“What did women wear in the 1930s?” The fashion of the thirties is usually overshadowed by the great depression, but the 1930s were full of glamour and style. Here you will learn about all the 1930s clothing and accessories women wore for day and evening events. You will also be able to create a 1930s wardrobe from vintage or new inspired clothes we found online (follow the links.)
Welcome to the glamorous, elegant, well-tailored, world of women’s 1930s fashion!
1930s Fashion Trends
- Midi length bias-cut dresses, puff sleeves, belted waists and large yokes or collars
- Old Holywood evening gowns- backless, sleeveless, long bias-cut dresses
- High waisted sailor pants and wide leg beach pajamas
- Casual sports clothes- skirt-like shorts, striped knit shirts
- Slouch hats, tilt hats, knit berets
- Fur collar winter coats
- Oxford shoes with perforated details and evening T-strap heels
1930s Fashion History
What was the fashion during the 1930s? The very loose, square, drop-waist, high knee-length hem, and slightly “boyish” look of 1920s fashion for women was completely gone by 1933 and was replaced with a much more modest and form-fitting style with an accentuated natural “high waist,” fitted hips, longer mid-calf or floor length hemline, high neckline, and wide shoulders. Trim, tailored, modest and feminine describe women’s 1930s fashion perfectly.
The ideal ’30s woman was tall and slender with a very small waist and narrow hips, but since most women were not blessed with slim hips and narrow waists, shoulders were exaggerated with puff sleeves, shoulder pads, large collars, and “caplet,” “butterfly’ or ruffled cap sleeves, which made waists and hips appear smaller in comparison.
1930s lingerie also helped shape women into slender tubes with a defined bust. Most sale ads and catalogs featured artistically drawn women who were three times as tall and thin as any real woman could be. The ideal silhouette was anything but realistic. See pictures of average to plus size, young to mature women here.
The fashion industry underwent many changes during this decade in response to the severe economic hardships of the time. Factory-made garments (what we now refer to as “ready-to-wear”) became popular because clothing could be mass produced for far less than made-to-order custom garments. The insurgence of ready-to-wear fueled the buy at home catalog market.
During this era, zippers became a staple in finishing a garment – they cost less than buttons! Less expensive fabrics, “rough” or “peasant” fabrics and cotton became more widely used. In fact, nubby, textured, crepe, or crinkled “rough” fabrics became a trend, “the rougher the smarter!” declared one catalog, particularly for day dresses, skirts and coats.
Being on a tight budget was no excuse for sloppy fashion. It was considered a woman’s duty to shop “smart” and look “smart” by wearing the latest 1930s fashions, materials and designs she could afford. The frugal woman who could feed and dress her family on a dime was praised. She was considered a good steward of her husband’s money! Such was the life of a 1930s wife.
Single and working women, too, were expected to look their best– to be appealing to their male employers. Despite the depression, makeup cosmetic sales doubled in the thirties!
1930s House Dresses
The most casual a woman dressed was at home, with just her family and visiting lady neighbors. House dresses, while basic and usually made of practical durable cotton, followed the trends in cut and silhouette, and often displayed a variety of bright bold prints.
Most women still preferred to sew their own clothing or upcycle existing dresses into newer frocks. When flour was delivered in pretty fabric bags women used these to make new dresses and aprons. The house dress was the ideal dress to experiment with since no one but family saw her in it.
One unique house dress variation was the reversible house wrap dress, called a “hooverette.” Practical, affordable, washable, cotton percale and true to thirties style, they sported ruffle sleeves, accentuated tied waist, and a slim cut through the hips, the “hooverette” was the perfect daily dress. With two sides, it was two dresses in one! Now that is a smart woman. Read more about 1930s house dresses.
1930s Afternoon Dresses
A woman would not wear her housedress out of the house. To shop, run errands, attend a tea, or see a matinee, she would need a smart afternoon or day dress. Often referred to as “city,” “metropolitan,” or “town tailored”, these dresses were usually silk or rayon crepe, not cotton. They stuck with the standard silhouette and classic ’30s features: puff sleeves, belted waists and large yokes and collars.
