Since I’ve ‘discovered’ Pinterest, I’ve also reaffirmed my love of the idea of the capsule wardrobe. I don’t know why I love these so much, maybe it’s just that my own clothing collection is rather hit-and-miss and I often find it hard to know what to put on. Whatever the reason, I love those graphics that show you 16 or 20 items of clothing with accessories, then show you how to combine and rearrange them to create 30 or 40 outfits. I note they are often in neutral colours especially beige, which is a colour I rarely wear, and I’m guessing that the neutral palette makes it easier to put together ‘a look’.
As I work from home and have no colleagues, apart from Mabel and Malcolm, that is, I usually schlep about in scruffy tops and aged comfy jeans. I’m a bit ashamed to admit my own shortcomings, because I not only enjoy the history of costume and fashion, but when I created my 1930s mystery series, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, I decided to make my main character a mannequin in a fashion warehouse, just so I could indulge my love of clothes. I regularly mention clothing and fabrics in the stories, which some readers–especially gentlemen–Stuart Aken, I’m looking at you–have found a bit trying, to say the least. Soz, guys.
All this got me to thinking, ‘What would Dottie wear?’ Being a 1930s mystery series featuring well-to-do families in between-the-wars England, there are a lot of visits and house parties. So what would a young woman need to take with her for, say, a weekend in the country in Summer? I’m leaving out tweeds, because a) I abhor shooting and hunting and so, consequently, does Dottie, and b) no woman looks good in tweeds. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Where’s the glamour in a tweed coat and skirt? Answer: there is none.
Here we go. Oh, and by the way, I’m taking the role of Dottie’s maid Janet for this trip, so I will do the packing.
Firstly, I will be packing nightwear in the form of a negligee and matching wrap. Dottie is 20ish so there’s no way this girl will be wearing a massive up-to-the-neck-down-to-the-floor cotton nightgown, she’s not 90! The negligee will be ankle-length, and made of something soft and sheer like artificial silk or crepe-de-chine, probably in soft blues or pinks, with lace edging in cream of a deeper cream/coffee colour and narrow ribbon in a matching colour to fasten. Women’s underwear came in the form of long bloomers, to the knee or just above the knee, in either a loose and light sheer fabric with lace trim, or in close-fitting, machine-knitted cotton. There were also teddies and camisoles, worn with a sense of modern naughtiness by the younger women and viewed with maternal concern by the older. Petticoats with supporting lace or embroidered cupped bodices. Bras as we know them today were still waiting in the future, but the complete lack of support of the well-named ‘flapper’ style of the twenties was no longer fashionable. Pantyhose was still to come, so stockings were worn with a suspender (garter) belt and no doubt thrilled men then as they do now. Stockings for day-wear would be sturdier than their evening-wear counterparts. I must remember to pack some silly little slippers just to keep Dottie’s feet warm in the bedroom, and the hallway to the bathroom and back.
There will be a day outfit in the form of a day dress or suit/costume. If we are travelling light, I think we might manage with one or two, but if we have a whole car to fill, we might take three or four outfits just for a two-day trip. The style for the 1930s was fairly straight but more feminine and less plain than the very straight, quite masculine styles of the 20s. Picture a dress with a very slight flair, an A-line skirt, or perhaps quite close-fitting to the knees then flaring out, gently for a day dress and more dramatically for an evening dress when the wearer might want to dance and feel the fabric swirl out about her. The length would reach to the mid-calf for day-wear with ankle-length or floor-length for evening. Shoes had quite high heels, say three inches or so, and were often buckle-fastening or laced. With the exception of tennis shoes and gumboots, shoes would have been made of leather.
Styles were plain in execution, but with a lot of embellishment such as bows or jabottes at the neck, functional or decorative buttons on pockets, sleeves and bodices. There were variations in lapel size and shape, from deep and wide, to small and standing up straight, from squared off, to drooping downward. Belts, cuffs, shoulder tabs and waistband tabs were very ‘in’. The zip was still a few years away from general fashion use, so buttons, hooks-and-eyes, and buckles were used far more than we do today. For day-wear necklines were quite high. Fabrics would be mainly cotton, linen or wool, although man-made fibres that laundered easily such as crepe-de-chine and artificial silk for blouses or light summer dresses were popular. And of course, no lady would go out without a little clutch purse, gloves, and a hat, even in summer.
Hat boxes could accommodate two or three hats depending on size and shape, so Dottie doesn’t need to worry about wearing the same hat all weekend! I’d suggest a neat little beret for going out in the day time, or perhaps a felt cloche hat with a rakish feather, some beading or ribbons, or if the weather is very warm and sunny, I think she’ll need a wide-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun off her face.
Then obviously she will be changing for dinner, so a long evening gown is a definite must. And a girl can’t wear the same frock two evenings in a row, so perhaps I’ll take two gowns. White was a popular colour for an evening dress for a young woman, although shades of red, brown and green were also worn. Older ladies tended to favour black too, though this was not usually seen on young women due to its funereal connotation. Gowns would be flaring, long, and low-cut, or with cut-out sections in the bodice, and were made from taffeta, satin, or silk mixes: silk-satin, silk-organdie, silk-crepe. The shoulders were often bare, or the gown might be more or less backless, and rather daring. No wonder the gentlemen flocked to light a lady’s cigarette. Smoking was gaining popularity amongst the young and it was more socially acceptable for women to smoke in public. Shoes for evening wear would be strappy and often silver or gold in colour, and perfect for dancing in, but affording little protection from a partner with two left feet. In case the apologetic gentleman should ask a young lady to step out on the veranda to look at the stars, a lady would also require a wrap, and I’m sorry to say these were very often animal fur, although silks, brocades, velvets and fine wools were also worn.
I think we have everything we need for a summertime weekend in the country. As a maid, of course, I will require only my uniform, a plain dress, sensible shoes and an overcoat. My main fashion pleasure will be confined to taking care of the precious garments of my mistress. I could never hope to own such things.
5 thoughts on “1930s capsule wardrobe”
Ah, Night and Day. As I recall (well, to be honest, I recall very little these days so I had to revisit my review; one of 351 I’ve kept in the file) my mention was brief and, in the spirit of the novel, upbeat. As a man, I find the clothing female characters wear is, shall we say, less absorbing than the personality and the body it covers!
But your fiction is sufficiently entertaining for me to accept your understandable forays into fashion descriptions.
Keep up the good work!
I’m not really getting at you, Stuart! I actually added in more detail due to requests from some readers who like to know what the protagonist is wearing. That required even more research!
Love the 30s and the clothing of that era! I’m like you, a habitual scruffy dresser who wishes for the perfect capsule wardrobe… funnily enough, when I was in the Borders last week, I walked past a clothing shop which has a ladies Tweed jacket in the window. It was smart and sharply tailored, but no. When I was a child, we had a box of my grandmother’s 30s clothing (including a fox fur cape, heads and all) and boy, people were so narrow in those days.
Believe it or not but I actually do have a ‘flapper dress’ although I cannot recall the last time I wore it. Good points are that the waist is not defined in flapper dresses which, in my case, maybe a perfect reason to resurrect it!
However, as I age, I do admit that I may be tempted to invest in a pair of ‘dainty lace gloves’.
I tried the gloves, they didn’t really work for me, I’m not a dainty person. I bet you looked amazing in your flapper dress though!