ew people living in the booming 1920s could have predicted that the fifteen-year period starting in 1930 would be one of the most difficult times of the entire twentieth century. Yet these fifteen years are now so closely associated with two sustained historical events, the Great Depression (1929-41) and World War II (1939-45), that we can think of little else that mattered during these years. These events gripped the entire world, with ten years of economic hardship capped by six years of a bloody war that touched nearly every part of the globe. Given these important events, it is hard to remember that the 1930s and early 1940s were also a time of real innovations in popular culture, technology, and government. Both the difficulties and the triumphs of this period were reflected in the fashions of the time.
The Great Depression
In late October of 1929 the world's largest stock market, the New York Stock Exchange, endured its biggest crash, or decline in the value of stocks, in history. This crash ended what had been a sustained boom in the economies of the United States, the world's most powerful country, and the rest of the Western world. What began as a simple dip in stock prices soon grew much worse, as the
world's economies spiraled downward into what would be the greatest economic depression in modern history. Factories closed, people lost their jobs and homes, and millions of people grew so desperate that they faced starvation. As the economic troubles endured for year after year, this time became known as the Great Depression.
The Depression affected the United States and Europe quite differently. The situation was desperate in the United States, where thirteen million people were unemployed and a terrible drought in the nation's agricultural area reduced food supplies and drove thousands off their land. Yet the people of the United States came together to combat the Depression. The government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) created a set of programs, known as the New Deal, that helped protect people from the worst effects of the Depression and provided jobs for millions. The New Deal greatly expanded the power of government, which many found disturbing, but it is widely credited with helping the United States avoid the internal turmoil that tore Europe apart.
Trouble in Europe leads to war
The economies of Europe were closely tied to the United States, and the Depression that began in the United States soon hit Europe as well. European politicians failed to devise programs to guide their countries safely through the Depression. Instead, Europe's major powers fell back on the habits of mistrust and blame that had led them into war in the past, most recently World War I (1914—18). In Germany especially, resentments over the way their country had been treated after World War I helped fuel the rise of the Nazi Party, a party led by Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) that favored a strong, military government and was based in extreme national pride as well as racism and anti-Semitism, or hatred toward Jews. Hitler blamed other countries and Jewish people for the troubles in his country. He convinced the German people to follow him in his desperate quest to conquer the world, and in 1939 he began to invade the neighboring countries of Poland and Czechoslovakia.
Germany's aggression in 1939 soon brought the other major European powers, England and France, into the war. Just as in World War I, the conflict soon drew in the rest of the world. Russia soon joined with England and France. Allying itself with Germany, Japan tried to seize power in eastern Asia, and it attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, in 1941. Soon the United States entered the war as well, on the side of the English, French, and Russians. Many other countries also became involved.
For nearly six years countries fought in bloody battles across Europe, in the Pacific, and in Africa. Millions died and millions more were driven from their homes. Entire countries directed their efforts to winning the war, building ships, tanks, planes, and guns. These efforts ended the economic decline that had gripped the world through the 1930s. Finally in 1945 the Germans were defeated in Europe and the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing their surrender. There was no simple way to count the costs or assess the benefits of victory in this disastrous conflict, though the victorious countries prided themselves on having made the world safe for democracy, or social equality, and defeating the evil dictator Adolf Hitler.
It is tempting to view the 1930s and early 1940s in entirely negative terms, defined as they are by depression and war. Yet there were real elements of hope and progress throughout this period. In the United States especially, popular entertainment flowered as never before as people were looking for things to take their minds off of their troubles. The 1930s were Hollywood's Golden Age, and motion picture studios produced some of their most interesting and entertaining films of all time. Hollywood stars and starlets came to
During the 1920s and 1930s, with the rise in popularity of Hollywood movies, screen idols became role models for the masses. Most major fashion trends no longer were dictated only by the top Paris-based fashion houses. The clothes and hairstyles worn by glamorous movie stars, both on and off the screen, grabbed the attention of American and European moviegoers and launched countless fashion fads.
The influence of Hollywood on fashion began during the silent film era, which ended in the late 1920s. Pola Negri (c. 1894-1987), a popular actress of the 1920s, purchased white satin shoes that she had dyed to match her outfits. Once this was publicized, women by the thousands followed her lead. Clara Bow (1905-1965), another silent screen star, helped to popularize bobbed hair, sailor pants, and pleated skirts. Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) made fashionable high-heeled shoes decorated with imitation pearls and rhinestones.
