Seeing as we are entering the hotter months, I thought this summery 1930s afternoon frock was an apt garment to bring up from the archives.
It is an extremely cheery design of white cotton printed with a repeating pattern of floral sprigs. A red binding encircles the collar and the waist, and ties at the back of the neck. The dress is full length and flares out from the pleated inserts in the skirt. It is slim fitting, but would stretch to accommodate the wearer’s body, due to the elastic smocking in the skirt and the popper fastenings in the side of the bodice. The lightness of the fabric and the brightness of the pattern make it the perfect summer’s frock but most striking of all are the enormous pointed sleeves that elevate this ordinary garment into the exciting realms of Hollywood (more on this later…)
The 1930s silhouette
So what era do we position this dress in?
Whilst we associate the 1920s with the lifting of hemlines, flappers, jazz age and the modern young woman, the 1930s saw a return to more conventional femininity, with the dropping of the hemline and the re-introduction of the waist, all attributes we can see in this garment.
The idealised 1930s silhouette was slim, svelte and long-limbed and our garment’s floor-skimming length would have made it the perfect garment to show of a gamine frame. In an era of growing body worship, movements such as the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, founded in 1930, encouraged healthy lifestyles and exercise and diet were increasingly used to shape the body.
This is not to say that body-shaping underwear was not worn. With the invention of the revolutionary rubber fibre Lastex in 1929 corsets could be less cumbersone and roll-on girdles were made to ensure a smoother line in the more form-fitting sinuous garments.
Shown above are examples of underwear from our archives. You can see an early 1920s cotton camisole, there is no shaping of the bust and this suits the boyish silhouette of this time. Following this, is a lace shaped brassiere from the 1930s, you can see how the bust began to be separated and became more prominent in fashion.
Also shown is an advertisement for Hickory Zip Girdles, from the US film magazine Photoplay. It shows the common undergarment of the era, but with a zip, although invented in the 1890s the zip truly entered fashion in the 1930s, sometimes becoming an aesthetic feature in their own right.
Undergarment’s were important foundations to any outfit and this dress would have been worn with a long slip underneath, otherwise the transparency of the light cotton would have caused quite the scandal…
Dressing for the occasion
The new active woman was reflected in the practical daywear of tailored suits and smart, simple fashions which were also telling of the economic hardships that plagued the decade following the Great Depression. But there was still a sense of dressing for the occasion, with stark differences between evening wear and daywear. Of course, having an outfit for each social event would be the reserve of the moneyed elite, who could update their wardrobe for the summer season of Henley, Ascot and Wimbledon through patronising the London outfitters of Amies, Hartnell and Stiebel, or if one was extremely wealthy they would go to Paris for their clothing. But there were over ways of ‘keeping up appearances’ for the less well off. Ready-to-wear companies such as Dorville interpreted Paris fashions which was a slightly cheaper alternative.
However, our dress is not a London-made high-end garment. Firstly, there is no internal label marking it as a ready-to-wear design and the mediocre finish of the dress points to it being homemade, or made by a dressmaker. But let’s not disregard this dress entirely! it would have been the perfect accompaniment to summer parties and events and there is much more than meets the eye…
What does Joan Crawford and our afternoon frock have in common?
When I laid the dress out flat in the archive I tried to visualise it worn on the body. I was sure with its flattering length and pleated skirt it would give the illusion of height and elegance. But most important of all, when worn the sleeves would have projected outwards in spiky, triangular shards. Their size would be exaggerated even more by the slim-line silhouette of the dress. Although, I am aware these type of shoulders were present in 1930s fashion, I couldn’t help but make a connection to a Hollywood costume of the 1930s, with similarly striking sleeves- the ‘Letty Lynton’ gown designed by Adrian. Studying Fashion and Dress History my tutors were always keen to play down the impact of Hollywood on British fashion, which is often exaggerated. But sometimes it can be interesting to explore these little routes of inspiration!
The Great Hollywood Marketing Machine
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the powerhouses of MGM, 20th century Fox and Warner Brothers all had their own fashion designers, Gilbert Adrian, or Adrian as he was known worked on over 250 films for MGM. He can be credited for one of the most distinctive cinematic looks in the 1930s- Joan Crawford’s ‘Letty Lynton’ gown of 1932. This frothy organdie gown had enormous ruffled sleeves and a fluted flowing skirt, it was the apogee of Hollywood, something that was a bigger, better and bolder version of everyday life. Adrian himself is said to have thought the gown far too over the top but the dress wowed audiences and the press alike and suited the films dramatic tale of murder, lies and revenge with Crawford as the femme fatale.
The gown spawned many copies, supposedly becoming a sell out in the US department store Macys. It is hard to escape from the parallels between our dress’s sleeves and Adrian’s exuberant creation. Would it be presumptive to connect our dress with Crawford’s? Although with any speculations, we have to be careful in assuming the original wearer’s mindset I think it is fair to say this was dress was if not directly inspired by, was in some way influenced by the epoch of Hollywood inspiring a slice of glamour in everyday life.
Excitingly, to coincide with the release of Letty Lynton the American fan magazine Photoplay gave behind the scenes access to Adrian’s studio. The photos show seamstresses (in slightly contrived positions!) stitching Adrian’s designs at worktables. Like a couture salon each garment is mocked up first as a toile (a cotton prototype of a finished piece) to ensure any irregularities were ironed out before the screen-ready dress was created. As a household name Crawford could not be inconvenienced with endless fittings, so Adrian possessed a mannequin specially moulded to Crawford’s measurements. The finished dress would then be created using the expensive fabric and tried on by Joan.
The Hollywood machine was a profitable business that generated not just films but a whole industry that sold an aspirational lifestyle. Young moviegoers could attend the cinema, not just for escapism, but to see the latest fashions and companies were keen to profit. It is highly likely that the wearer of this gown was a cinemagoer, it being a popular leisure activity at the time. If the dress was worn at Southend at the time there would have been plenty of screens from which to choose from, with cinemas across the borough.
The cinema wasn’t the only source of inspiration and publications such as Film Fashionland burst with fashion and beauty tips and interviews with the latest screen stars. Shown below is a spread from Photoplay in 1935, this is blatant commercialisation with stars being paid to pose with the latest desirable products, but is not dissimilar from today’s mass marketing of celebrity culture.
In some cases, magazines provided paper patterns of movie outfits and in American department stores shoppers could purchase cheaper ready-made outfits of what they saw on screen. Shown below are two evening gowns modelled by the American starlets Helen Vinson and Claudette Corbet, these gowns could be purchased at certain American retailers. Yet does our afternoon dress have similar links to the sprawling spread of Hollywood?
It is possible the wearer wanted to emulate Crawford. Although this dress is not on the scale of an Adrian creation, for the wearer and maker of this dress it would have felt like a bespoke creation and the large sleeves were an original way to transform a simple dress into a showstopper. Unfortunately, with no records of the original owner, we can only speculate, but I think it’s quite a nice speculation nonetheless, to imagine how a small piece of Hollywood glamour was created through some rather outlandish but nonetheless fabulous sleeves.
By Iona Farrell