Sportswear Innovation – Culottes, 1930s

One of my latest finds looks like a dress, but the skirt is actually culottes. I first spotted this on Instagram and then I stalked the listings of LittleStarsVintage until she listed them. We don’t think much about culottes these days unless they are undergoing one of the many revivals of the style.  But in the 1930s, culottes were news.

In 1930 pants were being worn more and more by women, but they really were still mainly for sports, the beach, and the home. Wearing pants on the street shopping was still frowned upon in most places.

In 1931 Elsa Schiaparelli designed and made a culotte skirt and she actually wore it on the streets of London. I’m so glad that moment was documented. The same year she made a pair for tennis star Lili de Alvarez who was roundly criticized for wearing them in a tournament.  These photos are from Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli by Dilys E. Blum. I highly recommend it.

I think Schiaparelli’s pair looks like beach pyjamas that have shrunk to just below the knees. By 1931 the straight legs of the pyjamas of the 1920s had morphed into wide-legged bell-shaped legs. Could that have been Schiaparelli’s inspiration for the shape of her culottes?

My pair dates to the second half of the 1930s, and is made from a cotton print of coins. The red rick-rack is a casual touch, and marks this as a dress that might be perfect for a picnic or as a house dress. A very brave woman might even wear it to the market.

A machine stitched hem pretty much confirms this was a commercially manufactured garment. The seller had previously sold a very similar dress which had a size tag, something this one does not have.

It also has machine-made buttonholes which points to a manufactured product.  I can’t help but wonder why black thread was chosen.

Besides the culotte skirt, this dress has another feature that makes this appropriate as sportswear – a pleated sleeve. I love this sleeve, which I first encountered in an early 1930s blouse pattern.  Sleeves made in woven fabrics often have a stiff and uncomfortable feel, but this sleeve is loose and airy without looking frilly or silly.

Culotte patterns were also available to the home sewer.  This Hollywood pattern is not dated, but the original owner wrote “May 12, 1936” on the envelope.

And I refuse to believe that anyone has legs that long!





Filed under Collecting, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Vintage Clothing

7 responses to “Sportswear Innovation – Culottes, 1930s

  1. Lombard – I doubt was a 16? However – could have worn the style featured on the pattern – very California at the time. Do not remember merchandising a lot using / merchandising them a lot. Anne Klein did them in designer sportswear in suede in the late 60’s with a bolero jacket/silk blouse. That was the first and possibly last until mid 70’s I recall seeing them .I knw women loved them for riding and golf. Some designer did them for evening wear – can’t remember who!


  2. The only pattern that i ever drafted from scratch and actually made for myself was a pair of culottes. They will always be one of my favorite styles. Now, that I’m a lot older, I guess palazzo pants are my new culotte.


  3. Ruth

    Now where was print like that when I was in junior high in 67/68? I got brave and made a culotte dress very, very similar to that in an olive green cotten, light weight but not flimsy. I wore them once, on a very hot day when I had to walk home from school. After seeing the horrifyingly obvious sweat stains, I never wore them again. Lesson learned, always use a print, never a solid. And I really wasn’t built for that kind of dress, a little too curvy,hippy/buttish for it. That was also the year I made a printed a-line tent dress in a shocking orange. Again, not my color, not my style, and I got pinched by my crush, whom I promptly turned around and punched! Another dress I never wore again. It’s a good thing I could sew and make more clothes then.


  4. Tracy

    Love that a size 34 bust was a size 16 then. Now it would be considered a size 10 I’d think.


  5. Carole Lombard could have worn that outfit on the ranch with her sweetie Clark Gable. I made myself a pair of culottes when my kids were little, so I could have a pair of shorts that were cooler in the summer. I cut them very wide, and all the gathers can hide HUGE pockets full of sandwiches, shovels, keys, a wallet – a whole day’s worth of stuff. More of a Utilikilt than a skirt/skort. Now I have about five or six of them, and I love them. No accidental visibility problems moving around at work, and those pockets. They also do not turn themselves around like skirts. I did mention pockets, right?


  6. Pingback: Embroidery Ideas from 1927: Sports Motifs and More | witness2fashion

  7. Pingback: 1930 Golf Culotte Dress | witness2fashion

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