1930s fashion: A decade of style demonstrated by 13 iconic beauties

Josie Ayre

From Bette Davis to Katharine Hepburn, we take a look at the 1930s' most fashionable ladies.

At the start of the decade, following the fallout from the Great Depression in America, 1930s fashion as well as all other aspects of normality were profoundly changed. Almost overnight the vivaciousness of the flapper disappeared, with a sophisticated and more conservative style becoming de rigueur. Moving into the late 1930s, fashion was heavily influenced by Hollywood’s glamour while day-wear took a turn for the practical with women like Katharine Hepburn embracing sportswear looks; a trend still loved by dozens of designers today.  These are the women who ruled the day...

Greta Garbo
While enjoying an illustrious career on the screen, Swedish actress Greta Garbo also became an icon for many women looking for wardrobe inspiration. Favouring the contemporary designer, Valentina Schlee, Garbo became renowned for her androgynous dressing which also conveyed practicality and elegance.


Bette Davis
Not earmarked as conventionally beautiful by film producers, Bette Davis became every girls hero everywhere when she proclaimed, “Hollywood wanted me to be pretty, but I fought for realism.” Aside from being a feminist icon, Bette’s style icon status lay in her signature blonde bob which she rocked in the 30s.


Marlene Dietrich
Another actress who defied the pressures of Hollywood was Marlene Dietrich who is famous (among other things) for saying: “I dress for myself. Not for the image, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.” While also a fan of the humble ball gown, Marlene became the first famous woman in history to rock a tuxedo with Angelina Jolie and co taking suit (pun intended) all these years later. We applaud you, Marlene.


Wallis Simpson
Probably better known as the woman whom King Edward VIII abdicated for (#RelationshipGoals) in 1936, Wallis Simpson also became a style icon while under the public scrutiny, so much so that Roland Mouret is quoted as saying, “Love her or hate her, the world is still obsessed by that woman.” Known as a bit of a fashion maverick, Wallis was infamously photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1937 wearing a Schiaparelli dress designed in collaboration with Salvador Dali which depicted a lobster on it. The placement of the lobster was said to have had great sexual connotations which were seen as scandalous at the time.


Vivien Leigh
Gone With the Wind starlet Vivien was breathtakingly beautiful and well dressed to match. A fan of Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Dior and Balmain, Vivien was not only known for her on-screen success – she won two Oscars for Best Actress – but also her off-screen wardrobe.


Katharine Hepburn
Few women have caused lasting influence on fashion as much as Katharine Hepburn. A champion of the menswear trend, Hepburn is perhaps one of the people to thank for the wide legged trousers and shirts which are still on trend today (see AW15 Balmain trousers). In 1986, Hepburn’s influence was recognised by the Council of Fashion Designers of America who awarded her with a lifetime achievement award. 


Jean Harlow
Another star of the screen who defied conventional perceptions of beauty of the time, Jean is remembered from her platinum blonde bob (which inspired thousands of copycats to get their barnets cut in a similar fashion), rosebud lips and arched eyebrows as well as her clothing and acting ability. A worthy endorsement if we ever heard one, Marilyn Monroe often referred to Jean as her idol and therefore, we now do too. 


Ginger Rogers
Oft the partner of the dapper Fred Astaire in films, Ginger was known for her constantly changing hair. Straight, wavy, sleek bobs and classic up-dos; Ginger wore them all. As for her dresses, she wore sleek gowns which showed off her enviably figure as well as her dancing sills.


Joan Crawford
Coming into her own in the 1930s, Joan became one of MGM’s biggest female stars and was at one point, one of the highest paid women in Hollywood. Her style was constantly changing ahead of the trends of the time. Joan’s partnership with the legendary costume designer, Gilbert Adrian made her one of the most well dressed women on and off screen. The above over-starched and ruffled dress which Adrian designed for Joan’s character in Letty Lynton was so popular that manufacturers across America started producing budget replicas, with Macy’s department store selling 15,000 copies!


Carole Lombard
A life tragically cut short, Lombard was known for her comedic timing, her romance with Clark Gable and also, of course, her style. As comfortable in smart separates as she was in full on gowns, Carole was known for both her on-screen glamour and off-duty sense of style.


Daisy Fellowes
A regular on the social circuit, an heiress and the Paris editor of American Harper’s Bazaar, Daisy was also well known for her love of fine jewellery as well as for a failed attempt to seduce Winston Churchill. Daisy’s scandalous love affairs and her love of couturiers Elsa Schiaparelli’s clothes, prompted the designer to create the colour ‘shocking pink’ for her, while Cartier were Daisy’s jeweller of choice. Something we’d quite like to say about ourselves too. 

Picture: TheRedList.com


Mona von Bismarck
Before Paris Hilton came Mona von Bismark, an American socialite known for her choice in clothes and older men. Interred into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958 and named the Best Dressed Woman in the World by Chanel, Molyneux, Vionnet, Lelong and Lanvin in 1933, Mona was a woman of many admirers and is said to have not left her bed for three days after Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his atelier in 1968, such was she a fan of his designs. 



Barbara Hutton
An heiress of the Woolworth’s fortune, Barbara was the latter day social scene Queen, travelling the world to attend lavish parties and was dubbed the ‘poor little rich girl’ after hosting an expensive debutante ball amid the Great Depression. With an intense passion and fascination for jewellery, Barbara’s collection rather than her wealth was what she left behind with her vast collection spanning jade necklaces, Cartier pieces and a pearl necklace previously owned by Marie Antoinette.


Love these 1930s fashion icons? Why not revisit the best style moments of the 1950s and the 1920s next.

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