely to be a solid color with decorative details as a bold print. Floral prints were very popular, but polka dots, stripes and some novelty prints were available as well.
Colors for Fall: Plum, brown, royal blue, emerald green, goldenrod, grey, black.
Colors for Spring: Pink, butter yellow, peach, sky blue, orange, tan, white, orchid, rose, medium blue.
More information about 1930s fashion fabrics and colors.
1930s Day Dresses Today
Modern styles tend to favor short above the knee dresses or ankle length maxi dresses. With the 1930s iconic length ending at mid shin “midi” or “tea” length, a new 1930s day dress is a rare find. A shorter, late 1930s style dress will be easier to find. Otherwise, longer “maxi” length dresses can work if you just have them hemmed up a bit or left full length.
My best source for used 1930s day dresses is thrift stores. Floral print chiffon dresses were popular in the ’90s, which means thrift stores have plenty of them. Hemming lengths, adding ruffles and trim, making a matching belt are all easy, thrifty ways to make a 1930s style dress. I plan to do a tutorial on this soon, just like I did for 1920s thrifted costumes.
If sewing isn’t your skill and thrifting scares you, don’t worry. I keep an eye online for vintage inspired 1930s style dresses and link to them for sale here. Many are day dress styles, while formal evening styles can be found here.