The 1930s in clothing, not fashion
Dresses that wouldn't make the pages of Vogue
I think my biggest struggle with writing is not the writing itself, but knowing what to write about. The world is vast, history is enormous, and so things like #thevintagefashionchallenge on IG (hosted by @makethislook, @iliveinmylab and @tinyangrycrafts) give me a framework for delving deeper into certain topics. This week we’re focusing on decades, and I wanted to look at the 1930s and 40s through the lens of women working—or just living their everyday lives through the Great Depression and World War—rather than the fashion forward, often extravagant or expensive garments that are photographed on thin, carefully posed models.
The Library of Congress holds an incredible collection of black & white and color photographs of these women, working in fields or in kitchens with dirt floors, attending strike meetings and caring for children in tents or on the road in the hope of a better life. The photographers—Dorothea Lange, famous for her portrait of a migrant mother; Russell Lee, Marion Post Walcott and others—captured these women and their clothing in a way that challenges our ideas of what people wore and looked like in these periods. If you, like me, are a student of fashion history and are familiar with the slim bias cut gowns, puffy sleeves and velvet ribbons of the 1930s and were curious how working women actually dressed, read on.
Dorothea Lange is probably the most well-known of the Farm Security Administration photographers, having captured the Migrant Mother portrait of a 32-year-old woman (who to our modern eye looks to be in her late 40s at best) gazing into the distance, two small children at her sides.
The photographer was born Dorothea Margaretta Nutzhorn in 1895 to German immigrants, and as a child she contracted polio which left her with a permanent limp. “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, humiliated me,” she later said. She grew up in New York with her mother and younger brother after her father left, and was largely on her own in their Jewish neighborhood (though her family was not Jewish), observing people, and soon she determined she would become a photographer. Initially, she made a living with society portrait photography in San Francisco, but when the Great Depression began, she started shooting everyday people on the street. I would rewrite this but Wiki does a good job here:
“In the depths of the worldwide Depression, 1933, some fourteen million people in the U.S. were out of work; many were homeless, drifting aimlessly, often without enough food to eat. In the midwest and southwest drought and dust storms added to the economic havoc. During the decade of the 1930s some 300,000 men, women and children migrated west to California, hoping to find work. Broadly, these migrant families were called by the opprobrium “Okies” (as from Oklahoma) regardless of where they came from. They traveled in old, dilapidated cars or trucks, wandering from place to place to follow the crops. Lange began to photograph these luckless folk, leaving her studio to document their lives in the streets and roads of California. She roamed the byways with her camera, portraying the extent of social and economic upheaval of the Depression. It is here that Lange found her purpose and direction as a photographer. She was no longer a portraitist, but neither was she a photojournalist. Instead, she became known as one of the first of a new kind, a ‘documentary’ photographer.”
Lange also photographed immigrants coming to California and Texas through Mexico, as well as people working in the fields across the West.
I love the neckline and print of this cotton work dress. And also her hair; how and why on earth did she get her hair to do that out on a farm? while working? The dress is probably a cotton wrap dress, decades before DVF.
Other photographers like Russell Lee captured people across the south and midwest:
Have you ever worn a skirt to pick beans?
I happened to stop by an antique store today and found several examples of cotton work dresses from this period, which is not only a fun coincidence but is fairly unusual. As you can see, most of these dresses got worn to bare threads in less than luxurious conditions.
What I find most interesting about these garments and these photographs is that these women are all wearing dresses or skirts, sometimes even white ones while doing physical labor, often outdoors. At this point in the late 1930s, slacks for women were only beginning to be acceptable outside of a resort context. Wealthy women vacationing on the Riviera or Palm Beach were free to wear slacks on the beach or strolling around town in the style of Marlene Dietrich, but to own a garment so specific to that context was probably completely out of the financial reach of these women. In addition to the financial barrier was the social one: these women lived in rural areas or small towns in the South and Midwest, where wearing slacks was not yet completely socially acceptable, even if it was beginning to be more normal in larger towns or cities on the coasts—particularly the West Coast in general and California specifically, which was often credited as the originator of the style in America. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of newspapers asking citizens for their opinions on women wearing slacks in the 1930s and 40s, and the papers usually published anti- and pro- opinions in equal measure. Men often said things like “Women should wear dresses as our mothers did” and women often said things like “They are all right for wear on the beach… but in most cases they are in bad taste”1 and there was usually a balancing opinion or two from more progressive folks like that encouraged women to wear slacks, or at least not to discourage it. The overall consensus, however. was that older and/or larger women should definitely not wear slacks, but this would change somewhat in the war years, which we'll look at next.
The Knoxville Journal, September 10, 1936.