In the 1930s, as the public began to feel the effects of the Great Depression, many designers found that crises are not the time for experimentation. Fashion became more compromising, aspiring to preserve feminism’s victories while rediscovering a subtle and reassuring elegance and sophistication. Overall, 1930s clothing was somber and modest, reflecting the difficult social and economic situation of the decade. Women’s fashions moved away from the brash, daring style of the 1920s towards a more romantic, feminine silhouette. The waistline was restored, hemlines dropped, there was renewed appreciation of the bust, and backless evening gowns and soft, slim-fitting day dresses became popular. The female body was remodeled into a more neo-classical shape, and slim, toned, and athletic bodies came into vogue. The fashion for outdoor activities stimulated couturiers to manufacture what would today be referred to as „sportswear.” The term „ready-to-wear” was not yet widely in use, but the boutiques already described such clothes as being „for sport.”
Two of the most prominent and influential fashion designers of the 1930s were Elsa Schiaparelli and Madeleine Vionnet. Elsa Schiaparelli showed her first collection in 1929 and was immediately hailed by the press as ‚one of the rare innovators’ of the day. With her exciting and inventive designs, Schiaparelli did not so much revolutionize fashion as shatter its foundations. The first pullover she displayed in her windows created a sensation: it was knitted in black with a trompe-l’oeil white bow. She consistently turned out breathtaking collections thereafter. Schiaparelli was a close friend of Christian Berard, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dalí, who designed embroidery motifs for her and supplied inspiration for models like the desk suit with drawers for pockets, the shoe-shaped hat, the silk dresses painted with flies and bearing a picture of a large lobster, respectively. All of Paris thronged to her salon at 21 Place Vendôme as collection succeeded collection.
Madeleine Vionnet found her inspiration in ancient statues, creating timeless and beautiful gowns that would not look out of place on a Greek frieze. Queen of the bias cut (cutting diagonally across the fabric’s lengthwise threads), she produced evening dresses that fitted the body without excessive elaboration or dissimulation, employing a flowing and elegant line. Her perfect draping of chiffon, silk, and Moroccan crepe created a marvelously poised and sensual effect. The unparalleled success of Vionnet’s cuts guaranteed her reputation right up to her retirement in 1939.
Mainbocher, the first American designer to live and work in Paris, was also influential, with his plain yet supremely elegant designs, often employing the bias cut pioneered by Vionnet. The luxury goods manufacturer Hermès began to sell handmade printed silk square scarves in the early 1930s, in addition to popularizing the zipper and many other practical innovations. Toward the end of the decade, women’s fashions took on a somewhat more imposing and broad-shouldered silhouette, possibly influenced by Elsa Schiaparelli. Men’s fashions continued the informal, practical trend that had dominated since the end of the First World War.