Know Your Decades

Know Your Decades: 1920s and 1930s Clothing

February 27, 2016

I have been buying and looking at second hand clothing in general, and vintage clothing in particular for probably over half my life, and along the way have learnt some tips and tricks on how to tell the age of a garment. Some are super easy but others are a bit trickier – especially with recent decades taking large amounts of inspiration from the past, so I thought I would share some tips and tricks on what each decades defining characteristics are, and how to estimate the age of your clothes. As with almost everything I write, this ended up being much longer and with way more information in it that I was anticipating so this weeks is just about the 1920s and 1930s, and I will do the follow ups over the next several weeks!

1920s 1930s clothing

(clockwise from top left: Shorter skirts in 1925 // outfits by Chanel, mid-1920s // A woman in New York, 1920s // early 1920s bathing suits // A group of friends in the late 1920s)

1920s clothing is not very common to find in New Zealand if you are just out and about op shopping, and there isn’t even much of it around even if thats what you are specifically looking for and you are prepared to pay a premium for it. This is for a multitude of reasons – for starters, a dress from the 20s is now around 90 years old so chances are it may not have survived particularly well, or could have been altered in later years. Twenties dresses (or at least what people commonly think of as 1920s dresses) are quite recognisable – think beaded, dropped waist, boxy shaped Great Gatsby styles. However, this style of dressing wasn’t really popular until halfway through the decade, with changes slowly happening before then.

1920s 1930s clothing

(A typical 1920s outerwear look with cloche hat, bobbed hair and fur collar // Sears department store catalogues from the 1920s // A cartoon showing clothing silhouettes from May 1928)

The 1920s is thought of as the decade when fashion entered the modern era, and the beginning of the decade bought with it more comfortable clothes and the idea of “leisure” wear. Dresses evolved to a narrow rectangular silhouette, with pleats, gathers or splits to allow for movement, and women generally stopped wearing corsets in the 1920s, and instead wore camisoles and bloomers, as the ideal was a boyish figure with a flat chest. Clothing reflected the newfound freedom that came from the independence women had found during the first world war.

The boyish or childish silhouette of the 1920s was popular once again in the 1960s, however the clothing styles were completely different but the huge cultural change was similar. The 1980s bought about some twenties style details, such as dropped waists and long pleated skirts but these were paired with oversized tops and shoulder pads a plenty!

1930s clothing

(Sears department store catalogue, 1935 // A typical outfit in Dallas, Texas, 1934 // Fully knitted dress, mid-to-late 1930s)

1930s clothing is just as tricky to stumble across as clothing from the 1920s. A lot of thirties dresses were made from rayon or rayon blends which was a brand new fabric at the time, and would have been sewn with a cotton thread (since polyester wasn’t around until the 60s). Rayon can become extremely fragile and delicate when wet, and cotton thread tends to rot or break after around 50 years, so vintage clothing from the 1930s is not likely to be in pristine condition.

The Great Depression became a reality for a lot of people from the early 30s onwards, and the fun and light-hearted attitude to getting dressed of the late 1920s disappeared. Waist-lines rose back up to the natural waist, or even higher to just under the bust (an empire waist) and skirts became longer, with the more “traditional, womanly” figure on show. Shoulders were also emphasised, either through use of gathers and pleat details, or with fluttery sleeves. If women in the 1920s had a boxy, rectangular silhouette, then 1930s clothing was an upside down triangle! However, some things were carried over from the 20s – for example, short hair remained fashionable well into the 1940s, as did fitted cloche hats. Dresses in the thirties were elegant and feminine, and a fair few of them were bias cut giving them a slinky and fitted look – think black & white movie star gowns. On the other end of the spectrum in the USA is the feed-sack dresses, these were made by hand by re-using the floral-printed cotton sacks that food like flour, sugar and rice came in. It took one sack to make a child’s dress or shirt, and three to make a woman’s dress.

1930s clothing

(A young woman cutting out fabric for a jacket, 1936 // 5 sisters wearing matching feed-sack dresses, late 1930s // A young woman with curled and pinned hair, 1936)

Early 1930s dresses generally fitted straight over the head, and then went on to have side openings using buttons (made from early plastics like bakelite and lucite, as well as glass, wood or cork), press studs or hooks and eyes. However, it isn’t uncommon for a zip to have been added in later years – alterations like this sometimes throw you off when trying to accurately guess the age of a garment! Most women would have made their own clothing, and crocheted and knitted garments (not just cardigans but dresses and skirts too) were also popular.

Metal zips were used from the late 1930s in women’s dresses but it would have been more common to see button closures. If zips were used, they would have been in the side seam, or a very short zip at the back neck – and 1930s clothing with a plastic zip in is either not from the 1930s, or has been altered.

This silhouette was resurrected in the 1990s  – think floral print grunge style babydoll dresses – but it’s super easy to tell the difference between old and newer. The easy to find 90s versions are generally cheap chain store brands, with recognisable labels in the back neck, and usually with a zip up the back, and with care labels that mention cold machine wash, or tumble drying.

Hope you guys enjoyed reading this – I have a few other posts lined up for the next couple weeks but will be back with info about the 1940s and 1950s soon!

(All images sourced from Wikipedia and Pinterest – if you would like to know more about a particular one, please let me know and I will point you in the right direction!)

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