In the Depression-era movie of my imagination, the waitress is always Joan Blondell, cynical, wise-cracking, but good-hearted, slipping an extra piece of pie to a guy who’s down on his luck. Since all the 1930s movie waitresses I’ve seen were in black and white films, it’s exciting to find some period research in color.
Pic-Wic Frocks Uniform: Green Dress with Detachable Apron
This image on card stock was cut from a salesman’s (or saleswoman’s) catalog for showing Pic-Wic fashions to potential customers. It is undated, but the skirt length, style, and close-to-the head hairdos place it in the early thirties. In a black and white film, this green dress would photograph as gray. What a loss!There’s very little information about Pic-Wic online, except newspaper ads (“wanted women everywhere to sell Pic-Wic frocks direct to wearer“) and a 1930s sales receipt book on Etsy (sold) that says Pic-Wic was located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In this closer view (below), you can see how much detail went into this uniform, with its paneled apron, applied trim, pointed waist, pretty cuffs, and its little necktie tied with a bow. Oddly, the dress has pockets, but the detachable apron doesn’t. (Where would a waitress put her order pad and tips?) Perhaps this is a uniform for a manicurist, but I can also imagine it worn by the waitress in a tea-room.
This view (below) of the dress without the apron shows more, expensive-to-manufacture, styling details in the bodice, which has points like a weskit. This much-nicer-than-it-needs-to-be work uniform wasn’t custom designed for a prestigious restaurant chain or hotel; Pic-Wic sold door-to-door to individuals and small businesses. A similar card showing nurses’ uniforms from Pic-Wic gives prices between $2.95 and $3.45 (less if you bought three at a time), including free shipping.
Perhaps Pic-Wic uniforms were just too well-designed to be profitable in the mass-produced clothing business. However, the vintage waitress outfit below is also graced with unexpected details.
Vintage 1930s Cranberry Red and White Dix-Make Waitress Uniform
I admit that I fell in love with this outfit the minute I saw it. It may look red on your screen, but it is the color of a ripe cranberry. Like the Pic-Wic uniform, this one has peaked cuffs on the sleeves, and styling details that go beyond the basic needs of a washable uniform. Although this apron is pretty basic, it is bordered all around with white rickrack, creating a delicate scalloped edge to match the collar and cuffs of the dress.
The rickrack on collar, cuffs, and pockets is inserted between two layers of fabric to create a subtly softened edge. The low pocket on the skirt of the dress gets a similar treatment.
The center front closing on the bodice becomes a side front closing on the skirt, a detail that would add to manufacturing cost. It does make room for the nice, big pocket. This uniform was heavily starched, presumably by a commercial laundry.
The Dix-Make company is also hard to trace, but The Vintage Traveler says she found a Dix-Make advertisement in a Vogue magazine from 1925. The uniform she was trying to identify was white, and trimmed with white lace.
This cranberry red uniform is probably from later in the thirties than the green Pic-Wic uniform, because it is somewhat shorter — but still far below knee length. It has slightly puffed, set-in sleeves, but not the exaggerated puffed sleeves or the broader shoulders and snugly fitted waist of the later 1930s and 40s. So: mid-1930s is an educated guess — corrections are welcome!
In a black and white movie, this deep cranberry red dress would definitely photograph as black. Try to keep that in mind the next time you watch a black and white movie; the past was much more colorful than we might think!