Social and political context
On 24th October 1929, the largest stock market crash in American history set the theme for the decade that followed, not only in the United States, but worldwide too. The 1930s were some of the darkest years in recent American history; the economic downfall named The Great Depression, caused unemployment across all social classes, leading to dire poverty.
While the aptly named ‘Roaring 20s’ had been an era of debauchery and prosperity, the 1930s could not have been any more different. At the turn of the new decade, more than 15 million people found themselves without a job. During the 1930s, there was no welfare state, causing a large percentage of families to lose their homes and turning to soup kitchens to feed themselves and their children. Not only was the economic situation of the time dire, but there were also a number of natural disasters that caused millions of people in the country, to abandon their farms and head towards the cities.
The newly elected President Roosevelt made many attempts to rectify the economic situation, creating jobs for the unemployed by commissioning bridges, roads and public buildings to be constructed. An early form of welfare was born, designed to help the elderly, children and the disabled. Despite these attempts, the Great Depression could not be quelled, and it lasted until the start of World War II in 1939.
In order to escape the harsh realities of this difficult decade, people turned to different sources of distraction. The radio, which was of course free to listen to was very popular, and people would listen to music, sport and radio shows. Despite the poverty of the time, people still managed to put enough money aside to go to the cinema as another means of escapism.
Women couldn’t afford beautiful clothes at the time and their day-to-day lives were surrounded by poverty and struggle, but they certainly enjoyed escaping reality and feeling engulfed in the glamorous life of the Hollywood actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
Fashion and desired silhouette
The fun-loving, light-hearted and slightly raunchy fashions of the late 1920s remained through most of 1930, but were soon replaced by a more conservative style of fashion. The effects of The Great Depression were very much reflected in certain aspects of ladies’ fashions, but the most prominent change was the length of skirts and dresses.
In 1924, the French fashion designer Jean Patou raised the hem lines of skirts and dresses to 18″ off the ground. By the late 1920s however, hemlines were already starting to get closer to the ground, and by the turn of the decade, mid-calf length skirts were the norm. This length was thought to be more practical and less wasteful than previous styles.
In contrast with the boyish shape of the 1920s fashions, there was a desire to look ‘womanly’. At the same time that hemlines were lowered, the waist-line was returned up to its natural position, in order to reintroduce a feminine silhouette. Through the mid-1930s, empire line dresses became popular, as well as wide shoulders which of course emphasised a small waist. Another method that was employed to emphasise the female form, was the use of the bias-cut in dresses, which was innovated by Madeleine Vionnet. This method was used to create sculptural dresses that hugged to the contours of the female form.
Another trend that started in the 1930s, and continued well into the 1960s was the ‘sweater girl’ look. The actress Lana Turner was one of the first sweater girls on the silver screen was Lana Turner in the 1937 movie ‘They Won’t Forget’. Her breasts were pushed up and out, under her form fitting sweater.
1930 – Hems were knee-length and drop-waisted. Very little distinction between the size of the waist and hips, breasts were not lifted and appeared flattened.
1931 – The waist on dresses came back up to the natural waistline, and belted styles appeared.
1932 – Much more feminine silhouettes started to appear. Hem lines dropped to mid-calf, belted fashioned remained, breasts became prominent again due to separate cups developed by Kestos.
1933-34 – Hemlines fell to the ankle and padded shoulders and ruffled sleeves drew attention to the chest and upper body.
1936 – Dresses and skirts began to get higher again.
1939 – Hemlines got higher yet and had inched back up to the knee, closing the decade just as it started off.
In the early to mid-1930s, hems had dropped significantly which had an effect on the rest of the silhouette. Attention was diverted away from the legs, and instead drawn to to the upper body, notably the chest.
During the previous decade, breasts were flattened and there was no real structure to brassieres, resulting in a boyish chest. However this all changed in the 1930s when the ‘lift and separate’ philosophy came into play.
An innovative underwear brand which had a major effect on the innovation of bras was Kestos. Kestos was founded in London in 1925 by the Polish-born designer Rosaline Kiln. She started playing around with two handkerchiefs, and eventually came up with several designs which, for the first time, lifted the bust and separated the breasts into individual cups.
Although the Kestos designs did not flaunt the breasts, they did provide much needed support to the wearer. Patterns evolved over time and became more complex as different stitching styles and darts were introduced. Many other brands followed suit and created their own versions of the Kestos bra, using quality cotton lace and net.
In 1934, Hollywood-Maxwell introduced “Whirlpool stitching”, which became the staple of bra designs for the next couple of decades that followed. Whirlpool stitching is concentric rings of topstitching which gave shape to the bra cups and stabilised them.
In 1935 cup sizes were first introduced – A, B, C and D. Bra band sizing that we use today (such as 36, 38 etc.) was also introduced. This method of bra sizing was originally devised by Formfit, then later adopted by Warner, and has subsequently stuck. Although custom bras were still very much available to women, the standardisation of bra sizing provided an affordable alternative for those with smaller budgets.
Below are some interesting, if not hilarious terms for the shape, relative firmness, and size of breasts that existed before standardised sizing:
- Egg cup
- Tea cup
- Coffee cup
- Challenge cup
In the 1930s, most foundations were custom made for the individual’s shape and requirements. Following the emancipation of women in the 1920s, many took up the role of door-to-door corsetiere, fitting women for their new foundations in their customers’ homes. Becoming a corsetiere meant that, during the tough times of the Great Depression, women could contribute to the household. Women were expected to wear appropriate foundations, regardless of their social status, so these sales women were always kept busy.
There were several brands that produced beautiful yet restrictive foundations, such as Spirella, Spencer, Berlei, and Camp, to name but a few.
The below images from 1930 show a lady being fitted for foundations. The middle photograph shows the garment that is used to fit the body, and the image on the right is the same lady modelling the finished garment.
Although foundation garments were predominantly bespoke, some ‘standard’ body types were identified and girdles were created to fit these shapes. The body type indicator, shown below, was a tool devised by Berlei to assist corsetieres to find the correct garment for their customers.
The Berlei body type indicator is clearly used in this 1930 advert (split by part 1 and part2):
The below image from a Spirella training manual shows a few of the usual shapes that were catered for (prolapsed organs, spinal curvature, maternity support, excessive abdominal flesh).
In the 1930s, girdles extended to slightly above waist to the under bust, and they emphasized curves of the figure by narrowing the waist as well as smoothing out the hips and buttocks.
The girdles were made up of predominantly non-stretch fabric, although some also had small stretchy panels to allow for movement. Flat and spring steel boning was still used and they were sewn into the girdles to provide support and to flatten out problem areas. Girdles also consisted of many buckles, straps and laces to keep everything tight and in place.
As all women in society wore such foundation garments, there were varying levels of quality, luxury and of course adornments. Women with more money to spend would request their underwear to be finished with satin, and would add intricate fan-lacing and fancy garter clips, whereas those with less money would have a basic style made up for them.
As hemlines were raised off the floor in the 20th century, it was necessary for women to cover their legs, in order to preserve their modesty.
Up until the invention of Nylon stockings, hosiery was made of silk or rayon, which were constructed as a single flat tissue and seamed at the back. These stockings also had decorative aspects to them, such as shaped heels or patterns.
Nylon stockings were not made available to the public until 1939, when Dupont released the first nylon fully-fashioned stocking. As such, this topic will be covered in detail in the 1940s post.
Sources (content and images):
‘Uplift: The Bra in America’ by Jane Farrell-Beck & Colleen Gau