When it comes to fashion, the 1930s were a complex age. On the one hand fashions were deeply influenced by the economic depression that gripped the Western world throughout the 1930s; on the other hand fashions in the 1930s were very elegant, with clothing trends largely determined by the tastes of the very wealthy, especially movie stars and other celebrities. Strangely, these two influences came together to create clothing styles that were simple yet elegant. The coming of World War II in 1939 brought a completely new set of pressures to the way people dressed, with rationing, or limiting, of clothing, government dress codes, and the German occupation of Paris, France, the world's fashion capital, altering clothing styles dramatically.
The 1930s began with a dramatic shift in the overall silhouette, or shape, of clothing for both men and women. Reacting against the trends of the 1920s, both men's and women's clothing became sleeker and more streamlined. Women's hemlines extended down the leg and both men's and women's clothing accented simple, flowing lines. Leading the way in these changes were designers from Paris, France, actors and actresses from Hollywood, California, and wealthy socialites from around the world. The leading designers of the day, all based in Paris, included Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883–1971), Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973), and Madeleine Vionnet (1876–1975). Schiaparelli was especially famous for her adventurous experiments with new fabrics, patterns, and wild colors. Her introduction of a bold pink was so shocking that it helped coin the term "shocking pink." Hollywood stars and starlets like Gary Cooper (1901–1961) and Marlene Dietrich (c. 1901–1992) made fashion news with their bold fashion choices; Cooper became associated with the English drape suit for men and Dietrich with the pants suit for women. Finally, wealthy jet-setters turned sports clothing into daily wear, introducing such items as the knit polo shirt into common usage.
The bold experiments and new styles introduced by the wealthy were out of reach for most people, as the period of great economic turmoil known as the Great Depression (1929–41) put many out of work and reduced the incomes of most people. Yet several trends combined to allow common people to enjoy the new fashions despite the hard times. The newer fashions didn't use a great deal of fabric, so people could make their own clothes with less fabric and thus less cost. Especially in the United States, the ready-to-wear clothing industry had advanced in its ability to produce and sell inexpensively a wide range of sizes and styles. Clothing manufacturers copied the latest fashions coming out of Paris and produced cheap imitations. They took advantage of inexpensive fabrics like cotton and rayon, which were well-suited to the flowing lines that were so popular. Finally, most people saved money simply by making their clothes last longer. People ignored rapid shifts in fashion and wore the same dresses and suits for several years.
The coming of war, first to Europe and soon to virtually the rest of the world, brought immense changes to the nature of fashion. The world of high fashion was changed most dramatically by the German invasion and occupation of Paris. Most of the great fashion houses that had determined the styles worn in the West were closed; designers fled the country and the wealthy had to look elsewhere for their clothes. Designers in other countries, especially the United States, soon filled the void. Among the many American designers who gained valuable experience and clients during the war years were Mainbocher (1891–1976) and Claire McCardell (1905–1958), who created what became known as the American Look.
The clothing worn by common people was also impacted by the war. Military demands for fabric, especially for use in uniforms, tents, and parachutes, meant that many countries used some form of rationing or limiting fabric and clothing. Clothes makers altered the styles of clothes they made in order to use less fabric: hemlines became shorter, trousers and skirts were closer fitting, and fabric-wasting flourishes such as patch pockets disappeared. The impact of fabric shortages was greatest in Great Britain, where severe limits were set on the amount of clothes or fabric that could be purchased. The government of Great Britain created a kind of national dress code called utility clothing. Overall, staying in fashion just didn't seem so important during war time and people didn't mind dressing in simpler, less unique clothes. The war did have one positive impact on fashion: Clothes makers who shifted their work to produce military uniforms became very skilled at producing huge numbers of clothes at a low price. After the war clothing prices fell and quality clothes became available to more people than ever before.
The Depression and World War II were the biggest influences on clothing in the years between 1930 and 1945, but they weren't the only influences. Jazz music, the popularity of sports and sports clothes, and trends in art and industrial design all made an impact.
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