The Great Depression and Women's Fashion

The stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the financial and economic collapse of the 1930s. America had not seen such widespread economic hardship since the 1870s. All aspects of culture, including women's fashion, reflected in diverse ways the impact of the Depression ethos.

The autumn 1930 Sears Roebuck Catalogue instructs its readers: "Thrift is the spirit of the day. Reckless spending is a thing of the past." Although styles were changing dramatically, many women chose to make their own clothes to save money. In the boom of the 1920s, some of the surplus wealth created in the stock market had found its way into the pockets of the middle classes. Upper middle class women could afford the occasional high-fashion gown like the Callot Soeurs gown below.

Callot Soeurs gown

Callot Soeurs couture dress of black silk with bands of gold lamé, c.1924, sold by Vintage Textile. The design of the dress was inspired by the craze for Orientalism in all the decorative arts.

By 1932, the Roaring 1920s was ancient history. Economics is the main reason for the relative abundance of vintage clothing from the 1920s vs. the 1930s. Much less fine clothing was created in the 1930s in contrast to the abundant production during the prior decade.

During the 1930s, fashion trends were driven by more than practical economy. A different and seemingly contrary impulse had a powerful effect—the yearning for the unattainable, for the lost world of the 1920s, in short for glamor, the key concept in 1930s high style clothing.

A stylish upper middle class woman could no longer expect to purchase a Worth couture gown like this one.

Worth evening gown

Worth couture evening gown of sequined tulle with asymmetrical floral spray design, plunging neckline, and back train, c.1930.

 Hollywood gown

Glamorous sequined, backless evening gown, c.1930.

Hollywood turned out dazzling, glitzy movies to appeal to the public's need for escapist fare. On the silver screen were wealth and glamor; outside the theatre was the grim reality of bankruptcies and breadlines.

George Orwell wrote in 1937 that the one thing since the war that made the greatest difference in the otherwise dreary outlook of Depression-era youth was the movies. "The girl who leaves school and gets a dead-end job can still look like a fashion-plate for a pittance. You may have pennies in your pocket and not a prospect in the world, and only the corner of a leaky bedroom to go home to; but in your new clothes, you can stand on the street corner, indulging in a private daydream of yourself as Marlene Dietrich..."

Charles James gown

Marlene Dietrich, wearing a Charles James satin gown, c.1934.