I’ve been in a rut the past two years. Not a bad one but a limiting one. Since the 1950s have many happy associations for me I am very drawn to the fashions of this era. I’ve become familiar with the structured clothing and ways in which the sheath dresses and skirts were contoured. I’m used to working with the support needed for blouses and necklines, along with darts and seams that emphasize a curvy figure. Which is all great for 1950s inspiration.
What’s happening is that I see I’m still clinging to some of that as I work out my dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma. It’s only by actually draping, trying out the different techniques and making the alterations that I realize the following about 1930s fashions:
- There was much less structure and interfacings used.
- Finishings had to be lightweight, too.
- The entire thrust of a design was to wear it and see it in motion.
- The static tubular silhouette of the 1920s was left aside in favor of one that emphasized the female form in action, graceful, fluid action that set the frills, ruffles, flounces and godets into motion.
- Even walking across a room could make a woman look divine if the capelet collars, flounces and ruffles were in a lightweight fabric.
So how do I get it into my sub-conscious that the 1930s was not the post-Dior New Look Era where women wore waspies, bullet bras and dresses shaped with many vertical and horizontal darts?
The answer that came to me was: “Go to the movies!” And so I did that over the weekend. I’m strictly using Pre-Code Hollywood films for this study for many reasons. One is that there is a more down-to-earth quality in some films and in most there is a direct presentation of issues that seem familiar today. Some ways in which Pre-Code Hollywood films presented topics like marriage and children were very in-your-face in showing things such as a young couple strapped for cash not really wanting their first baby or a woman being an unrepentant schemer and doing well at rising up in the world. The Hayes Code came into being after certain civic and religious groups put themselves in the place of moral authorities and decided that the Pre-Code films with strong, smart talking, successful women and the none-too-obvious play between the sexes (and sometimes same sex relationships, too!) were a danger to civilization. The result was a heavy handed censorship on expression that was not removed from film making until the 1960s.
The second reason why I’m watching so many Pre-Code movies is for the clothing. Yes, despite some of these films being lesser known and small budget productions, the actors and actresses are dressed very well. Here are screen shots from two films I recommend seeing just for the clothes alone. The stories are very melodramatic in a soap-opera fashion but they pass an hour or so enjoyably so long as you don’t let the endings get to you. Even Pre-Code films take their strong, witty leading female characters and have them melting from love and yearning for marriage at the end.
What follows are screen shots from two movies I think are worth seeing for the purpose of studying the fashions.
Sally Ellers stars as the so called “Bad Girl” of this story but I failed to see how she was bad. I loved her wise-cracking, self-assured manner in the first 15 minutes of the film. Also the footage of Coney Island is real and a glimpse into Brooklyn in 1931. I recommend the beginning for that and the costumes Sally wears. The movie opens with a scene of a fashion show where Sally is modeling a wedding dress. It’s gorgeous and the suits she and the other models change into afterwards when the show is over are also lovely to watch as they move across the screen.
The rest of the movie is downhill as Sally’s character falls in love and everything that made her of interest becomes submerged into the object of her affection.
Mae Clark’s wardrobe in this movie is not what you’d expect of a young woman left destitute by the death of her father, jailed for extortion and granted parole because of a contrived act of heroism at prison. The main action is her character’s desire to get revenge by messing up the life of the department store executive who did not respond to her pleas for mercy. What happens is that this unlikely couple fall in love and the movie ends with a wedding-to-be. Still, Mae’s wardrobe is very classy and made the movie worthwhile for me. I especially love the lace collar and cuffs of the suit she wears in the opening scenes. Her housedress and frilly apron are also very pretty. I like the touch that she’s dragging on a ciggie which completely clashes with the sweet housewife she’s going to portray when the owner of the department store comes to dinner.
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