Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Versatile Feminine Frills: the 1930s Day Dress

I was very excited about this dress when I got it. For one thing, I'd already bought it in the wrong size and had to send it back. It was only months later when I found it the right size -- and on sale too! But mostly I was excited about it because it is so very 1930s. With some minor variations, most notably in hem length, this style of casual day dress was popular for women of all ages and sizes from the late 1920s through the early 1940s. And now I have one of my very own!

Found on: http://www.fredpenfold.co.uk/margaret-burns-1917-2011/#1
I love this photo. Sometimes, in a desperate attempt to find photos of real women from the past, I enter odd searches into Google. I think this search was something like "grandma Maude" and it eventually led me to a series of photos of the entire of life of the sweet young girl on the right. All I know about her is what I could glean from the photos and the names attached to them: her name was Margaret Burns, she was born in 1917 and she died in 2011. That's her sister on the left and I assume they're on their way to or from music class.

I don't know much about Margaret Burns and her sister but I do know that their dresses and little cardigans are adorable. The basic style of the dress is loose and belted or gathered at the natural waist. It's made in cotton or transparent (silk?), playfully printed fabric. And it virtually always has a feminine ruffle at the throat and/or d├ęcolletage. It's the ruffle that gives it that extra boost of fancy whimsy.

Sometimes the ruffle extends over the upper arms and upper back.

Dress: Tradition; Cardigan: Mod Cloth; Shoes, purse, necklace, earrings, cape, and pinkie ring: vintage
It's a sweet style, darling even ...

... and it was everywhere.

I'll be honest. I was having a bad day when we started taking these photos. I'd been really excited about making a post about this dress but, as Beau and I set off for an outing, I found myself irritable and snappish. It was a PTSD day, I guess, when life just feels ... icky and I get cranky for no particularly good reason at all. Poor Beau.

Beau was in a baddish mood too, though whether it was a pre-existing condition or caused by me, we could not tell. When he's in a bad mood or feeling anxious, he gets uncoordinated and clumsy. Since I'm disabled and must rely on him so much for physical help, his clumsy spells make me more irritable than they should. I get more cranky, which makes him feel worse, which makes him more clumsy, which makes me more cranky, and, hey, presto, we have a tiny perfect storm of silly squabbles. It's so frustrating!

Then I get mad at myself for being ungrateful for all Beau's help, thinking that, if I were a better person, I'd be kinder and more patient. And I get mad at my abusers who caused my disability in the first place, knowing that, if it weren't for them, I'd be able to do more for myself, and Beau and I wouldn't be caught up in this little storm.

It's a bleak spiral of negative emotions. But, you know, the dress did eventually cheer me up. Beau's mood improved too.


So back to the dress. One of the things I found and loved as I did research for this post is that variations on it were popular with all generations of women and girls, as with the mother and daughter in this photo ...

... and as with the Gung family here. (My research also revealed that this fashion was popular around the world. This photo was taken in Asia, probably China.)

Young and old alike took to this style of dress as practical, comfortable, and pretty. To me, a photo like this is an absolute gem: it is very hard to find old (and new) photos of old and middle-aged women, as we are so terribly undervalued in our own culture. (Do also note the pretty floral prints on these dresses. I'll come to that later.)

The look was also popular with women of different sizes, from the very slim, like these two ...

... and the lass in the centre here ...

... to the more stout ...

... like me ...

... and these wonderful women in Penn Station in 1942 ...

Miriam Margolyes as Aunt Prudence in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
... to the very stout, as beautifully illustrated here by Aunt Prudence in the fabulous television series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. This is a still from season two, which is set in 1928. If you have not yet discovered this series, you are in for a treat, and not just because of the amazing, perfectly accurate, period fashions and set designs.

The ruffles on this style of dress seem to be great for those of us of ample bosom. They somehow simultaneously celebrate and minimize large breasts all at once.

Indeed, the style was advertised directly to "stout" (i.e. curvier and usually middle aged) women, as with the brown and green dresses above.

Another great selling point for this type of dress is that it could dressed up, as with the woman on the right ... 

... or dressed down for picnics and casual outings. (I so want to know about the butch-ish woman in black in the centre! What do you suppose her story was?)

