More Sheer Dresses from the Late 1930s

Recently Lynn at American Age Fashion posted photos of some older women wearing sheer day dresses in the 1930‘s and the 1940‘s.

Ashville, Ohio, July 4th 1938. Photo by Ben Shahn, Library of Congress.

Ashville, Ohio, July 4th 1938. Photo by Ben Shahn, Library of Congress.

Like Jennifer (from Holliepoint) in Lynn’s comments section, I was surprised that older women would wear sheer dresses that showed their slips. In the fifties and sixties, just having a slip strap drop off my shoulder and become visible was a mortifying experience for me.  “Intimate apparel” was not supposed to be seen except in intimate situations.

However, I was forgetting that many fashions of the 1900’s and 1910’s were sheer, and that women who had been twenty or thirty at the turn of the century would not think of summer dresses that revealed your lingerie as shockingly new. Au contraire.

Ladies' Blouse-waists, Delineator, July 1917. Most of these are sher; you can see through the sleeves.

Ladies’ blouse/waists, Delineator, July 1917. Most of these are sheer; you can see through the sleeves, and probably through the bodices, in real life.

Early in the century, there was even a long-running fashion for “lingerie dresses” like these; they are made of sheer “handkerchief linen,” or cotton batiste, or lawn and ornamented with inset lace, like the underwear (lingerie) of their day.

Lingerie dresses. Left, early 1900's; right 1910's or early twenties.

Lingerie dresses. Left, early 1900’s; right, 1910’s or early twenties. These were photographed over a black slip to show the lace to advantage. A white slip would have been very visible through these dresses.

Thin cotton fabrics and lace inserts were used to make undergarments and also to make blouses. Butterick patterns from Delineator, 1917.

Thin cotton fabrics and lace inserts were used to make undergarments and also to make blouses. Butterick patterns from Delineator, 1917. The blouse/waist at right is sheer enough to show the model’s embroidered underwear, or a lace underbodice.

This beautiful — and very sheer — blouse was made of two layers of netting:

A blouse/waist so sheer that it is made of two layers of netting. Private collection.

A blouse/waist so sheer that it is made of two layers of netting. Private collection.

Here is its equally beautiful back:

This sheer, embroidered netting blouse has a "sailor collar" in back.

This sheer, embroidered netting blouse has a “sailor collar” in back. Circa 1910’s to 1920’s.

Sheer blouses like the one below are now called “Armistice Blouses,” but it probably dates earlier than 1918, when the Armistice ending World War I was proclaimed.

A sheer vintage blouse, circa WW I, sometimes called an "Armistice Blouse."

A sheer vintage blouse, circa WW I, sometimes called an “Armistice Blouse.”

In this photo, you can easily see the coat hanger through the blouse. Underwear would have been equally visible.

Skin and underwear would have been visible through this sheer cotton. Vintage blouse, private collection.

Skin and underwear would have been visible through this sheer cotton vintage blouse. Private collection.

During the 1910’s, a skirt and matching bodice (called a waist) were often worn instead of a dress. The patterns were sold separately. These surviving waists show that  they were part of see-through fashions:

Purple chiffon waist, probably 1910's.

Purple chiffon waist, probably 1910’s.

Embroidered peach colored blouse or waist. Probably 1910's.

Sheer, embroidered pink blouse or waist. Probably 1910’s.

It makes sense to me that women who wore these sheer clothes in their prime . . .

Sheer vintage blouse, before 1910.

Sheer vintage blouse, before 1910.

. . . would be perfectly comfortable in sheer dresses in their middle and old age:

Older woman wearing a sheer, striped dress. Fourth of July, 1938, Ashville, Ohio. Library of Congress photo by Ben Shahn.

Older woman wearing a sheer, striped dress. Fourth of July, 1938, Ashville, Ohio. Library of Congress photo by Ben Shahn. Detail.

No wonder they took to the sheer fashions of the late 1930’s:

A dress flattering to larger figures, Simplicity store flyer, Oct. 1939.

