In a previous post I wrote that Woman’s Institute ads were different every month, and that lining them up gives a mini-tour of fashions for each year. I have no photos from some years and some months, so there are big gaps in this little fashion show. I’ll just put the ones I have in chronological order. I love the captions, which repeat a few Woman’s Institute themes, like “It’s the prettiest dress I’ve ever had” and “I love to wear this dress.”
Woman’s Institute Fashions from the Twenties
By December 1926, Twenties’ styles are no longer simple tubes or rectangles.
Styles had changed a great deal between December 1924 and January 1927 — just two years:
However, the possibility of making a dress in one hour, thanks to early 1920’s styles, probably inspired many women to try making their own clothing for the first time.
The reason many women sew for themselves is that they have non-standard-sized bodies or hard to fit figures. (Having an exceptionally small waist, broad shoulders, or tall body makes it hard to find store-bought clothes that fit, just as having a smaller or larger than average body does.) Oddly, the Woman’s Institute ads I’ve seen don’t seem to be aimed at hard-to-fit women.
Sending in the coupon from October 1928 would get you a 32 page booklet and a 60 page dressmaking lesson “which tells how to take correct measurements, select the right pattern, alter to your own measurements, cut and fit for all types of figures, etc.” Perhaps hard-to-fit women let their dressmakers alter patterns for them.
Woman’s Institute Fashions from the Thirties
I have not collected many ads from 1929 or 1930, so my parade of fashions from Woman’s Institute ads has some big gaps.
I have no photos from 1932, but the very long hemline on this dress was well established by 1933.
This marks a change to more evening gowns in the Institute’s advertising; 1933 was one of the worst years of the Great Depression. Ads that said “Earn $20 to $40 a week at home” in 1924 said “Earn $10 to $35” in March of 1933:
The number of women wearing furs during the Depression used to surprise me, but “In 1917, there were only four fur farms in the entire United States; by 1930, there were more than forty-five hundred.” This drove down the price of furs — and millions of animals were raised for slaughter. [See A Perfect Fit by Jenna Weissman Joselit.] Also, cheap furs from domestic animals like rabbits and dogs were sold as coney “seal” and “Manchurian wolf.”
Woman’s Institute ads seem to feature more evening dresses in the 1930’s, perhaps because the emphasis is changing to copying fashions, designing your own, and owning your own business or dress shop.In addition to lessons in making dresses and hats, Woman’s Institute courses on Cookery and, now, Tea Room Management were available.
Traditionally, most 20th century women who had their clothes made by dressmakers started with a commercial pattern or a photograph from a fashion magazine, although they might ask for changes to suit their taste.
These 1930’s ads now introduce the idea of copying high fashion, designing dresses, and opening your own dress shop.
The ability to work from home has always been important to women with children and other domestic responsibilities. And, of course, the overhead of a home business is lower than that of a shop.
In 1938, Woman’s Institute placed this ad in a Butterick Fashion News Flyer, encouraging women who use commercial patterns to design and make their own clothes with the dressmaking skills learned from Woman’s Institute.
“Be the smartest dressed woman in your town!” That’s almost what the ads said in 1917!
Mary Brooks Picken also published a quarterly magazine, Fashion Service. If you are researching Woman’s Institute ads, I found 1114 citations with a search on the Cornell University Home Archive.
6 responses to “More Ads for Woman’s Institute from 1920’s and 1930’s”
A wonderful overview! I didn’t notice the shift from making your own clothes to dressmaking as an income source before.
My mother attended the Darvas School of Fashion Arts In Cleveland, Ohio, graduating in 1934. This must have looked like a career choice to some, although my mother never used her coursework commercially. Have you heard of this school?
I haven’t come across an ad, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t find one. I found a mention of the Darvas school in the Cornell Hearth Home Economics site. “In October the Home Economics Club sponsored a style show by students of the Darvas School of Design in Cleveland who designed and made the gowns and ensembles shown.” Click here to see page 131. I once sent this 1937 ad for Woodbury College to a friend — a costume designer who works in film and television — and she told me it’s still in business in the Los Angeles area. (The ad — “Earn Good Money as a Costume Designer” — made us costume designers laugh.) I hope those links work!
The Scottie on a leash really was the fashion accessory of the early Thirties!
Thank you very much for this! I’m just reading “The lost art of dress” by Linda Przybyszewski, and this is a very nice addition on this subject.
Maybe the idea of hard-to-fit figures wasn’t really an issue back then. After all, ready-to-wear clothing was not as common as it is now, so many dresses were fitted to the wearer anyway. Without standardised sizing there are no standards you can meet or not meet. Or it was just the goal to reach all kinds of women (and as many as possible), so you wouldn’t want to exclude anyone who feels “normal”?
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