It was worn by "average" women, and ...

... by incredibly chic women.

It just seemed to appeal to everyone (except that butch woman in black and women like her, of course). 

As with so most women's fashion at the time, such dresses could also be worn with sensible shoes, which is a great boon to the disabled like myself, or the elderly.

All hail the sensible shoe!

If you look very closely, you can see that I haven't been shaving my legs. My body hair seems to be growing lighter as I get older, which is wonderfully convenient, since it really hurts my back to shave my legs (and let's not even talk about cutting my toenails)!

But I think far more women went unshaven in the 1930s than they do now. I never knew my grandmother to shave her legs, and, I must be honest, I think her fashion sense kind of remained in the 1930s her whole life. That's when she was a young woman and I guess she figured that, if she knew what worked for her, she didn't need to mess with a good thing.

If I have one quibble with my new, 1930s dress, it's that it doesn't have the bright, floral patterns so popular at the time.

We so often see old photos in black and white that we actually forget that the real world was in real colour. My guess is that this dress was white with yellow, blue, and maybe red or green flowers. I've become obsessed with the floral colours and prints in the 1930s and I'm searching for the perfect dress and accessories to illustrate the look.

I'm also hoarding colour images of fashion from the 1930s and am hoping to piece together a great, floral post in the near future.

For now, all you get of the colour photos is this sneak peek to show that, though my dress would have been on the plain side at the time, it certainly would not have been out of place.

I would have fit right in.

I really love that.

don't know if you noticed but I posed in front of houses that were built in or before the 1930s.

This strange, cement duplex was probably built in the 1910s, when there really was no need for duplexes here as the area was not yet heavily populated. I've always found this building really intriguing as it's not of a style common in my city and therefore seems really out of place. It's the subject of local lore, and the stories keep changing, but one part stays the same: it was an experiment of some sort, to prove that such structures were viable here. Beyond that, it's all a mystery.

My heart, though, lies with Arts and Crafts bungalows. They are plentiful here but, sadly, are being torn town to make way for huge, ugly, "multi-family dwellings" on single lots. I get it: our civic government is trying to make our rapidly growing  city "green" and that requires an increase in population density. But, still, it breaks my heart. How could anyone not love these beautiful houses? How could it not break your heart to see them (and their beautiful gardens) go?

They were a new idea in the 1930s, and, I gather were often pre-fabricated. This came as a surprise to me as the original Arts and Crafts credo was to return to older, pre-industrial modes of construction and creation. I'm not an expert on architecture so please do tell me if I'm getting my facts wrong or you can give me more information.

North Carolina, 1929. Found at: https://www.lib.ncsu.edu/digitalcollections
At any rate, they were common. This photo was a particular find because these women are actually learning how to sew dresses! See the basic dress pattern on the wall? How perfect for this post!

My modern sensibilities are a bit taken aback by the lack of porch and stair railings on this house, but we all know that safety standards were not then as they are now.  

It's a good thing that railings are common now, or I wouldn't have been able to get up and down these stairs on my own. Even as it was, the plants in the way made it difficult. (I knocked on the owners' door to ask if it was okay for us to take photos on their porch. They weren't home so we just went ahead and took a few. Shhhh.) 

These lovely little houses were, for their time, small and modest (though a huge step up from shacks) but adorable and very liveable, or, as this advertisement states, "pleasing but not extreme."

Aren't they wonderful? When the sun hits this house just right, it's magic. I took this photo a few years ago, in perfect, winter light. Wouldn't you want to live here? 

I'd be so house-proud! Wouldn't you? As we took these photos, the woman inside looked out and smiled with complete understanding as I gestured to her house with a thumbs up. I could imagine her thinking, "Well of course she wants to photograph herself in front of my perfect little house." Then she went back to reading her book. In some of these photos, you can just see her bent white head in the window.

Okay, now let's get my accessories and such, starting with my cape.

You've seen my cape several times before. I wear it because it's an attractive solution to staying warm and dry while using my mobility scooter. But I did a little research and, yup, it would have been perfectly fashionable in the 1930s.

