Creating the Look of 1930s Fashion in Today's World: Tips and Struggles

 I've been involved with theatre in one way or another my whole life. I started out acting, singing and dancing as a small child and as a teenager explored costume designing. After high school, I entered an intense theatre technology conservatory college program and I now hold a BFA with a concentration in Costume Technology. I went on to work in a couple of well known broadway costume shops in the city before the economy took it's toll on theatre and I found myself out of a job. What all that means is, I can MAKE any article of clothing from scratch, no problem, but that usually requires quite a bit of time and money. So when I agreed to come back to my dad's little community theatre and be costume designer for this summer, I had a lot of "thinking outside the box" to do to recreate the look of the upperclass 1930s with a tiny budget, a few week's time, and very un-30s-like bodies. Not exactly what I'd gotten used to over the last six years.

Let's start with things you can't control: the size and shape of a person's body. Back in the thirties, it was extremely rare to see someone even slightly overweight. Older men had been in WWI and older women had spent their childhoods in corsets. Even though that was 20 years earlier, eating habits hadn't drastically changed and the primary way of getting around was still walking. Now, let's take a look at today's bodies....I'm not judging. Trust me. I'm no size 2 either. Objectively speaking, though, the average adult today is about twice the size of the average adult then. Right away this means there will have to be changes to the style. You'll have to incorporate elastic waistbands, gathers, tent dresses that tie around the waist instead of the extremely slim, non stretch, fitted and darted to perfection, dresses they wore then.

Menswear of the time was very put together looking. They almost always wore suits, either double breasted, or a three-piece suit. They weren't afraid of color or mixing patterns and in the spring and summer, they put away their brown, black and navy colored suits, for ones in the white, cream, beige range. Shirts, socks, and ties were a variety of colors and didn't even have to be matchy matchy. For example, I've seen photos of men wearing solid navy pants, pinstriped vest, green shirt, and a patterned tie. The variety of the suits makes it easier to find nowadays. The pants were generally pleated and cuffed which is common enough. The shoes either had spats, or were wing tipped and in a neutral color like black, brown, tan, etc.

Women's clothing is a bit more complicated. One thing that makes it easier is that styles repeat themselves every few decades or so. It's lucky enough for us that the 90s were pretty similar to the 30s. They both have the blousey top cinched in at the NATURAL waist. I emphisize natural waist because it's a constant battle to convince people where their waist is. It is at or slightly above your belly button or at the bottom of your ribcage, if that's easier. It is the smallest part of your midsection. This is where skirts should be worn from and where to tie your belt. Women were VERY matchy matchy. They had the dress, belt, jacket, hat, shoes, purse, gloves, etc. all match. Jackets were generally down below the hip bone with a wide ish belt at the waist. The most common shape of the skirt was gore shaped, usually with a little extra "kick" at the bottom almost forming a bell shape. That meant that it hugged the woman's curves through the hips and thighs and swung out with a little flare around the calves. These types of articles of clothing are easily found in thrift stores nowadays or, depending on your age, in the back of your closet. If you're the average sized person, go ahead and wear an A-line skirt with an elastic waistband. But try tucking the blouse in and putting a wide belt over the waist to hide the elastic. Also, rip those shoulder pads right out of everything. I mean everything. Shoulder pads are a thing of the 80s and I'm confident that detail will not come back in style. The thirties was about appearing as slender and put together as possible. Fancy collars were a big deal back then as well. Most dresses had lace or a handkerchief around the neck. For more formal type dresses, they got more creative. The designs were commonly asymetrical and decorative cutouts in the back were popular. Flutter sleeves work for day or night, then and now. They are always flattering no matter how big or small you are.

Hair was always "done". Men, had a side part and gelled, usually with a slight wave. Women, were growing out their bobs from the twenties. Their hair was commonly to about their shoulders and they spent hours putting finger waves in. I spent a lot of time lamenting over those finger waves and trying to figure out how I was going to achieve this look for the show when I discovered a wonderful hair tool called a 3-barrel waver. Many different companies make them and they vary in price and size. It looks like a complicated curling iron but it's super quick and easy to use. If you have particularly long hair you can either get a jumbo waver and have that glamorous sexy "Jessica Rabbit hair" as I like to call it. A deep side part with one big wave slightly covering one eye. Or, you can use a regular waver with a side part and then make a VERY loose, low bun. From the front it'll look like you have typical 30s hair and from the side and back it's still 30s but with an elegant, modern element. At the time, men and women wore hats with every outfit. Men took their's off indoors but women never removed them when out and about. If you're making a costume, I recommend wearing the hats. If you're just trying to put an outfit together, the hats are a nice touch, particularly fedoras for men, but women, you will probably want to remove yours inside to show off your hair.

As for make up, it was subtle. Typically a discreet line of liquid liner and a pale flesh toned eyeshadow. To do it up more, false eyelashes were fairly common. To get really specific, eyebrows were a shade darker then natural and were rounded rather than arched.

When I first started researching for this show, I was a bit overwhelmed but the style then compared to body types and budget. The more I got into it though, the more I found I could cut corners, and make slight alterations here and there to achieve a similar look. I hope you found this helpful. Any questions or comments are more than welcome.

Examples taken from google images

Click thumbnail to view full-size
average hairstyle for womenaverage hairstyle for menmen's suitswomen's eveningwearexample of men's tieswomen's daywearstyle for women with long hair
average hairstyle for women
average hairstyle for women
average hairstyle for men
average hairstyle for men
men's suits
men's suits
women's eveningwear
women's eveningwear
example of men's ties
example of men's ties
women's daywear
women's daywear
style for women with long hair
style for women with long hair

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Comments 4 comments

Romy 6 years ago

thanks for the details on 1930s costumes; i'm doing my second show set in this era and am grateful for your perspective and tips.


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Arabbitt84 6 years ago from Fort Myers Author

you're welcome! let me know if you have any questions or come across any problems.


Jeanne Grunert profile image

Jeanne Grunert 2 years ago from Virginia

Excellent hub! I enjoyed learning about my favorite decade's fashions. Now I have an action plan to recreate them. Thanks!


Gigi 8 months ago

Very helpful analysis and suggestions. I'm working on a high school show set in the period and your advice is very doable. I will have my teenage costume crew read your post!

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