The Elegant 1930s

Now that’s a wide pant. About 62″ around each hem.

This is a mock up for the 1930s beach pajama project, so they aren’t hemmed at the moment. I’m pleased to report that they for the client’s waist/hips nicely and the length is pretty good, though a bit long in the front. Of course she’ll need to wear the appropriate shoes for the final hem.

Wiiide leg pants, sans waistband

Frankenpattern 30s beach pajama pants

We’ve decided to do the pants in navy linen. The top (third image down, on the right) will be bi-colored in navy and the natural linen of Nick’s cowl. I’ll be looking for a period belt buckle and hopefully matching buttons for the top.

The beautiful linen used for Nick’s cowl


It’s the gowns!… Well it is, but it’s not.

I’m sure the first thing I noticed about 30s fashion were the gowns. Heavens, Ginger Rogers gliding across the dance floor (backwards and in heels) in some floaty confection of a dress. And her partner was very elegant too (Fred Astaire, of course). Flying Down to Rio and Top Hat – that feather dress (first on the left, above)! And I don’t even like feathers!

But what really interested me were the details. The backs, or backlessness, really. The surprisingly casual flesh reveal. What was that about? Weren’t all bygone eras repressed? (Well no, thankfully). And the arm holes. You’re going to think this is weird (I mean, who thinks about armholes unless they pinch, right?), but armholes in evening wear were often practically non-existent. Sometimes the front of the dress connected to the back with a super long strap or clever fold of the front material and I’m sure they had already discovered body tape because you never saw anything but tasteful side-boob. As a matter of fact, for as much flesh as you might see, it was always tasteful, never shocking or “undressed”. More like revealing just enough to invite the imagination. (40s gowns, with the little high belly flesh peek-a-boo, always seemed like a sad, lesser version to me).

1930s low back gown

Look how low that arm hole is. And I’ve seen lower. Lower backs too.

The other thing I love about 30s (and 40s) clothing are the great variety of seam details. Today we have nothing to compare with our athilesiure and yoga pants. The multitude of dart options, plethora of sleeve options, collars, jabots, flounces, pintucks, gathering, roucheing, pleats! They took this design stuff seriously! Take a suit type jacket, designed for a woman’s shape. Today it would have princess seams, possibly an asymetrical hem and/or collar (don’t get me wrong, I love those things). In the 30s the side seams may have been rouched, or perhaps the shoulders would be. The shoulders may have had extra seams that went from shoulder to hem, or had a clever fold detail. Pockets might have been designed into curved seams or been… triangular! There could have been self piping details. Not all in the same jacket, you understand. And it would have fit beautifully. The closest we see to those things today are in expensive ready to wear and some of the more interesting Vogue patterns.


Via:  Look at those seams on the left jacket and the pockets are integrated. And the collar – with buttons! How fun!

I’m enjoying continued exploration of 30s garments and even some girly details that I would disdain in modern styles. I wonder why that is?

What’s your favorite thing about 1930s styles? Or 20s, 40s, or 50s?

1930s Beach Pajamas inspiration

Sewing and wearing costumes is fun, but it turns out I really enjoy researching various historical periods – the clothing, fabrics, notions, reasons hemlines were a certain length or the development of construction methods and what was considered the most up to date.

Currently I’m re-reading my 1927 Butterick sewing manual and pursuing a couple of more detailed early 30s manuals, while working on a set of Beach Pajamas. They’re based on the pants from this 1931 McCall 6431 pattern:

and the top from this 1933 McCall 7344 pattern:

I’ve used a modern pant pattern to match the hip size of my client and altered it based on some wide leg 1970s pants. Actually, I altered it much further than that (Caution: Winging It). The modern pant leg opening was about 35″, the 70s pant about 42″, and as you can see, the desired effect is much wider. I suspect at least 60″, if not more. To keep from piecing the fabric, should we go cotton, I couldn’t go too crazy. I’ve mapped it out to about 60-64″ opening on 3.11 yards on 54″ linen. We’ll see.

My current plan for the top is to drape it on my client, based on the general size of a jacket I made her previously. What could go wrong there?

Next step: the pant mock up, likely in 4 hideous quilting cottons from the stash.

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.


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.


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.


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”:

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 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.
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