That was as I expected. When isn't a cape a great addition to a chic outfit?

And you know I love my cape. It's so dramatic, like me.

My little cardigan seemed appropriate too. The two sisters at the beginning of this post look lovely with their cardigans over their dresses. Plus, my grandmother would have worn it with her dresses, and, as I said, she's my model for 30s fashion.

To accentuate the femininity of the dress, I wore a floral locket, and my amazing, floral, Trifari dress clips that are actually from the 1930s, and which you saw here in a very different post. When people think of the 1930s aesthetic, they don't tend to think of floral patterns but they were present in abundance.

Instead, people think of the much more angular, geometric patterns indicative of Art Deco and evident here in these earrings.

I also wore my grandmother's, 1936 engagement ring ...

... which has a quintessential, geometric, Art Deco, solitaire setting. Settings like these were the height of fashion at the time but, unlike some fashion trends, they don't look dated and silly today. The look classic. Some trends stand the test of time better than others.

Grandma's ring was the first piece of "fine" jewelry, and the first diamond, I ever owned and was a strong influence on Beau and me as we sat down to design my engagement and wedding rings. But, as you can see, we went for a more curvilinear, organic setting for my rings. It just suits me.

Okay, you can probably tell I was looking for an excuse to show you my rings! After all, I am still a newlywed and I just love the way the two rings look together. Whenever I catch a glimpse of them or feel them on my finger, I know that I am really and truly loved. It's such a warm and wonderful feeling. (For all of you who have been asking, you'll be happy to know that we finally have our wedding photos, and I'll feature them in my next post. I promise.)

I paired my outfit with this great little purse that dates to somewhere around the late 1930s. Note again the geometric pattern.

I love getting all those little details right. It's like time travel or a grown-up game of make-believe.

What's that you say? You'd like a better look at my hairstyle? Okay.

When I washed my hair the night before this photo shoot, I already knew what I'd be wearing the next day so I put my hair in pin waves to mimic a 1930s Marcel wave. 

I'm not very good at this sort of thing but I think it turned out pretty well this time. My problem when creating curls is the opposite of many women's problem: my hair holds curls too well. When I'm going for a more subtle wave, I usually end up with ringlets. My hair is so curly that my hairdresser for my wedding actually used a straightening iron to curl my hair! I'd never heard of such a thing.

At any rate, unlike in the 1920s, with their straight, razor sharp bobs (think Louise Brooks), softer curls were the vogue for the 30s.

Greta Garbo
Hair also got longer as the decade progressed but bobs were still very popular.

Remember I said I was cranky? One reason: Beau messed up my faux bob a bit when he moved my hair aside to show my earring. I was unreasonably annoyed. You can see it in my face.
So, I've got the curls but, obviously, I don't have the bob.

No matter. Lots of women didn't.

Women with long hair could create a faux bob with a little artful pinning of their buns at the nape of the neck.

It's not all that hard to do. Believe me: if I can do it, anyone can. I'm not good with hair styles. It's something I'd like to learn but I haven't yet. I was raised by hippies and they don't teach you much about curlers and hair spray and straightening irons.

Marie de Medeiros and Uma Thurman as Anais Nin and June Miller in Henry and June
I first became aware of this artful pinning of faux bobs when I saw the incredibly sexy movie, Henry and June, based on the diaries of Anais Nin. In the movie, June and Anais both wore such buns but, when they were drunk, either on each other or on alcohol, their buns fell beautifully loose so I was able to see how they were constructed.

Anais Nin
This is the real Anais. Her highly tweezed eyebrows suggest to me that this photo was taken in the 1920s, but she was a very fashion forward woman so it wouldn't surprise me if she wore hairstyles before they'd caught on with the wider population. Because of this, she's a great role model for fashion trends (and obsessive journal writing).

I'm happy to emulate her in my own ways.

And so we come to the end of this post ...

... about my pretty pretty dress.

But we have not come to the end of my obsession with 1930s fashion. Expect more in posts to come. I can't hardly wait!

(I'm sharing this with Elegantly Dressed and Stylish, Not Dead Yet, Not Dressed as Lamb, and Sydney Fashion Hunter.)