Tag Archives: 1934

Arts and Crafts Meets 1930s in One Lovely Dress

The dress above was part of the auction purchase I’ve written about previously. In this case, the dress (and little cape, which I’ll show in a moment) were exactly as described and as shown. I wanted this set because, while not strictly a sporting ensemble, the dress is very much in line with the sportswear aesthetic of the era. Take off the stenciled decoration, add a belt, and you have a typical tennis dress of the early 1930s.

In analyzing this dress and capelet, I first consulted the 1934 Butterick sewing pattern book in my possession.  I love vintage fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, but in order to see great representations of design details on clothing for the mass market, sewing pattern books cannot be equaled.

Let’s start with the back of the dress. In the early 1930s, the back became an area of fashion interest. It might have been due to the increase in sunbathing and tanning, or maybe the exposed back was making up for the more covered legs. At any rate, an exposed back was in favor on everything from swimwear to evening dresses. Tennis dresses were no exception.  Look carefully at my dress to see the deep, squared-off neckline, similar to view B in the catalog illustration.

As impractical as it may seem, a long row of back buttons was also commonly seen in my 1934 catalog. The view above combines the buttons with a deep V-shaped back neckline.

My dress does not actually button. The wonderful old bakelite buttons are sewn over snap fasteners. I’ll tell why I think the maker chose this method later.

It’s the little matching cape that really gives this ensemble an early 1930s look. These capelets are everywhere in my catalog.

The red piping is a great touch.

The shape of the collar tends to give it a bit of a sailor look, which was another popular design theme in the early 1930s.

You might have noticed that my dress has princess seaming, in which the front is formed by three pieces, with the seaming forming the shape of the bust and the waist. At first I didn’t see any evidence of this design feature, but then one appeared.

I am thinking that my dress must had originally had a matching belt, though the placement of the back buttons does not make allowances for one. But essentially all the dresses in this catalog have a belt at the natural waist.

The stenciling is an interesting feature. The maker might have been inspired by Art Deco motifs, or even the Arts and Crafts movement or the Wiener Werkstätte.

This set was made by a competent dressmaker, but I must say that button holes were not her strong suit. Maybe that’s why the back closes with snaps rather than with buttons.

I hope you can see how beautiful the linen material is. The set is a bit darker than my photos show, giving the piece a lovely handcrafted feel.


Filed under Sportswear, Vintage Clothing

The Dress that Launched a Thousand Sleeves

Lovers of old movies and followers of fashion history will recognize the image above as Joan Crawford in the famous dress from Letty Lynton, from 1932. The clothes were designed by the designer at M-G-M, Gilbert Adrian. So much has been written about this dress (with one of the best analyses coming from friend Susan at Witness2Fashion) that I really don’t have much new to say about it. But while looking through my 1934 Butterick pattern catalog I could not help but notice how influential were the sleeves on this dress.

Throughout the late 1920s and into the 30s, fashionable hips were impossibly slim. One way to give the illusion of leaner hips is to widen the shoulders. That’s what Adrian did with these spectacular ruffled sleeves. It didn’t take women long to realize the trick that worked for Crawford might do them some good as well.  Clothing manufacturers rushed copies of the dress into production, and it was a huge hit.

Two years later, the ruffled sleeve was a standard in women’s clothing. While most women would not wear the over-the-top version from the movie, ruffled sleeves were available from very full to barely there.  Even sleeves that were cut relatively straight often had a pleat at the top of the sleeve cap that gave a fluttery effect.

Even though there were all sorts of ruffled sleeves, the one thing all the dresses has in common were the very straight, very slim skirt.

The bateau neckline and the extensions over the shoulders tend to further elongate the shoulders.

Here are ruffles in a slightly more tailored look.

As much as people love fashion and looking stylish, it’s doubtful that most women across America could have pulled off a full-blown Lynton look. Most of the actual dresses from this era that I’ve seen have ruffles more like the dress pictured above. In fact, this look is quite commonly found on the vintage market.


Filed under Proper Clothing, Sewing

1934 Summer Fashions from Butterick Patterns

Last fall luck was with me and I found a Butterick counter catalog from 1934. I say lucky because these are so hard to find these days, and when they appear online they always come with a hefty price tag. What’s really amazing about a resource like this catalog is that every time I look through it I notice something new. So I hope this post will be somewhat focused, without me running here and there with a hundred different observations.

Of course I’m most interested in the sportswear, and this catalog is full of superb examples. But because the catalog offers a wide range of clothing, comparisons between sportswear, day clothing, evening gowns, and even lingerie, can easily be made. One of the best tips I know of when it comes to dating sportswear is to look at a piece as though it were fashionable day or evening wear. Things like swimsuits and tennis dresses often have the same sort of fashionable details you’d see in other clothing.

You can see that the design above is the same play set at the top of this post. The pattern actually contained all four pieces, so a woman could easily turn a play look into streetwear. It’s a little too early for the one-piece playsuit with matching skirt, but it’s easy to see how sportswear was headed in that direction. The shorts look almost exactly like the lingerie panties so commonly seen in the early 1930s.

It would not be long before the pleated shorts as seen on the right became the most popular type.

Have you noticed the bare backs? It wasn’t just popular in sportswear. Halter tops were fashionable, as were tops that fastened at the shoulder, and were bare in the back like the top on the right…

and like this evening gown.

By looking at these drawings you might think that no woman in 1934 had hips, and that all were very tall. That’s partly due to the elongated scale of the drawing, but also because by 1934 dress waists had become shortened as skirts got longer. Of course, “waistlines” were actually at the hip in 1927 and then they began the journey up toward the waist. This didn’t happen over night.

