Monday, June 20, 2011

Hollywood Patterns: Home Sewing in the Thirties

These lovely, quirky patterns are advertised with glamour photos of various starlets--for instance, "Linda Hayes of RKO-Radio." That's some terrible hair, honey.

They date from 1932 through the Second World War, which is a fascinating period of fashion history. Home sewing patterns as a commercial industry had been around since Ebenezer Butterick pioneered them in the 1860s, but the way they were marketed changed enormously from decade to decade; early patterns are often advertised as stylish, but rarely (as far as I can tell) with reference to any particular public figure or media representation of the style. But by the late twenties and early thirties, the movies had come in in a big way, and many patterns (not just Hollywood's!) are sold as direct copies of costumes from popular films. You can imagine the hope that Depression-era women must have felt, with a pattern in one hand and a few yards of rayon crepe in the other--with just a few hours of work, you too could slink around in bias-cut dinner pajamas just like Bette Davis!

It wasn't only movies that women aspired to copy, either; this mid-thirties pattern for a tennis outfit sells itself as "straight from the French resorts," and includes a cap which the lovely Andrea at Unsung Sewing Patterns has identified as a possible fad item among the rich and fashionable in the south of France. This was clearly a period in which home sewers were looking to the fabulously wealthy and the glamorously glitzy for inspiration. One of my favorite dressmaking texts, "Practical Dress Design," frequently breaks off to identify the most fashionable Paris silhouettes of 1937, 1938, and 1939--and occasionally predict what 1940 will look like.

Women of the thirties were sewing to get glamour on a budget--mass-produced clothing was still pricey enough, and fabric by the yard widely available enough, that you could save a dollar on an evening gown or fifty cents on a wool skirt by sewing at home. Essentially, sewing was at its trendiest during the Great Depression, and on into the Second World War. By the prosperous fifties, Hollywood Patterns was either a bust or a shell of its former popularity--I can't find any details on what happened to the company post-war--and home sewing manuals no longer directed their readers toward the latest fashions in Paris frocks.

I'll console myself with Anita Louise's bias-cut evening gown:

Katharine Hepburn's gorgeous, I-want-them-right-now trousers:

Dolores Del Rio's... whatever this is:

and Ginny Simms's smart little skirt suit:

I think we've all got fifteen cents on hand for a lovely pattern like that. And Dolores Del Rio of Warner Brothers, I would very much like to know what that thing on the front of your dress blouse is. Not the scarf, the other thing. The whatever that is.


  1. So jealous of that Katharine Hepburn pants pattern!

  2. I know! It's gorgeous. The drawing looks hilariously nothing like her, though. Whitney and I watched The Philadelphia Story the other night (she'd never seen it) and there are some amazing Hepburn outfits in it. She certainly knew how to wear pants.