Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs

The Fashion and Textile Museum is one of London’s hidden gems. Despite its location in ultra-hip Bermondsey, just down the road from The Shard, it remains a relatively peaceful destination, despite hosting exhibitions of the highest quality.

I was bowled over by the Museum’s 1920s ‘Jazz Age’ exhibition (my favourite era) and excited when I heard about ‘Night & Day: 1930s Fashion and Photographs’. So many historic events took place during this decade: Gandhi’s Salt Marsh, Amy Johnson flying solo from England to Australia, the abdication of Edward VIII, the outbreak of World War II: how were those turbulent times reflected in the world of fashion?

The first thing I noticed was that the clothes, for the most part, were not nearly as appealing as those of the 1920s. The world had changed, following the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, and much of the vitality and optimism captured in women’s clothing leached away. Without a doubt, the decade that followed was far more sober.

So, while ‘Vogue’ remained a source of inspiration, the 1930s saw the birth of a new variety of women’s magazines, aimed at “respectable” working and middle class women, who were encouraged to identify with these magazines by chatty editorials.

Bronze velvet dress with decorative lace collar, diamante buttons and padded shoulders

During the 1930s, window shopping reached its peak, London’s Oxford Street proving a veritable Aladdin’s Cave for the erstwhile shopper. When ‘Mass Observation’ – a social anthropological group founded in 1937 – talked to women about shopping it found that most women preferred to window shop before perusing magazines and studying photographs of film stars and royalty for inspiration.

A key strength of this exhibition is how it describes trends and themes separate from – but linked to – fashion. The evening gowns below are taken from its ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ section, which discusses how dancing became a national pastime, with Ginger Rogers’ wardrobe a huge influence.

From there, you move on to ‘Movie Stars’; this was a decade which saw numerous cinemas built – an escape from the reality of the world, as well as a “respectable” pastime for married women. Film stars became key fashion influencers and pattern companies adopted these stars’ gowns for mass production. I love the lamé evening dress below, which has a halter-effect neck, ruched bodice seam and dipping hemline.

However, the impact of the 1929 stock market crash and ensuing Depression cannot be overstated and resulted in unprecedented numbers of women entering the workforce. A third of women over the age of 15 in the UK worked outside the home, mainly in low-paid ‘women’s jobs’ such as home-making, child-rearing, retail and sweated industries. Employers remained reluctant to hire women for jobs traditionally held for men – and pay remained desperately unequal.

The 1920s might have offered rebellion and new opportunities – but that phase didn’t last. Women were still expected to get married – and, if they had a job, give that up to become stay-at-home mothers. 1930s women took pride in their homes and most made their own clothes, like the two cotton dresses below which use Liberty floral prints and reflect the decade’s love of nostalgia.

There were some encouraging developments. Larger numbers of women than previously attended university, with some of them entering professions such as the civil service. Again, the clothes reflected this new lifestyle: see below.

However, the civil service, education sector and new professions all operated a ‘marriage bar’ which forced women to resign from their jobs when they wed (I’m gritting my teeth as I type this).

It’s worth noting, also, that during the 1930s one in four women in paid employment worked in domestic service, carrying out hard and heavy work, usually without the electrical appliances that we take for granted today. It was a difficult life: long working hours and few holidays; Sundays, plus one half day per fortnight off, if you were lucky.

The concluding section of the exhibition is dedicated to society photographer Cecil Beaton and 30 of his 1930s photos. One of the most significant photographers of the 20th century, this selection of work includes Beaton’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II taken at Buckingham Palace and portraits of Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon.

‘Night and Day is well thought-out and put together, as the Fashion & Textile Museum’s exhibitions always are. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the 1920s exhibition, but that’s because the fashion – and, let’s be honest, the glamour – of that era appeal far more to me. I find the 1930s of huge interest historically, but for the most part can take or leave its clothes. The Fashion & Textile Museum itself, however, will forever retain a special place in my heart.

5 comments

    • Thank you so much, Melanie – I’m so glad you found the post interesting. I’m continually fascinated by how clothes tell the story of an era (and vice versa) and I can’t wait to see what the Museum comes up with next.

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  1. So interesting! I completely agree – love how clothes can relay the history of their era in such subtle, yet telling ways, based on something as simple as the placement (or lack of) a specific design, pattern, lacework, etc. This sort of reminds me of the “fashion through the years” part of the V&A museum that my mom and I visited in September!

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  2. I’m with you on 20’s vs 30’s, though I do love the look of Nora’s clothes in the first Thin Man movies! It’s especially interesting to view clothing within its historical context– something we often don’t understand fully until decades later.

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