I read somewhere that before the mid 1930s waists tended to draw the eye down with seams and piecing like the downward pointing yoke of the shorts in the first photo. But by 1934 or so waists started moving and pointing toward the face. Skirts became very slim and quite plain. The details were mostly on the bodice, above the waist.

What makes pattern books especially helpful in seeing trends like this is that unlike catalogs of ready made clothes that feature just what was designed and made for that season, pattern books would carry a popular pattern for several years. Because the patterns are numbered pretty much consecutively, it’s easy to tell the older designs from the newer ones. The dress above with the piecing below the waist is an older design.

I had to show this pattern because it reminds me so much of the nautical pant set I recently added to my collection.

This one is interesting because it’s one of the very few designs in the catalog that calls for a zipper.

It’s hard to understand the logic behind having a dress that buttons up the back, but regardless, I love this look so much. It came with a little jacket, as that V-neck in the back is a bit too bare for the street.

Most of the dresses could be made very sporty, or slightly less so. The two dresses in the center could be made from the same pattern, with a choice of collar, sleeves, and belt.

One of the oldest designs offered in this catalog is this romper. Judging by the number of the pattern and the hair styles of the models, my guess is that this one dates from 1929 or 1930. Maybe Butterick continued to sell it because it was popular with dance students.




Filed under Proper Clothing, Sewing, Sportswear

Ad Campaign – Forstmann Woolens, 1934

You see above how slim and graceful you will look this Spring in Forstmann Tweeds… miracles of softness and pliability.  The trim tailored suit combines Forstmann’s matched tweeds, with a plain jacket and plaid skirt in a new yellow-beige.  The slender coat is of feather-soft herring-bone tweed in the new Guardsman blue.  Forstmann Tweeds tailor to perfection, are light-weight yet warm.  Stores everywhere are featuring them in all their wealth of lovely colors… in costumes and by the yard.

It’s hard to imagine, but there really was a time when the quality of the fabric was one of the biggest selling points of a garment.  Today, nobody seems to notice that the new tee shirt in the shopping cart is so thin one can see through it.  That new wool coat with a mystery synthetic added to compensate for the poor quality of the wool is also accepted without question.

People used to recognize poor quality fabric, and there was even a name for it – shoddy.  Used as a noun, shoddy was originally a poor quality wool fabric that was made from the waste from the wool manufacturing process.

I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve learned in the past two months while making my “couture” wool jacket.  Probably the most important thing I’ve realized is that quality materials make a tremendous difference in the results of a sewing project.  With all the time and effort that has gone into this jacket, I’m so glad that I splurged and bought the best wool and silk I could find.

It has also made me think that a fabric stash clean out is in order.  I’ve been holding onto lots of odds and ends, thinking that one day I might find them useful, but the truth is that now I’m spoiled for the finer fibers.

I was recently listening to a sewing expert talk about why sewing has gotten to be so popular.  One thing he said was really interesting.  He said that people used to sew to save money, but today most people sew in order to have the nicer things that they could not otherwise afford.  It’s now cheaper to buy most clothes than it is to make them, but in the case of a custom made wool and silk jacket, the only way for the average woman to have one is to make it herself.  I’m so glad that I did.


Filed under Advertisements

Southern Agriculturist, February, 1934

Sending love to the people of Newtown.  Peace to us all.

Illustrator:  Mary Anderson

Copyright: Kirk Rankin


Filed under Fashion Magazines

Woman’s Home Companion, August 1934

I’m a bit under the weather today, so I’ve got no witty words about this lovely cover from 1934.

Feel free to add your own caption in the comments!


Filed under Fashion Magazines

Sewing Lessons

As a former teacher, I’m always interested to see how teaching has changed over the years.  We like to think that with all the new information about how children develop and learn, that modern education is an improvement over what was going on in classrooms in the 1930s.  But educational thought is not linear, but rather, it is cyclical, with ideas falling from favor only to return 20 years down the road.

I wasn’t even sure they still teach “home ec” in schools these days, so I went to the website of my high school, and sure enough, there it is: “Apparel Development.”    The course description says that the learner will “develop and produce a clothing product.”  And then it goes on to say that the student will develop a business plan for an apparel business, using skills learned in math, science, English…  As  former educator, I can see that this is just so much educate-talk.  Seriously, what is wrong with just teaching the kids to sew?  It’s a valuable skill even if it does not  lead to a stint on Project Runway or  a career in the fashion industry.

I took home ec in the 1970s.  I already knew how to sew, and loved it, so the thought of spending an hour of school time at a sewing machine was irresistible!  Not that it was perfect – one of my teachers was absolutely mean, and I spent a great deal of my time helping the other girls because said teacher had not a clue about sewing.

The way we were taught to sew in the 70s was that you had to pick a pattern from a pre-approved list of simple dresses, buy the fabric and then we worked together, first with cutting the fabric, and then into the making of the dress.  The problem with this approach was that most of the students  bumbled through the process, trying to follow the written directions as best they could.  No two people were ever doing the same thing, which was fine if you knew what you were doing, but frustrating if this was your first time at a sewing machine.

Finding this student-made book from the 1930s was a revelation!  The girls learned the skills needed to make a garment before tackling the first project.  Have you ever wondered why the sewing directions in a 1920s or 1930s pattern are so sketchy?  Well, it is because the directions did not explain how to make a placket (or a French seam, or a ruffled edge); the pattern company assumed you already knew how to make it.

In the 1970s, I was never taught how to make a placket or a French seam, or a ruffle.  I was taught only what my simple pattern required.

A small taste of what Loretta Wiese of Berlin, Wisconsin learned in 1933-34 at Princeton High School:

Collar and facing for blouse or middy

Fitted facing

Bias binding


Buttonholes (needs to practice!)

French seam

And because this is 1933, mending a hole

Principles of Design and Color

Anyone beside me completely envious of that penmanship?


Filed under Curiosities, Sewing