Fashion Guide

Boardwalk Empire: A 1930s Fashion Guide


When that twang of blues chords slides into the rocking bass beats, my heart races every single time. The saturated spindling clouds, the steely, relentless rolling waves and the crunch of salt-saturated sand

It’s everything I ever felt growing up on the shores of the East Coast and it’s set against everything my old soul wishes it had been apart of as Nucky Thompson lumbers back to the boardwalk of Atlantic City. It’s year 1931, a turning point in history, and the series finale of Boardwalk Empire.

Set between the bookends of two loud decades — the roaring 20s and swinging 40s — the 1930s often is overlooked in its sartorial beauty. The contrast of what the country was facing — a Dust Bowl, a Great Depression, growing domestic and global political turmoil, Repeal of Prohibition — and the gorgeous lines of the fashion was deliberate.

The country’s psyche needed a boost of softness with a healthy dose of renewed resolve which was reflected in the lines of women’s garments being more feminine than ever, while menswear took on a new strong lines of masculinity.

What Men Wore in the Early 1930s

For menswear, gone were the gay, bold colors of the 1920s. Instead, the fashionable style went into deeper, more somber tones. Cuts went to broad-shoulder and double-breasted suits, away from the classic 1920s styles of slim-cut, single-breasted jackets.

But the flashy details were kept, as made popular by the gangsters who had a flair for gold buttons and cuff-links. Thus, many 1930s-double breasted suits had large buttons, none more evident than the “Broadway suit” which was the mainstream man’s comfortable answer to the flamboyant bootlegger’s style.

With 8 million Americans estimated to be unemployed by 1931, the economics shifted how the average household were sartorially outfitted.

From personalized tailoring in the 1920s, the majority of purchases became mass-manufactured garments in the 1930s. This created another impact on the decade’s fashion — the expanded importance on accessories and headwear, as well as how it was worn, to express individual style.

Men wore hat brims lower across the brow, picture the deep profile look of Dick Tracy who made his debut in 1931. It signaled he meant business and was shouldering exactly everything that was coming at him, and such was the spirit that the average man was channeling.

Under those hats, men started wearing their hair without the trendy roaring 20s Pomade, usually parted to the side, and of course in a short-clean cut. Mustaches were mostly worn at this time by older gentleman, yet, most all carried a cigarette case, wallet, a signet ring and two handkerchiefs — one as a decorative pocket square, and the other tucked in the inner suit pocket or sleeve for practical use.

How Accessories Saved the Sartorial Lady

Ladies during the 1930s unfurled accessories like none other. While customized clothing became too costly, the rise of matching sets became the substitute such as the trifecta of suede gloves, shoes and handbag.

To glamorize off-the-rack garments, ladies would wear large rings, watches set with gems or ornate filigree, and depending on budget or occasion, batik scarves or a fox fur — red or gray — swooped across one shoulder.

Coming from the lines made popular by the flapper in the 1920s, the cloche continued into the early ’30s with both large and small brims, but deep, close-fitting crowns.

Often ladies would bring a wide brim to cover one eye — an element of being flirty and sexy but strong and aloof — mirroring the tenacity of the men’s low-brow Dick Tracy look.

Later in the 1930s, women’s hats completely discarded the cloche look for more high-crown, outdoor sporty looks achieved by the Pert hat which was worn at a jaunty angle, again, with a very flirtatious spirit.

Women’s Hair & Makeup in the Early 1930s

Like the gents, women also loosen up their locks in a more natural style with a longer length, side-part and loosely-waved look. When not worn down in coiffed pin-curl wave, hair was worn up.

The entirely polished look was completed with immaculate makeup worn with thin, high-arching eye-brows, very feminine gentle lashes with soft and pouty lips.

It was an era of extremes and women have never looked more stunning.

Women’s Dresses in the Early 1930s

Designers shifted to bias-cut dresses to flatter the feminine curves of every woman in an ethereal effect. But also, it was the rise of the grown-up working woman’s suit.

The 1930s played with both these concepts in a way that was affordable for even the low-income woman hit hardest during the Great Depression.

Hollywood certainly set the tone for escapism in styles that were dream-like and filled with luxe, such as rich furs, dripping diamonds and shimmering silks. Yet, the sexy, billowing lines of these looks were emulated in the every-day-woman’s style with blouses that had a flounce-element, while even tailored skirts channeled lines to offer a whimsical and flirty flat as you walked.