Clothing 193045

W W hen it comes to fashion, the 1930s were a complex age. On the one hand fashions were deeply influenced by the economic depression that gripped the Western world throughout the 1930s; on the other hand fashions in the 1930s were very elegant, with clothing trends largely determined by the tastes of the very wealthy, especially movie stars and other celebrities. Strangely, these two influences came together to create clothing styles that were simple yet elegant. The coming of World War II in 1939 brought a completely new set of pressures to the way people dressed, with rationing, or limiting, of clothing, government dress codes, and the German occupation of Paris, France, the world's fashion capital, altering clothing styles dramatically.

Clothing and the Great Depression

The 1930s began with a dramatic shift in the overall silhouette, or shape, of clothing for both men and women. Reacting against the trends of the 1920s, both men's and women's clothing became sleeker and more streamlined. Women's hemlines extended down the leg and both men's and women's clothing accented simple, flowing lines. Leading the way in these changes were designers from Paris, France, actors and actresses from Hollywood, California, and wealthy socialites from around the world. The leading designers of the day, all based in Paris, included Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971), Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973), and Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975). Schiaparelli was especially famous for her adventurous experiments with new fabrics, patterns, and wild colors. Her introduction of a bold pink was so shocking that it helped coin the term "shocking pink." Hollywood stars and starlets like Gary Cooper (1901-1961) and Marlene Dietrich (c. 1901-1992) made


Every nation that fought in World War II (193945) created standardized uniforms for their soldiers. The most dramatic uniforms were worn by the Nazi soldiers of the German army. With their mania for black leather, brass buttons, medals, and armbands, the Nazis proved as bold in their fashions as they were brutal on the battlefield. The German uniform style during the Nazi period was so eccentric that the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut (1922-) called it "madly theatrical."

After seizing power in Germany in 1933 under the leadership of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), the Nazi Party put in place a totalitarian state (a strictly controlled state under the leadership of a dictator) that left no aspect of German society untouched. Uniforms became the norm for both civilian (non-military) and military dress. But where other totalitarian societies, such as Russia, opted for functional dress codes and muted color schemes that de-emphasized individuality, the Nazis preferred expressive styles designed to make the ordinary citizen feel like part of a grand national enterprise. The development of smart looking uniforms for everybody provided visible evidence of German unity.

Nowhere was this sense of identity more evident than in the German military. The Nazis believed that their army represented a modern recreation of the Teutonic (or ancient German) Knights, the mysterious military order of medieval Europe. Instead of the chain mail (armor made of interlinking metal rings) and plate armor the knights would have worn, the Nazis substituted black leather. The Nazi Gestapo, supposedly a secret police force, called attention to itself by wearing slouch hats and ankle-length black cowhide coats. The brutal S.S. Panzer military divisions struck fear in the hearts of their adversaries with black forage caps (caps commonly worn by soldiers during the American Civil War [1861-65] with visors of roughly cut pieces of leather that rapidly assumed a curved shape and sides that collapsed so the top tended to incline forward), jump boots, and stylish black leather jackets. (A few decades later Western teenage "rockers" could be seen sporting virtually the same ensemble.) Variations on this same fashion news with their bold fashion choices; Cooper became associated with the English drape suit for men and Dietrich with the pants suit for women. Finally, wealthy jet-setters turned sports clothing into daily wear, introducing such items as the knit polo shirt into common usage.

The bold experiments and new styles introduced by the wealthy were out of reach for most people, as the period of great economic turmoil known as the Great Depression (1929—41) put many out of work and reduced the incomes of most people. Yet several trends combined to allow common people to enjoy the new fashions despite the hard times. The newer fashions didn't use a great deal of fabric, so people could make their own clothes with less fabric and thus less cost. Especially in the United States, the ready-to-wear clothing industry had advanced in its ability to produce and sell inexpensively a wide range of sizes and styles. Clothing manufacturers copied the latest fashions coming out of Paris and

dark outfit were also adopted by German fighter pilots and undersea U-boat crews. No one in the Nazi high command, not even Adolf Hitler himself, felt fully equipped without an extensive leather wardrobe.

After Germany's defeat by the Allied powers, including the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and their allies, in 1945, the Nazi regime was destroyed, but its style lingered on in movies and in television shows. One of the common elements of Nazi dress, the black leather jacket, became a popular symbol of rebellion that was worn by rock 'n' rollers in the 1950s and beyond. The popular heavy black boots known as Dr. Martens also closely resemble Nazi jump boots. One of the most important symbols of Nazi style, the swastika, has remained off limits to fashion's reinterpretation and reuse, for it is too closely associated with the darker side of Nazi rule, especially the mass extermination of Jews in German death camps. However, some modern militant groups, including skinheads and Neo-Nazis, tattoo the swastika on themselves to show their appreciation of the Nazi ideals.

