The Elegant 1930s


As I do more research into various periods of historic costume I find myself having a more and more difficult time properly trimming various garments. Sure there are places that sell historic trims, but how often are those going to match what I’m making? Many historic trims were made from the same fabric (or contrast fabric) as the garment they went on.

My search into historic trims led me to fabric manipulation and to ribbon trims for hats. Many of the techniques are related.

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I just got a reprint of an old book on hat trims and this is my first attempt. It’s a ribbon cockade that goes on a hat or is for a dress decoration in the 30s/40s. I made it with a thinner that usual grosgrain ribbon I had on hand that is about 3/4″ wide. I’d say I used about a yard. The technique involved folding the ribbon into a continuous strip of triangles and tracking the selvedge, not unlike making ribbon roses as a kid. A final trim would have a button in the center and maybe another layer of trim under this one.

Just when I’m researching 1930s corsets and extrapolating a 30s garment from a teens one, Mrs. Depew unveils one of the intermediate eras, the 1920s Foundation Corset.

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It’s hard to see exactly how many seams it has, but I imagine it has four more in the back. The top line is part way between the over bust Victorian models and the shape of the 1911 corset. The bottom length and garters look to be long enough to both shape and smooth. Of course it’s slimming, or rather flattening… I’d say my 30s corset falls nicely in line.

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Mrs. Depew does have their own 30s pattern as well.

Should you find yourself looking for 1930s sewing patterns, I highly suggest checking out the excellent New Vintage Lady. She specializes in patterns for the Stout (plus sized) lady for primarily 1930s and 1940s. You can find her patterns for download on Etsy. Here is her blog, which includes info about her patterns, vintage advertisements and catalog pages, historic photos and her adventures in sewing. A lady after my own heart. I’m still making my way through her blog, but she has lots of great info, including vintage dos and don’ts for the plus sized figure and a primer on how to read vintage patterns.

il_570xN.836183478_56ihDid I mention that she illustrates all her own patterns and has an indy comic, Vintageville? I love her illustrations!

You can also follow her on Pinterest and all over the internets. Enjoy!

model in an early 1930s Spencer corset

The 1920s are known for their idealized flapper girl, with her boyish figure. The waist had all but disappeared or appeared dropped from it’s proper anatomical location, making the hips seem slimmer, and busts were minimized. By the 1930s the waist was reemerging, lines were more graceful, curvier and the overall clothing more elegant and lady-like. The waist was back, but the figure was still very smooth and idealized. So what is a girl to do with her curves? This isn’t the Victorian era. Corsets weren’t employed by the general populace to completely rearrange the figure, but it did need it’s “unlovely” bulges smoothed out.
Lordosis Backline 1930s adYou’d be surprised what was considered unlovely bulge. According to one ad, the curve at the small of ones back was unsightly. It was referred to as “Lordosis Backline.” Wikipedia says that Lordosis is the normal inward lordotic curvature of the lumbar and cervical regions of the spine, but an excessive curve is commonly known as a sway back. I don’t know if the phrase “Lordosis Backline” was commonplace or a marketing ploy used to exploit a real condition, but more women than not, wore their foundations 14 – 16 hours a day.
Spencer corsets 1939
Another ad has a little girl asking her mother if she will “stick out” like her when she’s older, with dad looking on, snickering. How, pray tell, do you get rid of that curve, that “figure fault”? By smoothing out the backside! Look at images of Hollywood starlets in their 1930s evening gowns and you will notice that the bum was not at all prominent. In fact it’s lack was a little boyish. Restricting undergarments went all the way down over the bum or to the thighs.
Take a look at these before and after images of a woman who had pretty minor “figure problems”:
Spencer_1941_2

This is the beginning of the switch from corsets to girdles and the era saw a surge in pre-made garments and professional made-to-measure items. Inevitably there were some holdovers to the tried and true corset and others may have desired more “smoothing” (more here meaning corseting, compression), hence the variety.