Hollywood costume designers played a crucial role in dictating fashion trends. Between 1928 and 1941, Gilbert Adrian (1903-1959) headed the costume department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, then the most prestigious Hollywood movie studio. Not only did Adrian create the signature styles of the studio's top actresses, but he launched various fashion crazes. One was the popularity of the gingham dress, a cotton fabric dress featuring a checked or striped pattern, which he designed for Judy Garland (19221969) to wear in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and for Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Another famous Hollywood designer was Hubert de Givenchy (1927-), who was a favorite of influential actress Audrey Hepburn and dressed her in such movies as Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Sabrina (1954), and Funny Face (1957).
Outfits worn in movies were quickly copied by retailers. A woman who found a dress or gown worn in a movie appealing could purchase a low-priced copy in a department store or from a Sears catalog. Magazines published clothing patterns based on film costumes, allowing women to sew their own Hollywood-style frocks. The era's most favored pattern reportedly was a dress worn by Vivien Leigh (1913-1967) in a picnic scene in Gone with the Wind (1939), one of the era's most popular and publicized movies.
Individual performers became associated with clothes or hairstyles that became their trademarks. In the early 1930s sultry Jean Harlow (191 1 — 1937) was famed for her platinum blonde hair, which was a very light, almost-white blonde color. In fact, Platinum Blonde (1931) was the title of one of her early film successes. The platinum blonde effect was achieved by bleaching the hair. When Harlow ascended to stardom, women began coloring their hair in order to copy her look. In the 1940s Veronica Lake (1919-1973), a rising star, launched a trend by wearing her hair in peek-a-boo bangs, with her long blonde locks falling over one eye. Dorothy Lamour (1914-
be the era's greatest celebrities and some of its most important fashion trendsetters. The popularity of sports also grew, with boxing and baseball leading the way. American musicians grew more confident and creative; composers such as Aaron Copland (1900—1990) and George Gershwin (1898—1937) gained international fame, and jazz music grew more sophisticated and interesting. The 1930s also saw the birth of detective novels and comic books.
1996) popularized the sarong, a one-piece, wraparound garment worn primarily as a skirt or dress, when she played the exotically beautiful title character in The Jungle Princess (1936).
If Harlow, Lake, and Lamour represented sex appeal, child star Shirley Temple (1928—) personified sweetness and innocence. During the mid-1 930s Temple enjoyed a run as the movie industry's number-one box office star. Mothers dressed their daughters like Temple and styled their hair to copy her trademark ringlet curls. No little girl's toy chest was complete without a Shirley Temple doll, of which over six million were sold. Meanwhile, the great popularity of cowboy movies, particularly among the young, hiked the sales of western-style shirts for adults as well as children.
Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo (1905-1990), and Marlene Dietrich (c. 1901-1992) were strong-willed personalities, both on and off the screen. Each preferred wearing trousers at a time when females were expected to convey their womanliness by donning dresses and skirts. Hepburn's, Garbo's, and Dietrich's choice of attire communicated to women that they neither would squander away their femininity nor be any less appealing to men if they chose pants over dresses.
Occasionally what stars chose not to wear had a major impact on fashion trends. In the early 1930s men commonly wore undershirts. Then Clark Gable (1901-1960), one of the era's top stars and most influential male icons, appeared in It Happened One Night (1934). At one point
in the film Gable brashly removes his shirt, revealing his bare chest. He was not wearing an undershirt. After the release of It Happened One Night, undershirt sales across the United States plummeted by a reported 75 percent. Films and film stars continue to influence fashion trends to the present day.
Other advances of the period are also worthy of note. In medicine, advances in medication allowed for much more effective treatment of infectious diseases, and the development of X rays revolutionized the way doctors viewed the human body. Technological innovations brought the world faster airplanes and trains, bigger dams that allowed for the creation of more electricity, taller skyscrapers, and—with tragic consequences—bigger and more powerful weapons of destruction. The year 1939 also saw the introduction of the device that would change entertainment in the second half of the twentieth century: the television.
For the very wealthy, the 1930s were a liberating, energizing time. While the masses struggled, the rich enjoyed fancy cars and yachts, travel, and rich clothes and accessories. Wealthy women traveled to Paris, France, and gladly paid thousands of dollars for dresses designed by prestigious designers. Wealthy men flocked to Savile Row in London, England, to have their suits custom made. Both men and women increasingly wore looser, more comfortable clothes for their daily activities, pioneering the idea of leisure clothes. Though their fashion choices were beyond the reach of the vast majority of people, the tastes of the rich filtered down into the fashions of the 1930s and early 1940s.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Feinstein, Stephen. The 1930s: From the Great Depression to the Wizard of Oz. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2001.
Feinstein, Stephen. The 1940s: From World War II to Jackie Robinson. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2000.
Hills, Ken. The 1940s. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaugh, 1992.
Press, Petra. The 1930s. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1999.
Schraff, Anne E. The Great Depression and the New Deal: America's Economic Collapse and Recovery. New York: F. Watts, 1990.
Was this article helpful?