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My knowledge of 1930s fashion begins with the novels I've read, books by Noel Streatfield, Rosamunde Pilcher, Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Bowen, etc. The drops of fashion in these stories can be sunk into like a steaming hot bath. I wallow in the details. The young girls wear blouses and skirts, ribbons in their hair and have party frocks. When they grow up there are stockings, lipstick, hats, and coming out dresses. Most importantly of all, everyday clothes in all classes were feminine and stylish. The boyish look of the twenties was abandoned in the wake of the financial crash, and as in all times of economic depression clothing became more conservative. Womanly curves and long skirts were in, and the waistline returned to it's anatomically correct position. Hair was groomed and trousers rare. Fashion was influenced by Hollywood, Paris designers and Royalty. And, whatever the social politics of the time, you must admit the women looked fantastic. Even the humble pinafore and turban, worn by the housewife or factory worker, had some grace about it. And of course, knitting was commonplace and most clothes were hand-made, and I think that clinches it as my favourite 20th century fashion era.
My favourite novel set in that era is Coming Home. It's set in the late 1930s and early 1940s in deepest Cornwall, and is full of luxury, style, glamour and beauty, as well as homely, middle-class, everyday clothes. I love the book for it's down-to-earth heroine, Judith. She, Loveday, Athena and Heather are the girls growing up, Diana is the iconic and experienced beauty at the head of the Carey-Lewis family. Judith is ordinary, and discovers upper-class life at Nancherrow, and in that part of the book her experiences of clothes express the differences in class and her moments of growing up. So we get to hear what she wears, what they all wear, in delicious detail.
Then there is Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, set in Gloustershire in the 1930s. It tells the story of the eccentric Radletts, and especially Linda's romantic adventures, seen through the eyes of her cousin Fanny. The plot starts before they have 'come out' when they spend most of their time in sensible country clothes, and later details the necessary balls and their London Season.
In the first few chapters of Coming Home Judith is a teenager. She wore blouses, jerseys, skirts, sensible shoes, and ribbons in her hair. A large part of her wardrobe was her school uniform, stiff and very 'proper'. She wore plimsolls for hockey, and cotton frocks in the summer. Later Judith goes to Nancherrow and borrows some of Athena's expensive, but essentially ordinary, clothes for the weekend...
"...a cashmere jersey. And this one was holly-red, one of her most favourite colours. '...now, here's a nice gingham blouse, with a Peter Pan collar...and a pair of shorts...' Mary held them up for general inspection. They were navy flannel, pleated like a little skirt...Judith carried the borrowed clothes back to her bedroom. She went in and closed the door behind her, and laid the shorts and the jersey and the blouse ceremoniously on the bed, the way her mother did when she was going to change for a party...and, slowly savouring the novelty, dressed herself in Athena Carey-Lewis's cast-offs. Moving to and fro, she washed her hands (Chanel soap) and brushed her hair, tying it back with a fresh navy-blue ribbon. Only then did she go to inspect herself in the long mirror set in the wardrobe door...she looked so different...almost grown-up"
Older Athena is supremely stylish; "...she wore very red lipstick, and very red nails, and was always dressed in lovely new clothes, in the height of fashion. Today, because this was country, she wore trousers, cut like a man's, and a silk shirt, and a camelhair jacket, with padded shoulders and the glitter of a diamond brooch pinned to the lapel"
Loveday, the youngest Carey-Lewis is more of a tomboy and more careless of clothes; 'clothes were as unimportant to her as they had ever been; stained and shrunken jodhpurs were her usual garb, paired with any old sweater'
Clothes for Fanny and Linda are secondary to the search for love, but serve to express their growing pains, the sartorial mistakes and triumphs reflect the progress of their maturity.
'alas, the floating panels of taffeta, which had seemed so original and pretty in Mrs. Josh's cottage, looked queerly stiff beside their printed chiffons, so soft and supple; also, our experiences earlier in the evening had made us feel inferior'
Later, when they begin their first London season...
'Clothes were probably our chief preoccupation at this time. Once Linda had been to a few dress shows, and got her eye in, she had all hers made by Mrs Josh, and, somehow, they had a sort of originality and prettiness that I never achieved...Linda had one particularly ravishing ball-dress made of masses of pale grey tulle down to her feet.'
