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Correspondence: 1930s for Special Occasions

I’ve been friends with American Magpie for 24 years! It was delightful to hear from her when she got in touch to ask  about vintage style for special occasions.

I would like to start the process of amassing some wardrobe pieces in a 1930s style (dresses, mainly). I’m looking for fairly simple ones, not high fashion examples of the genre, but ones with a nice drape that show off my, um, hour-glassiness, to good advantage. I’m really not a dress-up person – work clothes are mainly dark trousers, a nice blouse and a scarf, and I grub around in gardens and on hiking trails enough that casual clothes are still jeans and tshirts. But on occasion I do like to dress up and I prefer the simple dress, seamed stockings, hat and a coat look to more contemporary styles. Can you recommend places (on line, preferably) where I could look for clothes like these? I suspect it would be much easier if I could just make them myself, but I don’t have a sewing machine, or a room (or a table,even) to devote to learning how to do this. Maybe down the road, but not now … so I’m looking to buy things ready-made. Any ideas?

Hi hon, oooh, the 1930s look! So lovely, so troublesome…the 1930s were when modernism really hit its stride sartorially, and fabric prints and tailoring veered off in lots of quirky directions. Personally, with my curves, I am a 1940s gal. But if you want the 1930s, then by the Goddess, you shall have it. It just so happens that here in New Zealand, we are coming up on Art Deco weekend in Napier, and so lots of us here in the Antipodes will be getting their 1930s on as well.

This is a good website to just get ideas about the 30s look: Fashion-Era.

And here’s another one: Giant Pants of the 30s.

In the 1930s you would have day dresses – a range of dresses or outfits worn during the daytime – and, if you were so lucky, evening dress. Day dresses had hemlines between the knee and the calf, most of the time – the flapper’s naughty hemlines were over – usually had sleeves, and were often accesorized with a hat and gloves. Smart suits were also worn during the day, made of fabrics from wool crepe to tweed. Chanel got started with her suits in the 1930s. Evening dress was made of more glamorous fabrics, and accessorized with jewelry, long gloves, and corsages. I’ve had a long, bias-cut, 30sish black evening dress in my wardrobe for 20 years. It still fits (just!) and still gets worn.

Blog inspiration can be found at SammyD’s Vintage (overview with hints), Kitty’s Vintage Kitsch (tutorial!) and The Dreamstress. I shared The Dreamstress’ “Gran’s Garden” 1930s dress with American Magpie, who said it was just the thing, but that she couldn’t sew.

Now, where to find these looks ready-made? To evoke a 1930s garden party for under $75 US,  my #1 recommendation is going to be hitting up consignment stores or eBay. Tea-length floral silk/rayon dresses and tea-length skirts, bias-cut or pleated, are not at the top of the fashion hit parade at the moment, which means consignment/eBay is a great source. Vintage Coldwater Creek and Liz Claiborne, in rayon or silk, often has lovely 1930sish lines. There was an Art Deco revival in the 1970s, so to find ’70s vintage that looks ’30s, search on “does 30s” or “does 1930s” to find 70s-does-30s and 80s-does-30s styles.

A range of EBay finds: Laura Ashley, Karen Millen, and Stop Staring.

A range of 30sish EBay finds: Laura Ashley “day dress”, Karen Millen evening dress, and Stop Staring dress that could be day or evening.

If you want to spend between $100 and $200 US, there’s a site called Trashy Diva that does ravishing retro dresses, and their Obi dress, on sale now, has a great 30s-like line. I am happy to vouch for their fabrics and say that this would be a fab investment special occasion dress, flexible for all kinds of events. Looking around, I also found some appealing, well-priced reproduction 30s and 40s dresses at Stop Staring, Heyday, and ModCloth. And, of course, there are custom vintage reproduction dresses galore on Etsy – their 1930s selection seems skewed towards cotton daywear. I recommend Heart My Closet, especially the Ivy, Darcy, or Serena pencil dresses. Because they are custom made you can request a tea-length skirt, which takes them to the 1930s.  The Dreamstress also takes commissions, if her schedule allows.

We tend to focus on dresses, for some reason – we’re all in love with the idea of the magic dress – so I encourage you to consider top/skirt combinations. If you have curves, it can be far easier to find a great-fitting top/skirt combination than it is to find a bias-cut dress that fits just right. For a true 30s look, necklines were high, and most blouses had some sleeve.

Would have been worn during the day with hat and gloves.

1930s skirt ensembles from a pattern.

For some retro-flavored tops and skirts, here’s a stealth source: Pendleton! The Tuck it Up, Tie Front, and double-breasted blouses look great to me.  (I find vintage Pendleton on eBay less appealing than their new stuff,) I also love this tie-neck knit top from Talbots. Both Pendleton and Talbots have lots of petites, recommended because I know American Magpie is, like me, petite in height.

Why are you not going to the Pendleton web site right now?

Strikingly retro Pendleton tops from their current sale.

Shoes and accessories can take clean-lined contemporary clothes in a vintage direction. How about investing in some vintage 30s jewelry – such as Bakelite bangles, Czech glass necklaces, paired rhinestone dress clips, brooches for coats or dress/blouse lapels, Trifari costume jewelry, rock crystal necklaces. The 1930s were not one of the great jewelry eras, due to the Depression, so I’d add 1920s and Art Nouveau necklaces and bracelets to the mix. Pearls have never been more affordable thanks to Chinese pearl farmers (eBay, Fire Mountain Gems, your favorite local bead store). Rennie Mackintosh silver, and silver and marcasite jewelry, are also perfect for the Art Deco look.

To avoid overdoing it with gloves, hats, jewelry, scarves, costume jewelry, etc. when they were all worn more frequently, a lady would get dressed, put on her acessories, and then take one accessory off. Also, for a true 1930s look, stick with smooth body-toned hosiery, possibly with seams. Fishnets were trampy back then!

Lastly there’s yet another Art Deco revival happening out there – you can thank the upcoming Great Gatsby movie for that – so I would look in your favorite stores this season for Art Deco-flavored tops to team with skirts or Giant Pants.

I know I just recommended this book in another recent post, but I Capture the Castle has a lot of commentary about women’s clothing in the 1930s. It’s also a great story that you can share with your stepdaughter.

Coda: After more conversation, and an exchange of photographs and measurements,  I mailed American Magpie a vintage silk dress that was waiting patiently in my closet, in an international clothes swap. Here’s a picture of the dress. The long lines, ditsy print, and fine chiffon ruffles give it a 1930s feel.

30sish dress

A 30s-ish dress that’s about 10 years old. Silk chiffon/light crepe, with pearl shell buttons.