“It’s no longer smart to be chic … The new mode is casual, bold, chunky, and realistic.”
~ Vogue, 1936
The 1930s was a turbulent decade, to say the least. The market crash in 1929 which brought about The Great Depression left many people destitute. Those who had already been on the margins were left to scrap and scrape and hope they didn’t starve.
All of my grandparents survived The Depression, though I do wonder how sometimes. My maternal grandmother, who is 93 now, tells the story of how their family lived on a bank-owned plot of land in Oklahoma when she was a girl. Her parents couldn’t keep up on their payments, so guys from the bank came and took whatever they could find of value. This included the family’s only milking cow. Even decades later, my grandmother can vividly recall watching the men lead their cow away, leaving her to wonder–at a very young age–how they were going to survive. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was fiction but not because the things he wrote about didn’t happen. It was a rough time for a lot of people. (Side note: If you haven’t read The Grapes of Wrath, I highly recommend it.)
When the Market Crashed, Fashion Hit a Fork in the Road
The fascinating thing to me about fashion in the 1930s was how creativity flourished in spite of the tough times. Two camps with opposite perspectives grew out of the 1930s and it could be argued that those two branches continue to flourish in their own way today.
There was the New York side, which “embodied the nation’s values,” according to the book Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. This side focused on ready-to-wear styles that were mixed and matched and transitioned from one occasion to another. In more abundant times, women changed outfits several times a day.
And then there was the Hollywood camp, which embraced over-the-top glitz and glamour. I’ll cover Hollywood’s influence on fashion in later posts, but it’s important to have a sense for what they were up to during that time, especially since the two camps were at such extremes.
There were some Hollywood superstars who seemed to side with the “little people,” at least when it came to fashion. Katharine Hepburn was one. Of all the actresses I studied for the 1930s, she seemed most at home in styles that were less glitzy. Even with such a practical style, she managed to pull off glamour in her own way. She embodied what Vogue meant when they wrote in 1936:
“It’s no longer smart to be chic….
The new mode is casual, bold, chunky, and realistic.”
Emulating Katharine Hepburn’s Classic Style
Katharine Hepburn’s style is, in my mind, classic. Don’t get me wrong — I adore the fashions of the frillier, drape-ier, fancier ladies from that era, and I hope to do their styles justice in future posts. But many of the outfits Katharine wore can be refashioned for today, whereas it’s more difficult to do that with some of those floor-length beauties worn by Joan Crawford and the like.
I chose this photo of Katherine to emulate because of its timeless elegance. She paired a simple black dress with a novelty-printed blazer that cinched at the waist and a pair of adorable polkadot sandals. All these elements are considered fairly classic today but they are also special to the 1930s:
- Cinched waist
- The combination of black and white
- Novelty and geometric prints and polkadots
Below is my version of Katharine’s outfit. As you can see, it’s incredibly similar and has all the same elements, but it doesn’t look like I’m wearing a costume from that decade.
My modern take on Katharine’s look starts with an Eileen Fisher “Lantern” tank dress. That’s layered with a lacy Nanette Lepore blazer and an Eileen Fisher suede obi belt.
The dress bows in at the hem, which gives it a unique shape. The jersey it’s made out of of drapes comfortably and moves with me when I walk. I’ve had this dress for several years but rarely wear it. (See last week’s Fab Collab with Jodie at JTouchofStyle.com for an explanation on why.) Given my newfound enjoyment of casual dresses, though, I think I’ll put this into my regular rotation as summer continues to heat up.
The jacket is a thrifted treasure I found at Elite Repeat in Saint Paul, Minnesota when I visited there in May. Lace is another one of those details I rarely wore before I started this blog and met people like Jodie who encouraged/gently challenged me to try new things. As it turns out, I kind of like lace, especially when it doesn’t itch and it comes in such a unique geometric pattern.
Another reason I chose to pair this jacket with the dress is because it has a kicky little pleat on the back, which gives the whole outfit a touch more shape and interest, especially after I added the black suede obi belt.
The shoes are Eileen Fisher as well — a bargain I found on eBay.
Not only does this outfit reflect some of the trends from the 1930s, it also kind of embodies the spirit of frugality and practicality from the day. The dress and belt were originally purchased at full price, but they are items that last and don’t go out of style. They’re investment pieces. The jacket and shoes were thrifted, which is my way of saving money and reusing something that is in perfectly good shape but which would otherwise go into a landfill. I like that.
Given everything that was happening in the 1930s, I think I’m going to enjoy playing in that decade for a while. The glamour from the 1920s was still around, but it was mostly in Hollywood and wasn’t accessible to the majority of people. Yet, planted in the ground of austerity, creativity took root and showed up in unique ways. Some of the ideas that were unique then are considered classic now. The idea of exploring both of these creative extremes makes me a little giddy. I hope you’ll join me for the ride!
Shop This Look:
1930s Austerity Playlist:
For this playlist, I chose songs that reflected the tough times people faced during The Depression, as well as their resilient spirits. Although these are modern renditions of the songs, each one was a major hit in its day, sung by people like Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louie Armstrong.
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