The stock market crash of 1929 drove America into the longest and most widespread depression of the 20th century. The Great Depression stretched throughout the world, and while the economic downturn began in the United States, many countries did not recover until WWII. The fashion, art, and music at this time were full of tension and struggle, representative of the tumultuous economic state of the world. Expression through art became a form of release and distraction, the rise of Hollywood, surrealism, and the blues represented the pain of the struggle of the 1930s.
The 1920s was a short decade of hope and prosperity for the world as industrialized countries swung and danced away the pains of WWI. The stock market crash of 1929 snatched it away in a matter of hours. Art, music, and fashion during this time reflected deep rooted struggle and tension regarding politics, economics, and the state of the common man.
The Golden Age in Hollywood
Sound could not have come to the movies at a better time as Americans were looking for ways to escape the world in which they lived. “By 1933, the unemployment rate had climbed from 3% to 25%…..and by 1932, over 13 million Americans had lost their jobs.” For a few hours, these glamorized films allowed people to escape the horrors of their own realities, and step into a world in which a romanticized character overcame adversity – a relatable subject to those struggling during the time. This time period stretched from the 1930s to the 1960s, but its inception would not have made such an impact if it weren’t for the Great Depression.
The 1930s film industry introduced classic and timeless beauties who are still considered fashion icons today. Katharine Hepburn, Betty Davis, Vivien Leigh, Claudet Colbert, and Joan Crawford are just a few of the starlets who graced the silver screen. Women in 1930s films were often portrayed as witty, intelligent, and headstrong, although they were still subject to the confines of gender roles in the 1930s. “The paradox of 1930’s cinema is that although women often did dominate, by the end of the films they were often in the arms of men.”
The Femme Fatale
In contrast to the feminine ideal of the 1930s which was often portrayed in the films of this time, the Femme Fatale began to take hold of viewers interest. Films such as MGM’s Mata Hari in 1931 and Ecstacy in 1933 portrayed women who viewed marriage as a confining and loveless prison and would do anything, even kill, for their freedom. Fighting the feminine ideals of the time, her wit and sexuality often won her money, power, and freedom. Perhaps she was acting as a lofty aspiration to the impoverished women of the time. Running away from the responsibilities of their home to a world of glamour, sex, and freedom was as alluring as the Femme Fatales themselves.
Madeleine Vionette was responsible for designing some of the glamorous dresses iconic to the Femme Fatale. Her designs emphasized the female figure with floor length bias cut satin dresses. “Perfection like this is not easy to come by, simplicity is complex art,” wrote Vogue regarding one of her designs. The Femme Fatale held both film characters and viewers under her spell as she sauntered towards independence in her satin gowns. She lasted well into the 1940’s and 1950’s, but her inception is iconic to 1930’s fashion.
The blues were born out of misery, and what a better time for the rise of its popularity than the Great Depression. Artists such as Leadbelly and Billie Holliday belted out their pain to the chorus of the weeping world. Unlike most of the art during the 1930’s, the blues did not act as a distraction, it instead acted as a form of wallowing, bringing the world together as they faced poverty and uncertainty.
Known for her unique voice and phrasing, Billy Holliday sang out songs of heartbreak and misery, capturing the hearts of Americans. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” was Holliday’s first hit.
Billie Holliday went on to record many hits stretching into the 1950s, but her most iconic song captures the pain and misery of the depression for African Americans. In 1939, her song titled “Strange Fruit” was released, which graphically chronicled lynching in the South. It was one of the first protests against the state of African Americans and it captured the cultural strains of the time. With both whites and blacks living in poverty, it was seemingly ever more imperative to whites to keep African Americans down. “The rate of lynching had been declining since the first decade of the twentieth century. However, during the early and mid-Depression years, the practice briefly surged and several well-publicized mob killings occurred outside of the South.”
Salvador Dali’s unusually lifelike and sometimes disturbing paintings had a dramatic effect on the fashion and art world during the 1930s. The Spanish surrealist’s paintings often portrayed scenes of death and sexuality. He skillfully displayed tension in his work that captured the strangeness of the time. Dali’s work branched out into many other art forms besides simply the canvas. Dali was also a renowned photographer, director, and his creativity even stretched into fashion and design.
The Lobster Dress was designed by Elsa Schiaparelli and painted by Salvador Dali. It was famously worn by divorcee Wallis Warfield Simpson before her marriage to the abdicated King Edward VIII in a spread for Vogue. The dress was representative of surrealism’s entrance into the world of fashion.
Surrealism reached the silver screen in both film and the increasingly popular cartoon. Iconic characters such as Mikey Mouse, Betty Boop, and Popeye the Sailor Man hit screens in shorts that played before films. These shorts often featured the characters in sticky situations, living in childish comical worlds. These cartoons were typically strange and surreal as the characters sprouted multiple new arms, flew through the sky or pulled creatures out from bottles.
Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli famously helped to bring the world of surrealism into fashion through her antagonistic and experimental styles. “While her contemporaries Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet set the period’s standards of taste and beauty in fashion design, Schiaparelli flouted convention in the pursuit of a more idiosyncratic style.” Schiaparelli experimented with fabrics, unorthodox imagery, colors, oversized and exposed zippers and buttons, unusual and bizarre ornaments, and luxurious wild embroideries. Her designs were a form of expressive art, drawing the eye away from the wearer of the dress and towards the unusuality of it.