These dresses had more embellishment and detail than a house dress: embroidery, covered decorative buttons, shirring and ruching, bows, trapunto, and faux flower trimming were part of the array of details added to make a dress smarter for forays outside the house. They tended to be solid colors or more subdued prints. Most dresses came with a matching belt placed slightly above the middle waist.
1930s Evening Gowns
Silky, clinging fabrics were common in evening gowns, often worn with a fur wrap or coat. Fabrics that were popular included chiffon, silk, crepe-de-chines, and satin, cut on the bias to create elegant flowing lines. Metallic lame came into fashion as well. Evening dresses had hems that very nearly touched the floor and often had small trains in the back.
Evening dresses were also very fitted in the waist, slim and fitted through the hips, easing out mid-thigh or just above the knees, where they flared elegantly to the floor. There were gowns with puffs and ruffle sleeves, and later in the decade high necks and halter styles with plunging backs were in fashion. The backless gown is a signature of 1930s evening wear.
Nearly all modern formal gowns have their stylish roots back to the 1930s. Old Hollywood stars of the Golden Years remain icons for glamour on the runway. This year many current Hollywood stars chose to wear 1930s inspired gowns on the red carpet. It is a style that is a classic favorite in any decade.
Afternoon and evening dress fashions were turned into 1930s wedding dresses. Informal light floral tea dresses with excessive ruffles and butterfly sleeves started off the 1930s.
1930s Wedding Dresses
Next came bias cut dress with a modest high neck, long sleeve and floor length gown with a fishtail train made of silk or shiny satin. They paired with very long, lace trim veils cascading down the back to church aisle.
1930s Fabric and Colors
What fabric was used in the 1930s? Cotton broadcloth for day dresses. Silk or rayon crepe for afternoon frocks. Sheer rayons for blouses and summer party dresses. Linen for summer suits and dresses. Wool for winter suits and outerwear. Rayon tweed or corduroy for fall/winter dresses. Silky satin, lace, velvet, and taffeta for evening gowns.
1930s fashion colors were lovely pastels in spring and summer and rich earth tones in fall-winter. Peach and aqua were new favorite warm season colors not seen in the 20s. In fall, burgundy/maroon made a reappearance. The 1930s were a colorful time, there is almost no color left out. Read more about 1930s fashions colors and fabrics
1930s Women’s Pants
While rebellious women began wearing pants in earlier decades, in the 1930s there were several social situations that were acceptable for women to wear pants in public.
Sportswear for tennis, hiking, picnics, skiing, or even just watching sports featured pants, overalls and even shorts! The sailor inspired two-piece “sailor middy” was a common sportswear outfit.
Pants generally were wide legged trousers with a front crease or very wide flowing culottes that looked like a skirt when not moving, with a high fitted waist. The double button “sailor” front was common, as was a side zipper or button closure. They were usually made of a durable cotton fabric like twill or wool for winter.
In summer, beach pajamas which look like palazzo pants with an attached sleeveless top graced the beaches, seasides, and pools of 1930s Hollywood. They were made to comical extreme widths and in bold geometric patterns but were and still are extremely comfortable to wear. Beach pajamas became popular for a day at the beach or a “restful day at home.”
A more common option for separates was the tailored skirt. At first, the ankle-length hanky hem skirt set a softer tone to the start of the 30s. Ruffled skirts were replaced by the long column skirt in the mid-30s that gradually shortened up into the flared skirt just below the knee in the late 30s. Skirts had a very high waist, slim but not tight fit and a bit of a flare at the hem. Gores gave some skirts a wider fit as well as narrow pleats.
