Fashion Icons of the 1930's

Fashion Icons of the 1930’s

The 1930s was an ironic period in the field of fashion. The depression called for women tailoring their old clothes, yet the middle of the decade brought an elegant, almost regal style to those who could afford it. The thirties graced us with legendary beauty icons, such as Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Josephine Baker, and Vivien Leigh. This article offers short biographies of those 1930 fashion icons and briefly discusses how each one influenced women for generations to come.

Bette Davis

Bette Davis: 1930s Fashion Icon

Who among us hasn’t heard the famous song lyric, “She’s got Bette Davis Eyes”? Bette Davis, born Ruth Elizabeth Davis on April 5, 1908, in Lowell, Massachusetts, left an indelible mark on Hollywood before her passing on October 6, 1989, in France due to cancer.

When she first entered the film industry, Davis was not considered a glamorous star. Among her early roles was a part in “Fashions of 1934,” where she played Lynn Mason, an assistant to a bootlegger selling Paris fashions. Her career was marked by perseverance and talent, leading to her tombstone reading, “She did it the hard way.” Davis started a wave of starlets who were not classically beautiful but possessed an undeniable allure. The fashion world remains indebted to the woman with those “teasing” eyes.

Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow: 1930s Fashion Icon

“Her hair is Harlow gold”—another line from the same famous song—refers to the iconic Jean Harlow. Known as the original “Blonde Bombshell,” Harlow set a trend that continues in Hollywood to this day. Born Harlean Carpenter on March 3, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri, she popularized the peroxide revolution with her platinum blonde locks.

Harlow was the first actress to appear on the cover of Life Magazine. Despite her untimely death on June 7, 1937, at the young age of 26, her legacy lives on through the more than 35 films she starred in. Her influence in Hollywood and fashion is undeniable.

Josephine Baker

Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 3, 1906, Josephine Baker gained fame throughout Europe during the 1920s. Despite her success abroad, she struggled to gain acceptance in the United States due to her dark skin color, even after starring in two acclaimed movies in the 1930s.

During World War II, Baker performed for troops and smuggled secret messages written on her music sheets for the French Resistance, in addition to serving as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. This reinvigorated her spirit, and during the 1950s and 1960s, she returned to the United States to help fight against racism. Her impact was so significant that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) observes May 20 as “Josephine Baker Day.”

Baker passed away on April 12, 1975. Her exotic beauty and sensational clothing style made her an icon in the fashion world, but her heart and determination made her a legend.

Vivien Leigh

Vivien Leigh: Classic Hollywood Glamour and 1930s Fashion Icon

Vivien Leigh, immortalized as Scarlett O’Hara, was not traditionally beautiful, according to the book, “Gone with the Wind.” However, on-screen, her charm and presence were undeniable. Born Vivian Mary Hartley on November 5, 1913, she captivated audiences with her piercing eyes and arched eyebrows, a look still emulated by models today.

Leigh ended the decade regally, her performance in “Gone with the Wind” securing her status as a beloved actress. She passed away on July 7, 1967, but her legacy endures. Even in old drapes, Leigh’s exotic beauty was undeniable, perhaps inspiring the phrase, “It’s not the clothes that you wear; it’s how you wear the clothes.” Her iconic status in both film and fashion remains secure.

All of these women managed to convey glitz and glamour during a decade that was mostly known for depression. The Fashion Icons of the 1930’s had two things in common, each one had a trait that plunged them into legend status and they will forever be remembered as bringing life and beauty into a time where there had only been the opposite. They will be much needed in the decade to come, the war torn 1940’s.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.