The biggest factor in going from corset to girdle must have been the wider range of fabrics available. Corsets of the previous centuries could only constrict. In fact there is a fabric made specifically for corsets. It’s woven in such a way that it has almost zero stretch. It’s called coutil and is traditionally a very tightly woven herringbone (there is a more modern satin as well). Real, good quality corsets, even today, are made with coutil. Period. There can be a fashion fabric outer layer and a lining, but if the main material isn’t coutil (and spring or spiral steel bones, but that’s a different conversation), it won’t last and the shape it gives you won’t stay true. With the advent of man made fabrics girdles could be made that smoothed and gently compressed, but allowed the wearer more range of movement. Some garments were constructed mostly of coutil with some stretch (possibly elastic or the period equivalent of power-mesh) added in gussets across the thigh and sometimes as a top band. I think of these as transition garments and this is what I will be making for this 1930s project.
If you do a search for “1930s corset” you aren’t going to get many hits. Search “1930s girdle” and you’ll get some. Search for a specific company’s garments and you’ll get a lot more info. Try “1930s Spencer” and you start to get somewhere. Better yet, visit Corsetiere.net and you’ll get a plethora of information on various companies’ garments through their history (through today in a couple special cases!).
Not finding an period corset patterns, but finding many ads for corset makers of the times, tells me that corset making as a home art was largely dead or dying by the 1930s. There are some patterns for period girdles, but I’m not looking for stretch in this case, nor was every woman at that time. There is nothing that says I can’t make my own 1930s corset, so I will.
As for the shape of the 1930s foundation garment, whether it’s a corset or girdle, it hadn’t changed much from the early century. It was long at the thigh and came to some height between directly under the bust and the waist. The single bra+corset/girdle garments are not something I want to try as a first shot and some are actually a long line bra over a corset/girdle.
What I’ve found are several patterns or variations on a couple patterns from about 1911-12 that I plan to test as is, then modify. One has 5 panels per side and will be my basic model. Another has a couple shaped gussets included. While I like the latter’s shape, the pattern doesn’t lend itself to enlargement as easily as the other. My plan is to make the 1911 and figure out the gusset placement, modified for power mesh or the like, after.
See related posts:

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These patterns are the 1911 corset from Bridges on the Body and the Laughing Moon #113 from 1900-09.

First, the caveats: 1. this is an unfair comparison – sort of. The two patterns are clearly very different garments, but both are under bust corsets of sorts, 2. The two patterns aren’t quite the same size. The bottom (1911) is larger by almost two inches at the waist and hips, and 3. The bottom pattern does not currently include a seam allowance at the front or back. 4. I have the back piece of the LM to far too the left. The grommet holes are in the solid fabric of the 1911.

I’ve made the LM several times and like it overall. Being a waist cincher and having only one set of curves, I consider it a good basis on which to judge other similar garments as I did with an Elizabethan corset here.

Focusing on the back pattern, the 1911 which is new to me, what am I noticing in the two patterns?
1. The 1911 is quite short in front top and rather tall in back. Since I personally find the LM to be short, this is going to be a problem.
2. The 1911 is really long at the bottom. Something like 19″ overall length at this size (a 42 waist / 44 hips, which translates to about 30″ waist / 40″ hips). You aren’t seeing the suggested boning placement. I’d say they are similar in length to a typical Victorian corset. This leaves quite a bit of material as a form-fitting skirting piece, which should make for smooth lines. I’d say this will go all the way past my bum. The unboned skirt will be about half the total length.
3. I don’t know where they are measuring the hips exactly. Logically it should be where the pattern looks largest, but logic doesn’t always prevail. The fact that I had to make my usual one size jog between waist and good tells me it’s probably going to work for me.
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4. The individual piece shapes look logical to me and match those of the LM reasonably well. There are two pieces in the back, a sort of side-front and two fronts. The skinny piece next to the front on the LM (which you can see lapped by the third in the image above) never made much sense to me, but might if it were a full corset.
5. There is a busk in the front, but it looks like the back could either go solid and non-opening (which i don’t think they did) or have traditional lacing.

Of course I have and to complicate things and I won’t be content to make the garment as is. My plan is to use this as the basis for a 1930s corset. I will be making it up in coutil with power mesh inserts.

Next step – a mock up.

Everything about this post from Witness2Fashion is so true for all custom garments.

Bonus – it’s got sewing photos and ads from the 1930s.

Source: Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick Two.

We’re starting a fun new project – creating a mini-wardrobe for a woman who is a docent at a local historical site, Hearst Castle.

Myrna Loy in When Ladies Meet - 1934

Myrna Loy in When Ladies Meet – 1934

The docents wear 30s attire and our docent prefers the early to mid period, when the clothing was flowing, elegant and feminine. I like that the period also mixed in harder lines with interesting seams, buttoned bits and unique necklines. Our docent has requested up to four outfits – a day dress or two, an evening dress and pajamas (PJs weren’t just for sleeping – they were for lounging, as they can be today, and beach-wear). We’ve added one very important item – a corset or girdle. More on the specific garments later.

I’ve always loved the elegance of the 30s gowns. The sleek, body hugging lines of a bias cut, the low backs and the glowing fabrics. At the top of my fabulous fashion list are Myrna Loy (If you’ve never seen The Thin Man, I highly recommend it. Myrna was as smart and sassy as she was fashionable. She made the difficult role of straight-man look effortless, including the occasional bit of physical comedy) and Ginger Rogers (who, rather famously, “did everything he [Fred Astaire] could do, but backwards and in heels” – I wish I could remember who said that). Even their day-wear in films was elegant, as the clothing of our docent should be. They are portraying the guests of Mr. Hearst and could be anyone from a starlet to the wife of someone who worked at Mr. Hearst’s magazine.

So where do you go if you want some accurate reproduction 1930s clothing? It turns out that is a very good question.

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