Blouses and Sweaters
Paired with pants and skirts was an array of blouses and sweaters. The floral print cotton button-down blouse was an all-time favorite for its simplicity and comfort. Booth summer and winter blouses fit short and snug around the waist to allow for high rise pants and skirts. Short sleeves were puffed. Necklines were very modest with small collars in a variety of charming shapes. Decorative details such as shirring, pintucks, ruffles, and contrasting buttons gave them a delicate, girly, and playful aesthetic.
If a blouse had a lower neckline, a silk or light knit scarf could be tied around the neck and tucked under the blouse. It was very posh to do so!
The most basic blouse was a button-down shirt with a classic point collar in white or other seasonal colors. The white blouse paired well with suits, skirt separates, and summer trousers. It could be both casual and dressy. Other popular patterns were polka dots, plaid, stripes, and paisley. Print blouses were often sold with a matching dress jacket lined in the same material along with a coordinating skirt.
For fancier dress, the long sleeve dolman sleeve, bishop sleeve, and wrap over blouse with a fitted waistband exaggerated the top. Oversized bows, flounces, ruffles, capes, and dickies also added volume to silk, lace, organdy or satin blouses. Shirring around the shoulders and bust amplified the bust area. Many dressy blouses came with a matching belt. Fun by day, drama at night.
For casual affairs, the knit top, especially with nautical themes, looked best with wide-leg pants and flared shorts. Many knit tops in the polo shirt style had collars and ties while others had modest round neckline with a fitted waist (early T-shirt style.) Casual tops were worn untucked. Many had zip up or button up plaquettes.
Cardigan and pullover sweaters were also fit slim, accentuating the narrow waist and flat hips. Sweaters could be both short or long sleeves, worn on their own or layered over another blouse or camisole. Necklines were very high and sleeves fitted down to the wrist. There were a variety of small textures and weaves as well as simple decorations such as tassel ties, ribbon flowers, and contrasting buttons. Learn more about 1930s sweaters.
Shop 30s style vintage sweaters and cardigans.
- 1930s outfit ideas for women – read this article.
- Or this one for menswear-inspired sporty 30s styles.
- Ready made 1930s costumes will also give you ideas such as Betty Boop, Bride of Frankenstein, Olive Oyl, and Bonnie Parker (gangster mol)
Swimsuits and Beach Clothes
In addition to beach pajamas, women’s swimwear consisted of fitted wool one pieces with cotton jersey lining, a mini skit over boy shorts, and frequently little belts accentuating the waist. Usually, they had simple tank straps and often low or even plunging backs.
Sunbathing became a trend in the 1920s and continued in the ’30s as Coco Chanel and Hollywood stars encouraged the tan look. A tan began to mean one had time for leisure, not that one had to work in the sun.
Some concern for too much sun started in the ’30s. Hollywood stars quickly adopted large sun hats and sunglasses into their beachside wardrobe. Open toe sandals, too, were becoming more common for beach side strolls. Even if a woman lived hundreds of miles from the ocean, she still dressed liked she was on vacation in California.
Following dress style, women’s winter coats were mid calf with a nipped high waist, full shoulders, puffed sleeves, wide lapels or oversized collars and made entirely of wool. Many, such as the green coat below, had large detachable fur collars. Most coats buttoned up the front or off-center and some also had matching belts. Colors were rich but cheerful green, medium blue, wine, brown and cream.
Raincoats mimicked the shape of fashion coats. The trench coat and the cape coat was especially popular. While wool did a good job of repelling water naturally, raincoats were coated in a type of rubber or made entirely of rubber. Clear raincoats were a new trend that women appreciated since it did not cover up the beautiful clothes underneath. Learn more about vintage raincoats form the 1920s to 1950s.
In the late 30s, casual jackets became the trendy thing to wear with a tailored skirt and blouse instead of a matching suit jacket. They look a bit like blazers made of wool or velvet with a single or double-breasted front. Many had bold patterns or very bright colors such as red, blue, or green.