A dress flattering to larger figures, Simplicity 3139, store flyer, Oct. 1939. Sizes 32 to 44.

DuBarry pattern 2319B, for a sheer dress. Store flyer, Aug. 1939.

DuBarry pattern 2319B, for a sheer afternoon dress. Store flyer, Aug. 1939. Available in sizes 32 to 42.

Vogue 8315, Vogue store flyer for May 1, 1939.

Vogue 8315, Vogue store flyer for May 1, 1939. Sizes 32 to 42 bust.

Companion-Butterick pattern 7989, from August 1938.

Companion-Butterick pattern 7989, from August 1938. Dotted sheer fabric.

Simplicity 3205, store flyer, Oct. 1939. A sheer dress.

Simplicity 3205, store flyer, Oct. 1939. A dress with sheer lace yoke and sleeves.

Fourth of July, 1938, Ashville, Ohio. Photo by Ben Shahn from Library of Congress.

Fourth of July, 1938, Ashville, Ohio. Photo by Ben Shahn from Library of Congress. Detail. A sheer dress with polka dots and a lace dress.

The lace dress has a curving under-bust seam like this one:

"Figures are no problem to us." A lace evening dress with bolero jacket, Butterick Fashion News flyer, August 1938.

“Figures are no problem to us.” A lace evening dress with bolero jacket, Butterick Fashion News flyer, August 1938.

Lace dress for larger or mature women. Butterick pattern, 1938.

Lace dress for larger or mature women. Butterick pattern 7998, 1938. “Wear with dignity and chic.” Sizes 34 to 52 inch bust.

For more about these and other sheer nineteen thirties dresses, click here.

Thanks again to Lynn at American Age Fashion for writing about photos of older women in sheer dresses!

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11 Comments

Filed under 1900s to 1920s, 1930s, 1930s-1940s, Dresses, lingerie, Musings, Shirts and Blouses, Slips and Petticoats, Underthings, Vintage Garments: The Real Thing, vintage photographs, Vintage Styles in Larger Sizes, World War I

11 responses to “More Sheer Dresses from the Late 1930s

  1. Thank you for this! I’ve often wondered how some of the sheer vintage items I’ve seen were worn.

  2. Thank you for showing women a bit older enjoying fashion. I think they were stylish,

  3. So wonderful that you can illustrate the photograph with garments and patterns from the past. I really feel like this historical research is a group project!

    • Me, too … Finding connections and “unconsidered trifles” of the past is a treasure hunt we can all join in. You discover the most amazing photos for us at Americanagefashion!

  4. Christina

    Under the Edwardian dress and blouses or waists women would have worn layers – a chemise followed by a corset followed by a petticoat or slip so the “sheerness” of the lawn or batiste so the transparency factor was reduced. I think the purple waist is a bit later than 1910 if it wasn’t dyed from originally being white. Coloured blouses were becoming popular c1915.

    • I was not suggesting that these clothes showed a lot of skin — just that undergarments were visible through them. I didn’t want to say that a lady’s “slip” would show under those sheer waists from 1900 to 1919, because it would have been a corset cover or a chemise or other lingerie — but it would still have been what I call underwear, visible through the outer layer — like a slip under a sheer 1930’s dress.
      Thank you for suggesting the possibility of purple dye on that bodice, which I estimated as “1910’s.” I have a question you can probably help with: There’s a period of transition between the late 1910’s and what we think of as the 1920’s that I don’t have a name for. For me, “1910’s” includes the whole decade, pre- and post- WW I. Is there a name for the pre-tubular twenties, circa 1921? (I have not yet read any magazines from that period.) Thanks!

  5. Christina

    I don’t have a name for the period between the late 1910’s and the 1920’s. I know the term “Teens” is used but I am reluctant to use it. Actually, the period of transition is quite good as it reflects an important social change in women’s fashion. My comment about sheer fabrics and underpinnings was not meant to be a correction in any way. My apologies.

  6. Pingback: “Orange Flower” Sheer Cotton Dress | Seam Racer

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