Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Fashionable Cheer in the Drear of the 30s and 40s

I love this dress! People in the fashion industry use the word "obsessed" far too often but I have been genuinely obsessed with 1930s floral patterns since I wrote my last post about 1930s dresses. The cut of this dress does not fit the bill but the print on the fabric does -- perfectly

Dress: Lazybones; Sweater: Max; Shoes: Ecco; Earrings: boutique; Cape, cane, handbag, necklace, brooches, and bracelet: vintage
I feel very pretty in this dress, and very connected to women's history, and that makes me happy.

Just look at this dress from 1940! The print on it is almost identical to the one on mine. How exciting is that? Very exciting. The cut of the dress is clearly of the late 30s and early 40s, unlike mine but they still do have some things in common ...

... most notably the smocking details at the shoulder, which serve to enhance the bosom without being too obvious about it.

Often called "ditsy" prints, small, sunny, floral patterns in "gay" colours were very popular ...

... from the early 30s, when hems were low ...

... through the late 30s and early 1940s, as hemlines rose and shoulder pads ruled the fashion world, for men and women alike.

I wonder if such cheery colours and prints were popular during the Depression and World War II because they could help raise the spirits in very difficult times.

Who knows what sorrows and fears this young woman held behind this smile? But I'll bet the dress helped, if only just a little.

I know a little something about hardship too. See how I'm bracing myself on the tree as I struggle to walk and stand on rough ground?

You know how I became disabled. You know I'm in pain all the time.

But, for some people, people like me, spirits can be lifted by something as simple as a gay floral patter. That doesn't make us shallow. It makes us people with the lucky gift of finding comfort in the little things. 

Patterns and colours like these were everywhere in the 1930s. Take this lovely little sugar bowl that I picked up for a few dollars at a thrift store. Isn't it pretty? (If you know more about this Myott China pattern, please do let me know too.) Note the little crosshatch pattern.

Is it just a tad like the one on my dress?

How about the little flowers and crosshatch pattern on this dress I found in a 1934, Lane Bryant catalogue? Yes, Lane Bryant has been around for a long time, but, back then, women of curves were called "stout," not "plus size."

Anyway, as I was saying, these lovely little florals were not only on dresses. They were on China ... 

... children's toys (see the little flowers on the left?) ... 

... children's books (those flowers again!) ...

... jewelry (the flowers of my Miriam Haskell brooch match my dress so well, they almost disappear) ... 

... special interest publications ...

... birthday cards ...

... and interior design, among other things.

One could easily match everything -- even houses.

As with other trends, these floral patterns were worn by everyone, from the very young (note that this is an ad for a flour sack, we'll come back to that) ...

... to the fairly young ...

... to the middle aged ...

... to the very old, as with these four sisters.

Every generation wore them.

The very poor wore them.

And the very wealthy chic wore them.

I've been very very poor at times, but I like to think that I've always been chic -- okay, maybe. At any rate, I think any woman or girl who enjoyed femininity would have felt chic and lovely in these dresses.

It helped that, on this particular day, I matched the world around me. The flowers were already busting out all over, long before they did in the rest of Canada.

When the trees blossom all pink and wonderful ...

It always feels like a celebration.

I've tried here to use images in which at least one of the dresses has a sunny print similar to mine, but I'll bet you've noticed that some of the other prints bear an uncanny resemblance to prints on 1990s grunge or "granny" dresses. The above brooch is from the 1930s. The fabric is from the 90s.

These are from the 1930s. Need I say more? Everything old is new again, and again.

A good thing is a good thing.

Why not?

Floral granny dresses are coming back yet again. I've noticed it in the fashion magazines, especially in the latest designs by Chloe. Sometimes, on the street, I see a girl in a granny dress, leggings, and lace up boots, and I feel like it's 1992 all over again. I'll admit that I've been buying a few vintage 90s dresses on Etsy. Watch for them in upcoming posts.

I have no problem with that bringing back a great thing. My only frustration is that, each time an old style makes a comeback, no-one seems to realize that it's been done before. To me, it's a kind of respect toward women's history to recognize that we are wearing something our great-grandmothers wore too. It's a way to connect.

Even as some things were the same then, times were different. Remember again: this was the Depression, closely followed buy a devastating and terrifying world war. Those who had some money, could buy these lovely dresses ready-made.

But, as I did my research, I found far more advertisements for ditsy print fabric than for the dresses themselves.

It was still very common for women to know how to sew. Doing so was economical and made it possible for women to tailor their clothes to their exact measurements. Imagine: fitting the dress to your body, rather than struggling to fit your body to the dress!

Sounds good to me. Do you know how many dresses I'd own if I could sew? I was never crafty and I sewed terribly in Home Economics class. Now that I'm disabled, sewing would hurt my back terribly so, alas, a seamstress I will never be. But perhaps I could hire one? Imagine ...

But I digress. Back to the fabrics.