Dolman Skinhead
Though Nazis were defeated in World War II, their style of dress—leather jackets, thick-soled boots—lives on. Reproduced by permission of© CORBIS.

produced cheap imitations. They took advantage of inexpensive fabrics like cotton and rayon, which were well-suited to the flowing lines that were so popular. Finally, most people saved money simply by making their clothes last longer. People ignored rapid shifts in fashion and wore the same dresses and suits for several years.

World War II disrupts fashion

The coming of war, first to Europe and soon to virtually the rest of the world, brought immense changes to the nature of fashion. The world of high fashion was changed most dramatically by the German invasion and occupation of Paris. Most of the great fashion houses that had determined the styles worn in the West were closed; designers fled the country and the wealthy had to look elsewhere for their clothes. Designers in other countries, especially the United States, soon filled the void. Among the many American designers who gained valuable experience and clients during the war years were Mainbocher (1891-1976) and Claire McCardell (1905-1958), who created what became known as the American Look.

The clothing worn by common people was also impacted by the war. Military demands for fabric, especially for use in uniforms, tents, and parachutes, meant that many countries used some form of rationing or limiting fabric and clothing. Clothes makers altered the styles of clothes they made in order to use less fabric: hemlines became shorter, trousers and skirts were closer fitting, and fabric-wasting flourishes such as patch pockets disappeared. The impact of fabric shortages was greatest in Great Britain, where severe limits were set on the amount of clothes or fabric that could be purchased. The government of Great Britain created a kind of national dress code called utility clothing. Overall, staying in fashion just didn't seem so important during war time and people didn't mind dressing in simpler, less unique clothes. The war did have one positive impact on fashion: Clothes makers who shifted their work to produce military uniforms became very skilled at producing huge numbers of clothes at a low price. After the war clothing prices fell and quality clothes became available to more people than ever before.

The Depression and World War II were the biggest influences on clothing in the years between 1930 and 1945, but they weren't the only influences. Jazz music, the popularity of sports and sports clothes, and trends in art and industrial design all made an impact.


Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Costantino, Maria. Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Dorner, Jane. Fashion in the Forties and Fifties. London, England: Ian Allan Ltd., 1973.

Dorner, Jane. Fashion in the Twenties and Thirties. London, England: Ian Allan Ltd., 1973.

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.

Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Mulvagh, Jane. Vogue History of 20th Century Fashion. New York: Viking, 1988.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

Dolman Sleeves

Woman wearing formal gown with baggy sleeves called dolman sleeves. Reproduced by permission of © Bettmann/CORBIS.

olman sleeves, sometimes called batwing sleeves, are sleeves that are cut deep and wide at the shoulder, with armholes extending almost to the waist. The sleeves taper to the wrist, and when the arms are held outward the fabric hangs in a long wing. Unlike set-in sleeves, dolman sleeves are usually cut as one piece with the top of a dress, blouse, jacket, or coat. Full and roomy, the sweeping sleeve had been used for women's clothing since around 1910 but reached a peak of popularity in the early 1940s.

The dolman sleeve design was originally borrowed from a garment worn in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East called a dolman as early as the Middle Ages (c. 500—c. 1500). The dolman was a loose, cape-like robe with very loose sleeves formed from folds of the robe's fabric. Europeans adopted Eastern styles starting in the sixteenth century and used the dolman as a model for a military jacket, also called a dolman, that continues to be worn in parts of Europe in the twenty-first century. The dolman sleeve was simpler to sew than a set-in sleeve, and so it was widely used when sewing techniques were still in the early stages of development.

During the first two decades of the 1900s, people were fascinated by designs

Woman wearing formal gown with baggy sleeves called dolman sleeves. Reproduced by permission of © Bettmann/CORBIS.

Ancient American Costume Dolman

from the East, and so the dolman sleeve was revived as a modern, exotic fashion. One of the great appeals of the dolman design is that it gave an elegant, flowing line, while allowing the wearer freedom of movement. In the 1940s, following the hardships of the economic depression of the 1930s, glamour and elegance became very fashionable. The dramatic lines of the dolman sleeve were perfect for those who wanted to dress with the flair and grace of a movie star. In 1941 the dolman dress became one of the most stylish dresses a woman could own.

Within a year, however, World War II (1939-45) had caused fabric shortages throughout Europe and later the United States, and the baggy fabric of the dolman sleeve went out of style. The dolman sleeve returned at the end of the war as part of the ultrafeminine New Look of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The dolman sleeve had another period of high popularity during the 1980s, when it returned as the batwing sleeve, both on formal clothes and on sportswear.


Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

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