Women's dresses had gone to great extremes in the 1920s, with very short hemlines and boyish styles. The change in dress styles in the 1930s was thus very dramatic, for the decade saw a return to femininity and distinct changes in cut and hemline. The depressed economic circumstances of the decade and later of the war years required simplicity in dress styles, but talented designers turned these constraints to their advantage, making slim fitting but stylish dresses in a variety of styles.
Perhaps the single biggest change in the 1930s was the lengthening of the hemline, which fell to mid-calf for day wear and to the floor for evening wear. Dresses were tube-shaped and very sleek, fitting closely through the torso and lacking billows or pleats in the skirt. Dressmakers achieved a flowing look either by using newer fabrics like rayon or by cutting fabrics diagonal to the direction of the weave, called a bias cut. Waists in general were tucked in closely, and the waistline was often accented with a belt. Late in the 1930s the desire for a very small waist led to the reappearance of the corset, a confining undergarment that had gone out of style in the 1910s. Wartime dress restrictions soon put an end to this fashion revival, however, much to the pleasure of women who did not want to see the return of the uncomfortable corset.
Several elements of 1930s and early 1940s dress styles are especially distinctive. The first was the treatment of the back and buttocks. Many dresses were made to reveal large portions of the back, with great Vs that reached nearly to the waist, meaning the top neckline of the dress plunged down to the waist in the back creating a V shape. Dresses were also fitted very closely across the buttocks, marking the first time in history the true shape of women's rears were made a focus of attention. These styles were particularly visible in evening wear.
Another significant trend during the 1930s was the emergence of the print dress. Women bought simple dresses without fancy tailoring or decorative touches to save money, but they didn't want to look plain. Many women turned to printed fabrics as the solution. Checks, polka dots, flowers, and a variety of free-flowing designs in fabric allowed women to make a plain dress pretty.
The coming of World War II in 1939 brought further economizing to women's dresses. Hemlines rose once more to the knee or slightly above the knee, and fabrics such as rayon and silk that were needed for military use were rarely used. But basic dress styles did not change until 1947, when the New Look styles brought a new revolution in women's dress.
Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Costantino, Maria. Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.