During the Depression, there were a great many women who could not afford fabric with which to sew their clothes. They sometimes used flour sacks to make dresses for themselves and their daughters. When the flour companies learned of this, they started packing their products in bags printed with dainty, pretty patterns and bright colours.

The company with the prettiest patterns sold the most flour: win win.

The sacks were not just used to make clothing. They were also used for all sorts of things, such as curtains ... 

... and, if I'm looking at this correctly, set designs too. 

But they're best known for having been used to make dresses, as evidenced here by this very poor, Depression era family. This photo always rips my heart out. They all look so unhappy. The constant worry about feeding, clothing, and housing her children, is written on this mother's face, and the physical struggle of providing for his family is written on this man's body. The fact that he looks a lot like an ex of mine makes their plight all the more real to me.

Do note that all four of the oldest children in this photo are in the  photo of the children on stage. They're so poor, they don't even have shoes, but the girls do have pretty dresses. Do you think it helped? 

I do at least get the sense that there was no shame in using flour sacks for clothing, though I could be wrong. These were the days when making do was understood to be a positive character trait. Wastefulness was frowned upon as almost sinful, especially during the war.

My grandparents announcing their engagement, in 1935 or 1936

I'd love to find out if my grandmother is wearing a flour sack dress in her engagement photo to my grandpa here. I suspect it was not but I'll bet it was sewn, either by her or someone in her family.  Regardless, this was 1935 or 1936 and she was clearly fashionable for her day. I recently had a chance to see other photos of her in her youth: What a beauty! This doesn't surprise me -- she was a great beauty till the day she died -- but it is nice to see photos of her in the full flush of youth.

And don't they look happy?

I think of them when I think of my own love story. There's Beau, being Juliet ...

... to my Romeo. That's the love light in my eyes there as I look up at him.

Everybody gives Beau the love eyes, even the cat. Milo may be holding my hand here, but it's Beau upon whom he's gazing with so much love. I've never before known a cat with such dog-like devotion to his human.

But I digress again. It was from my grandmother that I learned that flat, lace-up shoes can be worn with a skirt or dress. This has been great information to have now that I'm disabled. I had to give up my high heels but I surely did not want to give up my pretty dresses and skirts.

I've been oohing and aahing about the similarities between my dress and the dresses of the 1930s and early 1940s. Now let's talk about the differences. The main difference is the amount of fabric used in my dress. After WWII, cloth rations started to be lifted so women could use more fabric in their outfits. Starting with Dior's, 1947 New Look, full circle skirts were the vogue. They were often worn over a crinoline to further enhance the sheer opulence of fabric after all those years of austerity.

They really are fun and playful to wear. If I could twirl, my dress would billow out like this one.

Throughout the 30s and early 40s, skirts were worn straighter and closer to the body. The Depression was not a time for full skirts; that much fabric was simply too expensive. And, during WWII, cloth was needed for the war and was therefore rationed for everyday use.  

A dress like this would have been downright unpatriotic and any woman who wore it would have been judged quite harshly for her selfishness and materialism.

But things changed after the war. I was sad that my dress, its print so perfect for the 1930s, was not cut anything like a dress in the 1930s. I wanted a flour sack dress, gosh darn it!

Well, don't despair. Look what I found: flour sack ads from the 1950s featuring dresses uncannily similar to mine.


I found lots and lots of them ...

... including some with floral patterns like the one on mine.

Does this look familiar? This is a fabric remnant from the 50s. I don't know whether or not it's a flour sack but it does prove to me that my little ditsy pattern dress would have fit right in.

And, of course, these were wealthier times for many. Ready-made dresses were more popular now that many people could afford them. I assume that the same is true of lovely fabrics not found on flour sacks.

Here too we see those crinoline I mentioned, used to full (pun intended) effect.

It's all so fun. 

As much as I still want a 1930s, flour sack dress, I do love the cut of this dress.

I love the the fullness of the skirt and the way it swishes when I move.

I love the detail at the waist and the way it flatters a more buxom figure.

Did you know that Dior's New Look required women to wear padding on their hips, breasts, and shoulders? Far from wanting to look slimmer, after all those years of deprivation, women wanted to look curvier, healthier, and well fed, tight corsets not withstanding.

This is not a slimming look, but why should it be? One of my pet peeves is all the advice in fashion magazines about how to look slimmer and taller, as if a shorter, curvier woman simply cannot look good or be happy with her appearance. I don't want to look taller, and, if I look good, why should I care if I look slim?

There is more than one way to look good. Beauty is varied!

And thank God for that.

I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about my outfit accessories. The butterflies, I think, were a no brainer. Though they were probably made in the 1960s, their colours matched my dress so well, it seemed obvious that I would wear them on my cape, so that the cape and the dress matched.

I wore the yellow Murano glass beads to match the yellow in my skirt, and the little flower earrings match both the flowers on the dress and the peachy coral of my shoes. Though my necklace is not a perfect match to the dress, the coral, fresh water pearls do go well with the earrings and shoes, and, besides, it's an original, Art Deco necklace, circa 1930. How could I not wear it? (Do please ignore the bit of fluff caught in my ring. Such is real life.)