In Love in a Cold Climate, which is about Fanny's romance and Polly's scandal, they discuss childhood;
'do you remember how we both had black velvet dresses with red sashes for coming down after tea'
and the inevitable and often dull coming-out process, which at least has one highlight:
'What I do enjoy,' I said truthfully 'is the dressing up.'..'Oh so do I! Do you think about dresses and hats all the time, even in church?'
It's the clothes that express Loveday and Judith's unofficial entry into the adult world. On the cover of the dvd adaptation Emily Mortimer who plays Judith is wearing a blue dress with gold detail. This is a very important dress in the book, it's the dress Judith wears on Christmas Day at Nancherrow when she is 17. It's the dress that makes all the other adults finally realise she is grown-up.
'It's made out of a sari...your mother helped me draw a picture and we took it to her dressmaker and she made it'...'the last sheet of paper drifted to the floor and the dress was revealed. She held it up in front of her, spreading the skirts to reveal the width...around the deep hem and the cuffs of the little sleeves the gold key pattern of the sari's border glittered with reflected light. Athena's jaw dropped...what a colour. Not turquoise and not blue. Utterly perfect.
It also demonstrates some key principles of thirties evening dress fashion. a) The shape: the hem is at the ankle, the waistline in the proper place. and the dress has a matching bolero-style jacket - very popular at this time b) It was made by a dressmaker, as many upper-class evening clothes were at that time, this is not the same as being a one-off piece by a designer, these dressmakers numbered in their hundreds, and scattered across the country copied the latest London fashions in consultation with and commissioned by their wealthy clients, and c) this particular dress happens to indicate the impact of the colonies on British clothing. Usually this is only seen in the regimental uniforms of retired men like Colonel Carey-Lewis, but there was also Oriental fabrics to be bought in the London department stores like Liberty.
As for Loveday, at 16 she makes a more hesitant, reluctant entry into adult society;
'Tonight she wore no jewellery, and her vivid face (was) innocent of make up. But her dress, chosen for her by Diana...was sheer enchantment. Organdie, the vivid green of young beech leaves, cut low over Loveday's shoulders, and deeply ruffled at neck and hem. Even Loveday had been seduced by it'
Then there are the outdoor clothes, the coats, hats and gloves. Linda famously sits sobbing on her suitcase on a Paris railway platform, shown in the TV adaptation wearing a fur coat and hat, which would have been quite usual. Hats and gloves were de riguer in this era, for travel, church-going, and dining at restaurants.
Fanny contemplates her country tweeds at the Ritz;
'My clothes, so nice and suitable...so much admired by the other dons' wives, were, I realized, almost bizarre in their dowdiness...I passionately longed to have a tiny fur hat, or a tiny ostrich hat, like the two ladies at the next table. I longed for a neat black dress, diamond clips and a dark mink coat...long crinkly black suede gloves, and smooth polished hair.'
And finally, I must mention Schiaparelli. The designer Schiaparelli was in the same league as Chanel, and her name keeps appearing in all these stories. It's the moment when Judith first sees Loveday bothering to wear something nice that we realise Loveday is in love, and it's a Schiaparelli jacket. Fanny becomes an Oxford housewife with a staple wardrobe of tweeds, but surprises the fashionable Cedric by wearing a Schiaparelli jacket around the house...
'I remember that my mother...brought me a little jacket in scarlet cloth from Schiaparelli. It seemed to be quite plain...except for the label in its lining, and I longed to put this on the outside so people would know where it came from.'
'Aha! So now we dress in Schiaparelli, I see! Whatever next?...Cedric! How can you tell?....My dear, one can always tell, things have a signature, if you use your eyes...'
And it is a sublimely fashionable, and unattainably expensive dress by Schiaparelli that is given to one of the girls in The Girls of Slender Means and shared around for important dates.
I've discussed the fashion in these two books in some depth, though by no means exhaustively. Yet more information can be found in other novels either written in, or set retrospectively in the thirties. In Ballet Shoes, for example, there are party dresses needed for auditions, in poplin, taffeta and organdie. And of course the costume designers working on the TV adaptations of these books really know their stuff, hence my illustrations of the above with a liberal dose of screen captures.
And finally, if this has piqued your interest in the bizarre coming out rituals of the upper-class at this time, and I must admit that this is heavily biased towards this class, mainly due to the lack of novels that describe ordinary fashions in the same detail, then I can recommend reading the non-fiction book The Last Curtsey by Fiona MacCarthy for the real thing.
Absolutely no copyright infringement is intended, either by use of the screen captures and photos, or the excerpts from the books.