Why We Look the Way We Look Now

The modern style of clothes emerged in the Depression, and so did the focus on the figure beneath the fabric—with a startling result: as Americans' wardrobes became more similar, bodies diverged along class lines.

Hollywood hyped the new look, broadcasting it to the tens of millions of people who flocked to American cinemas every week during the movie-mad Depression. But the innovation in women’s fashion was chiefly Parisian. The new silhouettes of the 1930s were the product of a couturier world unlike any before or since. More than half of the leading Paris couture houses were headed by women—including the luminaries Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet, as well as now-obscure designers such as Louise Boulanger and Augusta Bernard. Like Vionnet, who had toiled as a seamstress from the age of 11, these women were not born to the elite. Tremendous talent and perseverance propelled them to the top.

Vionnet occupied the pinnacle, and with her contemporaries, she outfitted a revolution. Her liquid draping, on display in the deceptively simple, lithe cut of a 1938 gold lamé halter-top gown, lapped the contours of the figure. But her aims went beyond beauty. Vionnet, who called herself an “enemy of fashion,” embraced women’s liberation and social reform. She sought to improve working conditions in her atelier, providing her employees with free medical and dental care, maternity leave and babysitting services, and paid holidays, too.

This was the Parisian world that the Anglo-American designer Charles James entered in his mid-20s. Working in Vionnet’s wake, he learned to design by draping fabric directly on the body; his technique was fundamental to the sculptural approach for which he later became famous. In the 1930s, James debuted a dress that took the body-hugging style to extremes. His spiral design—a progenitor of the wrap dress—wound around the body and was secured at the hip with three clasps. James left none of the erotics of fashion to the imagination: he branded his formfitting creation the “Taxi dress,” as in a garment that could be put on (and taken off) in a cab.

The streamlined style of the 1930s was, well, tailor-made for a self-conscious era. This was elegance for people who didn’t want to stand out: inconspicuous consumption for the rich few and inexpensive good taste for the newly hard-pressed middle class, desperate to keep up appearances. Between 1929 and 1932, the American economy had nearly ground to a halt by every measure: income, employment, manufacturing output, and retail sales. When the sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd returned in the mid-1930s to Muncie, Indiana, the site they called Middletown in their classic study of American small-city life during the prosperous 1920s, they noted the circumspect mood of the times. People who still owned diamonds had stashed them in safe-deposit boxes. “They don’t have the face to wear them nowadays,” one man told the Lynds. Affluent Middletowners favored “less pretentiousness in dress.”

Sportswear epitomized what people meant when they invoked the “American Way of Life,” a phrase that came into frequent use during the Depression. The new clothing was democratic and unifying, pragmatic and versatile. On Seventh Avenue, Claire McCardell adapted Vionnet’s draped styles for ready-to-wear and was soon striking out in her own distinctively austere style. The machine-made version of James’s Taxi dress was sold at Best & Co. department stores in a cellophane package. And, courtesy of the new federal funding that had poured into vocational education starting in 1917, there were armies of women trained in home economics who, when they saw a dress they liked in a magazine or a movie, went straight to their sewing machines. The experts might have scoffed, but the untrained eye was hard-pressed to tell the designer original from the knockoffs.

Modern fashion in dresswear was a thrilling leveler, yet the minimalist style didn’t camouflage all differences. Whereas the new draped men’s suits worked magic on lumpiness, women’s fashions—those “ruthless new dresses,” in Vogue’s words—betrayed every imperfection. Whether or not Wallis Simpson actually uttered the line often attributed to her, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” the sentiment suited her time. Dieting wasn’t new. The first “reducing salon” had opened in Chicago in 1914, and flappers had pioneered the pursuit of thinness. But there was no disguising the body in 1930s clothes. Waists rose from flapper indeterminacy to their natural spot. Brassieres separated and lifted breasts, each to its own position, supplanting the monobosom of the preceding century. Small hips, broad shoulders, and a slim yet shapely torso were all necessary to carry off the look.

Designers, of course, imagined that in releasing women from their corsets, they were giving free rein to the body. “A woman’s muscles,” Vionnet said, “are the best corset one could imagine.” Yet the new aesthetic marked a swerve in the history of body ideals. Not so many decades earlier, poverty in the industrializing West had inspired a standard of beauty that emphasized amplitude. Fashionable Belle Epoque women padded their clothes to create a sense of heft, and to produce hips that were at least as wide as their shoulders. During the Depression, the poor starved and the well-to-do matron went hungry by choice.

Liberation from the corset meant enslavement to the reducing salon, to the appetite-suppressing cigarette, and to the girdle, its own popularity enabled by the invention of elastic materials like Lastex (an ancestor of Lycra), patented in 1931. A slender and athletic physique was often identified with Americans, in a reversal we might now envy: today French women don’t get fat, but then the Gallic type was classically zaftig. Still, as Vogue reminded its readers, trim perfection was not an American birthright: “It is not enough to recognize the fact that you have a figure. Unless you are one woman in three thousand you will have to admit that it is not ideal.”

Presented by

Deborah Cohen, who teaches history at Northwestern University, is the author of Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions. Her most recent book, published in April 2013, is Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain.

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