I chose a subtle green eye shadow to play up the sage green in my dress, and, to speak truth, the hazel tones in my eyes.

Mostly, though, I wanted to echo the yellow of the dress. I could have chosen to echo any of the colours here ...

... but it was early spring and yellow is such an optimistic, spring colour ...

... that yellow just seemed the obvious choice.

I regret to say that my shoes aren't a perfect match for the dress but, you know, my funds aren't actually unlimited, so I can't have a different pair of shoes for every outfit. It's so sad.

My purse isn't a perfect match either but it is from the 30s or early 40s, and I thought the brown was warm enough to go with the yellows and corals. And the cane has enough yellow in to match the outfit too, though I'm not totally keen on the black and blues, as light blue is a trigger colour for me.

But all together, I felt very pretty ...

... and well put together ...

... in my full circle dress ...

... with its 30s print and 50s cut ...

... connecting me to women's history and all the lovely ladies who came before me, paving the way for us, just as you and I are paving the way for the girls and women who will be born when we are long gone.

(I'd like to thank my friend, Josie, for being guest photographer on this post. She had a charming way of smiling at me as she took the pictures, causing me to smile in response. Can you tell?)

(I'm sharing this with Happiness at Mid-Life, Style NudgeNot Dressed as LambAdri Lately, Not Dead Yet, and Sydney Fashion Hunter.)


  1. I just want to say I think you are so brave and I really admire your strength and courage by telling your story and I hope you are able to reach and help many women through this blog struggling with the same issues as you!

    I knew about the bright colors during wartime before but with respect to Fiestaware. I've heard that the bright colors were to add some color and happiness to the dark time. But I had absolutely no idea about the flour sack dresses. I find it so interesting and quite lovely that flour came in beautiful fabric to help boost sales!

    Great post I look forward to reading more :)
    Mid Century Moderation

    1. I'm happy to say that I do seem to be reaching a lot of other abuse survivors. They write to me privately more than commenting here, but they are reading the blog and saying it helps them. That's very gratifying.

      I'm glad you liked this post and glad you learned from it. I was a college teacher for years before I went on disability and I can't quite rid myself of the habit. I only learned about flour sack dresses fairly recently too. Pretty cool, eh?

  2. Coincidentally I am in the middle of a novel about using flour sacks to make clothing in the old days ... I couldn't picture what the sacks would look like, and here you write about them, complete with photos! Great timing :) I do love your dress - so flattering. And as always, I appreciate the research you do and share here.

    1. That is a great coincidence! What's the name of the book? I'd probably enjoy reading it.

    2. It would have been more accurate for me to say "a novel that mentions" instead of "a novel about" - there's just one chapter that talks about the topic. It's "The Charm Bracelet" by Viola Shipman - but don't rush out and buy it. I'm appalled by the spelling errors, cliched expressions, thin plot and poor editing. I'm pretty sure those things would matter to you as well, given your career background. I don't usually read something like this but it was a blog giveaway and I feel I must report back on it! Actually, if you want the book I would gladly pass it on to you after I've finished reading it. I live in Canada so postage isn't an issue. Let me know - my email address is on my Blogger profile - click on my name on this comment to get there.

    3. Thanks for your offer but, given your description of it, I think I'll pass. : ) I've written quite a few book reviews in my past and I can be pretty harsh, even if I'm supposedly reading for pleasure. That said, I have read some books that aren't great technically but the subject matter was riveting enough to carry me through. This is especially true of works written by "marginalized" people. One that really hit me hard was Stone Butch Blues. It changed my life by helping me understand what it's like for trans people.

    4. I'm not proud of my comment there although it was my honest assessment; I almost deleted it several times but wanted my offer to stand. I will look out for the book you mentioned. Fully agree with your approach to subject matter. I'll keep in mind your interest in flour sack sewing because I'm sure I've come across the topic in other books from time to time.

  3. Oh, I do love these historical posts of yours thank you!

    1. Oh good. I really enjoy writing them. They're a great, fun distraction from all the heavy stuff in my life. I find that more people read my "heavy" posts than read these ones and that's a shame because we all need some lightness as a break from the harder stuff.

  4. To take joy in the small things is a wonderful gift indeed. I love your cheery dress (and any fabric that looks like late 30's is heaven to me). And that kitty, looking at Beau with love - that gave me a lump in my throat. Thanks for sharing, xo


    1. Such devotion, eh? My last cat, Morgan, was like that with me, but in a cat-like way, always wanting to be in my arms. Milo loves Beau in a dog-like way, following him everywhere, talking to him, reaching out to touch him with his paw, and staring at him with complete attention.

  5. A beautiful dress on you indeed and I love it with the cape and the pretty butterfly pins.

    Thank you for being a part of TBT Fashion link up and hope to see you soon!