When summer sends temperatures soaring, our first instinct is to doff layers of clothing. Aside from showing more skin than you may want to, you might think casualness is the only way to stay cool. However, it’s possible to feel refreshed while looking lovelier than ever in warmer weather. By drawing fashion inspiration from times gone by, you can achieve a timelessly elegant yet airy aesthetic.
Two convenient resources for vintage fashion inspiration are movies and magazines. While films give glamorous examples of styles from decades ago, fashion publications offer a more practical guide to what the average woman wore. It can be hard to find copies of old magazines, so it’s extremely useful that every issue of Vogue from its 129-year history is available for free online viewing, either on the magazine’s website or via your local public library.
Perusing these archives is both exciting and overwhelming, since 24 issues were published yearly! To narrow down this trove of inspiration, we’ll focus on summer fashion in the latter half of the 1930s. This period saw a return to the feminine, modest trends from before World War I. While the styles of the early 1930s were more risqué, similar to the 1920s’ revealing flapper fashions, each year’s mode drew closer to the Victorian Era’s traditionally feminine styles, with longer skirts, higher necklines, and accentuated hourglass silhouettes, instead of boyish frames. This would lead to Dior’s “New Look” in the late 1940s, and eventually the extreme hourglass silhouettes with elaborate petticoats favored in the 50s.
I scanned the June and July issues of Vogue from 1935 to 1939, which contain useful beauty tips and general fashion guides. Besides being stylish, the recommended outfits’ main objective was keeping their wearers from “wilting,” the decade’s word of choice for looking overheated. Because the 1930s were the height of the Depression, these fashion tips are also economical. While modern ladies might don T-shirts and shorts when the mercury rises, their grandmothers used ingenuity to beat the heat while remaining feminine and glamorous.
Beat the Heat with Beauty Tips
“Vogue’s Golden Rules for Summer Beauty,” from the June 1, 1935, issue, are delivered in the form of 58 clever rhyming lines. They begin with tan guidelines, advice on waterproof makeup, and nail polish tips before listing these “hot-weather rites:” “Just after bathing, douse the skin / With clear Cologne from toe to chin; / Then dust on powder by the ton— / Fresh, scented, cool, and lots of fun.”
The Cologne mentioned here is the original Eau de Cologne, also known as Kölnisch Wasser or 4711, a light fragrance and toner of essential oils lauded as miracle water since its creation in 1799. Its American counterpart, Florida Water, was introduced in 1808, with stronger orange and spice notes. Both unisex colognes can be purchased on Amazon and sometimes even in Walmart. Any scented dusting powder would effectively mattify shiny skin, which the Golden Rules declare “is not a pleasant thing to see.”
In the July 15, 1937, issue, Vogue published another collection of cooling beauty tips in “They’ll Leave You Cold,” a description of the reader who has “mastered every beauty trick that exists in the game of looking cool.” These tricks include using cucumber juice under makeup, dabbing streaked powder with a chamois skin, and eschewing purplish lipstick, rouge, and nail polish in favor of “light, clear rose tones.” The guide also recommends “a patting all over with eau de Cologne” after “lukewarm tubs and showers,” declaring that “icy baths are only a snare and a delusion.”
An Effortless Formula
After your vintage toilette routine, you’re ready to put on a 1930s-style outfit.
The July 1, 1938, edition of Vogue told readers that “slipcovers” were an answer to economical summer glamour. These “covers” are garments worn over a simple base for many different looks, expanding the “presto-chango of dress plus jacket.” The base is a good black crepe slip, floor-length for eveningwear and midi-length for daywear, with a neckline that’s “cool and low, eliminating any extra thickness of fabric around your shoulders.”
I recommend a black slip dress instead of a lingerie slip, since the article clearly refers to a well-made, modest garment, not underwear: “To call it a slip is an understatement—you can mass your jewelry on it and call it a dress,” it continues. You can buy slip dresses at most department or clothing stores; Lord and Taylor, the maker of the specific ones recommended by Vogue, still sells an attractive long, satin slip dress.
Each slip is the blank canvas for four suggested outfits—and countless others you can assemble on your own, using existing pieces in your closet or new items you find. For daywear, possible covers include an open-fronted, white faille coat with sleeves above the elbows, that “curves away from the foundation slip in swooping, swallow-tail lines;” a black-and-white printed chiffon blouse, with three-quarter-length sleeves, that “ties up short and tight over the basic slip;” and a “short and impudent” guimpe of shirred white piqué, bolero-length and fastened in front.
For eveningwear, the suggested jacket is instead a bright, waist-length fitted jacket with short, puffed sleeves, made of “yellow Moroccan cotton with green, red, and gold embroidered stripes.” Or you might try a “separate bodice” that’s “a mere shimmer of blue satin, with pouffs of sleeves and a square neckline;” or a fancy camisole top, made of “a whiff of cyclamen chiffon, pleated all around,” tied over the slip by “a fluttery ribbon.”
For inspiration for recreating specific outfits, look to stylish actresses. Few Hollywood glamour girls could rival Myrna Loy’s sophisticated style from 1935 onward, so her films are a great place to start.
Half the trick of a vintage aesthetic lies in the accessories, from the heavy-heeled shoes to the obligatory hat. We’ll use the cool and stylish tips in “Ten Ways to Laugh Off Town Heat,” published June 1, 1936, to complete our summer outfits.
One tip advises readers to “go in for white patent leather accessories, slick and shiny and clean as a whistle.” This is the perfect way to brighten up the basic black dress for summer. Look for heavy-heeled white patent leather shoes, no more than 3 1/2 inches tall, since stilettos were definitely not the 1930s’ style! If you can find T-strap shoes, they will really give your outfit a retro look. Match your purse to the shoes, and try to avoid excessive zippers and branding.
A hat is a must for any lady trying to evoke 1930s style. Cloche hats, called the French word for “bell” because of their bell-like shape, were very popular then and can still be bought in many stores. A white or black cloche would look delightful with any of our proposed outfits.
Another tip is to “try dead-black linen, pitted against a white piqué hat and short white piqué gloves.” If you choose a linen slip dress, which is very cool, you could well pair it with a vintage white piqué hat and gloves, as suggested, in addition to one of the covers and the aforementioned patent leather accessories.
Fascinators are the most common fancy hat these days, having been popularized by Britain’s recent royal weddings. They are basically small cocktail hats on headbands, although the name has been applied to different forms of headwear for centuries. Although not distinctly 1930s’ style, these petite head coverings follow another tip: “Wear a half-hat, because it’s next to no hat at all. It can be a visor, or a bonnet, or almost anything without a crown.” A small white fascinator would fit this description and be a stylish finishing touch!
The article ends with this general note: “Carry a huge, bright-colored linen handkerchief, to tie around your neck, mop your face, or just flourish. Keep your hair off your neck; cool your brow with eau de Cologne; and be brave.” So this summer, ladies, stay cool and stay fashionable!
Tiffany Brannan is a 19-year-old opera singer, Hollywood history/vintage beauty copywriter, film reviewer, fashion historian, travel writer, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.