The most casual of the new jackets was the cossack style jacket (bomber jacket) which was a direct copy from menswear. It came in wool but also leather and artificial leather. There was also the military-inspired leather flight jacket dyed in vibrant colors. Women loved these short jacket so much they they often purchase men’s jackets instead of waiting for the fashion industry to catch on.
1930s Fashion Accessories
Accessories were very important to the cash-strapped 1930s woman. Accessories could transform a simple dress into something very smart. As the decade progressed, and the worst of the depression passed, matching belt, glove, and bags sets, as well as belts dyed to match a dress exactly, became popular.
Hats became a primary method to glam up an ensemble. A wide variety of hats were worn in the ’30s. The ’20s cloche and the beret lingered on from the previous decade. The cloche evolved into the “slouch” hat, still worn low on the face but with much more of a brim, worn turned up on the forehead. Small hats worn at a tilt often with a single feather as an accent dominated the decade. Small white straw hats were worn in the summer, as well as wide-brimmed cartwheel hats. Menswear style fedora hats dominated the late 30s. Learn about 1930s hats.
For bad hair days wearing a pretty scarf tied over the head and under the chin like a kerchief was a charming way to keep fashionable.
Bags tended to be small flat clutches or “pochettes”, and evening bags often had jeweled clasps. Bags got a little larger with handles as the decade wore on. Read more about 1930s purses.
Gloves were worn with both day dresses and evening gowns. Daytime gloves were mid arm length, gauntlet styles in fabric, crochet lace or soft leather. Gauntlet style gloves had flaring cuffs attached at the wrist or embroidered turn-over cuffs. Elbow-length gloves were still worn for some evening gowns, but bare arms were preferred. There was a strict etiquette for what type of gloves to wear when and with what dress. Learn more about gloves here or shop vintage style gloves here.
Jewelry was very important in the 1930s. Budgets were small, however, so many women had to make their own accessories. A small cluster of flowers was a perfect brooch for a ladies suit. Colored glass beads mimicked pearls but cost significantly less. Rhinestones were cheap and sparkly so naturally, they were made into dress clips, pins, earrings, bracelets and evening necklaces. Read more about the variety of 1930s jewelry and shop 1930s Art Deco inspired jewelry and accessories.
Shoes: Women’s shoes in the 1930s came in a wide variety of styles, but walking Oxfords were extremely popular. Shoes with cutouts such as pumps, T-straps, ankle straps, low heel flats, and sandals were everywhere. Cutouts and broguing (small holes) are unique characteristics of a 1930s era shoe.
Pumps had square heels, in patent leather or suede with a variety of decorative details like lacing, removable tongues or bows, and top stitching. Toward the end of the decade, wedges began to appear. The T-strap shoe that began in the ’20s exploded in the 1930s in both casual and dressy styles.
Common shoe colors were brown or black for winter and white for summer. Two-tone spectator pumps were also on-trend as well two-tone sports shoes like the saddle oxford. For evenings, the dancing sandal was a strappy high heeled pump in silver or gold. In winter women wore fur-lined boots and rain galoshes.
Beauty in the 1930s
In the 1930s, women attempted to cheer themselves up with pampering in the form of beauty products and hairstyling. Weekly visits to the salon were in order to set hair in the latest finger waves and tight rolls.
Short hair was in style (although long hair was acceptable) and it needed expert attention to cut and curl hair. At night women would wash (about once a week) and set their own hair in rag curlers or use a marcel iron to create deep waves.
Makeup was booming during this time. The new face was no longer full and doll-like but thin and streamlined. Eyebrows were arched high and thin. Lips were painted with soft pinks tones to match the light peachy-blush on the cheeks. Eyes were exaggerated with long dark lashes and shimmering jewel tone shadows. Learn more about 1930s makeup.
Hollywood 1930s Fashion
What else did women wear in the 1930s? For some, it was all about high fashion. Take a look at this 10 minute video about 1930s couture and Hollywood fashion history. The men’s video is also excellent.