I adore fashion history: my favourite project I did at primary school was a talk all about the history of fashion (complete with visual aids of course) and since then I’ve found our style heritage and the social history woven into its fabrics endlessly fascinating. As such, when asked my favourite vintage era, I find myself hard-pressed to give a concrete answer. My first instinct would be the glamorous femininity of the 1950s New Look, but then there’s ’60s shift dresses and ’70s bohemia too. And what of wartime utilitarian style, and the spirit of make do and mend? The ’20s is my all-time favourite literary era, the dawn of High Modernism and dazzling fashions, so that has to be a contender too… And that’s just the twentieth century. I love them all, but there’s something about the understated elegance of late ’30s and early ’40s style that I’m drawn to time and time again.
This period of fashion can be underrated, its demure cuts and feminine details overshadowed by the drama of fashion history’s style statements, from the ’50s circle skirt to the ’70s maxi. However, there’s something about its subtle simplicity that draws me to it: the silhouettes are timeless, the cuts infinitely flattering and wearable. Following the spectacle of the 1920s and after effects of the Great Depression, hemlines became more conservative and the waist-line returned to its natural position, while cloche hats worn atop Marcel waves remained a style staple. Paris couturiers took inspiration from American cinema: leg-o-mutton sleeves (Irene Dunn), ‘Empress Eugenie’ hats (Greta Garbo) or Scarlett O’Hara’s full skirts (Vivien Leigh) soon took on mass appeal.
It was iconic couturier Elsa Schiaparelli who introduced the zip, synthetic fabrics, simple suits and bold colours – such as shocking pink – to ’30s fashion. Soon the trend for wide shoulders and narrow waists was everywhere. Madeleine Vionnet popularised the innovative bias cut, creating dresses that skimmed and sculpted curves, celebrating the female form. Empire lines were also abundant with seams below the bust, fitted waists and cropped jackets drawing attention to the shoulders. For day, skirts were mostly mid-calf length; this frugal, practical cut that was feminine without fullness stayed in style throughout the war years. The day dresses of the late ’30s and early ’40s are my dream style for all the above reasons – if only the elegant tea dress was so ubiquitous now.
The soft, pretty dresses I’ve described above are the vintage Holy Grail for me – but fairly rare to come by at a price I can afford! As well as the beautiful shade of mint green and complementary pastel hues of the delicate floral print, the Vionnet-inspired cut is what drew me to this dress straight away when I saw it at a recent Judy’s Vintage Fair (you can read about my longstanding Judy’s love here!). If you have curves like me then the style is flattering – skimming not clinging, it nips you in in the right places. It’s definitely a later take on this era’s style of dress as it’s in such good condition and the shoulder pads say ’80s to me – although as I’ve said, they were into their strong shoulders a good forty years before too, so I like to think it’s not too inauthentic! The buttons down the front and bow details were the icing on the cake, and at £18 it was a complete bargain.
As soon as proper Spring weather arrived I took my new old dress out for a spin. The resplendent backdrop of the Meadows in May, blooming with transient cherry blossom, seemed perfectly fitting for my vintage tea dress. It was even warm enough to wear it with only a cardigan – this beautiful mint green cropped one is from Boden and looks as though it was practically made for the dress. I’ve now got this cardi in two colours and wear them non-stop as they’re so versatile, and the cotton mix fabric makes for easy care. If only I could manage Marcel waves to go with the perfect retro outfit – although I fear I may verge on fancy dress! There was still a wee chill in the air so tights were a must, and I wore my scalloped suede pumps and vintage green envelope bag to create a modern vintage look.
What’s your favourite fashion era? What are you wearing at the moment?