While the term teenager wasn’t widely used in the 1930s, the 14-18 year old high school girl was a unique consumer of handmade and purchased clothing. Most clothing shops called them “juniors,” “junior miss,” or misses for the older teens. For the most part, clothing available for teens was larger sized children’s clothing or small women’s clothing. While the teenage girl had a ready opinion on what she wanted to wear, her clothing still looked like that of her mother’s.
Leaving frilly knee length little girls’ clothing behind and gradating into young womanhood, around age 14, was a right of passage. She could now wear moderate heels, stockings, jewelry, shapewear lingerie, and makeup, although she usually didn’t in her day to day life.
“A study on child welfare commissioned by the White House in the early 1930s found that outside school activities, the average urban teen spent four nights per week engaging in unsupervised recreation with his or her friends. Their activities included dating—going to watch vaudeville shows or movies, going for ice cream or Coca-Colas (“coking”), going to dances organized by schools or thrown, impromptu, in a classmate’s basement, and simply piling into a car together and cruising around.” – Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weige, 2016
The teenage girl needed clothing that was “mature” yet at the same time comfortable and versatile, going from school to social activity to home five days a week. On weekends, the teenager could put on her sporty casual clothes, repeating her long list of social engagements and yes, helping around the house too.
“‘Wear something simple’ is the outstanding rule for all clothes. It is the criterion of the best of good taste. No gadgets, no fluffs of lace, no silks or satins for everyday wear, just simple designs of suitable fabrics with clever little details. The subtle differences in girls make it necessary to stress the fact that every girl should know her own weight, build, hair, eyes, and complexion so that she may select becoming colors and styles that will accentuate and complement her very best features.” – Clothing the Child by Florence Elizabeth Young, 1938
For school days and weekend days, the teenage girl was often found wearing a midi length dress. These followed the same trending designs as women’s house- and afternoon dresses. They preferred prints of plaid, stripes, and florals over solid color dresses. Red or white buttons, collars, and belts gave basic dresses more interesting details.
In summer, novelty sailor or nautical themed dresses of blue, white, yellow, and red were very popular. The sailor themed spilled over into casual clothes, too.
The other trendy dress for teenager girls in the 1930s was the jumper dress or pinafore dress (may be called a suspender dress today). Worn over a blouse, the jumper dress was youthful yet allowed her to mix and match her blouses and sweaters with them.
Skirts and Blouses
Although dresses were easy to wear, the fashionable teenage girl preferred separates of skirt and blouse or knitwear. They were cheaper to buy and allowed her to create a unique identity with her pairings.
Skirts were mostly column shaped straight skirts with a gore at the hem for easier walking. Later 1930s skirts came up almost to the knee in an A-line flare. The pleated skirt became very trendy with teens going into the 1940s.
Teens chose solid short sleeved blouses to pair with skirts. These were often eggshell white, but could be a light to medium blue, red, pink, or yellow. Print blouses were also an option, especially in plaid. Blouses had high collars and a fitted waist, worn overlapping the skirt.
A short sleeve knit blouse or sweater-shirt was also very common to pair with skirts. Warmer and slightly more casual, they came in many bold solid colors and sometimes stripes or colorblock. Learn more about 1930s blouses and knit shirts.
Long sleeve knit blouses were thin enough to wear on their own. Like short sleeve knit tops, they were extremely popular with teen girls. Heavier weight sweaters such as the turtleneck or zip up sweater-blouse would be layered over knit long john underwear.
The twin set, a short sleeve knit shell with matching cardigan sweater, entered teenage girls’ wardrobes in the late 1930s. Learn more about 1930s sweaters and knitwear.
1930s Coats and Jackets
Besides sweaters, teenagers liked to layer blouses/knitwear with sport short jackets. In the early years these looked like double breasted blazers, made of leather in bright red, blue, green, black, or tan colors.
Next came the sporty Cossack style jacket, copied from menswear, with a tight waist and either buttons or the new zipper front. These also came in suede-like fabrics, tweed, or cotton in summer.
Fashions shifted again in the late 1940s toward the man-tailored look. Teens bought tailored suit jackets and wore them with dresses. Prior to that, many dresses and suits came with matching light jackets that were also mixed and matched with skirts and tops.
For winter, a heavy wool coat was worn by teens outside. Read 1930s Coats and Jackets History here.
Casual clothes were known was sport clothes in the 1930s. High waisted and wide leg pants and shorts, often with 6 sailor buttons, were new items in the 1930s that girls, teens, and young women loved to wear. They were often worn with polo shirts, striped ringer t-shirts, or sailor themed blouses.
Teenage girls had many occasions to dress up in fancy party dresses and evening gowns. There were school and church sponsored dances, graduation ceremonies, and weddings (many girls married after high school). Formal daytime events such as a tea, fundraiser, birthday party, etc. would have had teens in floral print dresses and lace gowns with matching crop jackets.
Learn more about 1930s prom, party, and evening dresses.
Shoes and Accessories
Girls and teens wore low heeled lace-up Oxford shoes almost every day. These were brown, black, or white in summer. Some were two toned (brown and tan) and some were saddle shoes (brown and white).
For sportswear, there were canvas sneakers such as Keds classics and Converse style high tops. There were canvas sandals for the beach and leather sandals for casual days. Learn more about 1930s shoes, sandals, and winter boots.
Most teens wore ankle socks with their shoes, even sandals. In cool weather, knee high socks and wool stockings were the best to wear. Thigh-high stockings in tan, black, or grey could also be worn once a girl hit the teenage years, but they were usually saved for special events.
Teenagers didn’t need to wear a hat most of the time. Most, in fact, did not wear a hat unless to church or a formal function outside. Hats were selected from women’s options: small felts, snug cloches, Tyrolians (Robin Hood Hat), round straws, pillboxes, caps, and berets.
In the early 30s, the soft beret hat was a favorite accessory that had even normally hatless girls wearing them.
Lingerie for the young teen was simple. A pair of long leg bloomers with a cami top was worn in the early 1930s. The long bloomers were replaced by “shorties,” brief-style underwear in the late 1930s. Wearing a slip over these was optional, but advised when wearing dresses.
A light fabric brassiere was necessary when it became necessary. Adult bras were worn by teens as they grew.
A corset or girdle was unnecessary for the teenage girl. She might have worn one to a formal event/prom but they were too stiff for active swing dancing.
Unlike women who wore their hair short with tight marcel waves, the teenage girl went for a little bit longer hair pulled partially back or over to one side and secured with a bobby pin or headband. Curls were kept close around the face and neck. Teens also like milkmaid braids, short bangs/fringe, and bow clips. Read more about long hair in the 1930s here.
Makeup was limited to evening parties, and only if mother allowed. Some girls may have painted their nails or worn lipstick but many schools banned them. Good hygiene, face cleansing, and washing hair were more important duties for the skin challenged teenager.