Friday, March 9, 2012

9 March 1933 “Children’s Clothing: The Long and Short of it”

Mickey Rooney 1930 A young and smiling Mickey Rooney in the 1930’s. His cap and tie may seem formal today, but would have been normal school wear or to go shopping with mummy.

Sears ad, 1935We can’t mention children’s fashion of the 1930’s without mentioning Shirley Temple. However miss Temple will not make her debut until next year, 1934, but after that everything with her name and image will sell like hotcakes.

30sgirlsdresses Little girls dresses and clothing in the Depression era were rather short. Young girls coats, dresses and skirts surprisingly were mini in length. Much of this may have been the dictate of simply wearing your clothes longer (you grew up and out of your dresses length) as well as a hold over from the shorter women’s clothing of the 1920’s.

While ladies dresses had a return to the waist and a much longer hem than the 1920’s girls dresses did not reflect that.shirleytemple I also recall Shirley Temple outfits where matching pants were worn as when she crawled onto laps her dresses were so short her panties would have shown. Here we see a great expanse of bare leg and dresses not longer than a long shirt.girlsdresses Even this older girl, most likely 14 or so on the left, is wearing a rather short dress.30sgirlsshortdresses One can see here the dresses in some cases are almost like just wearing a shirt. And full legged stockings have gone out and simply rolled down ankle socks and bare legs accompany these dresses. This length again will not be seen until the late 60’s.60sdresses And, oddly enough, the vogue of opaque tights would actually cover more of their skin in the 1960’s than their 1930’s era counterparts. boysshorts Even young boys short pants were rather quite short.

Someone had mentioned to me Kitt Kitteredge American Girl doll and that there was a movie being made. I was surprised, when I googled images for it, that they had her dresses and skirts so long.kitt These girls outfits are odd to me. The heavier child on the right looks to be dressed more like an older lady in the later 1920’s. And the center girl’s sweater is far too long and her skirt is also more a later 1940’s length. The first girl, again, looks as if she is wearing her mothers dress. I suppose it is simply a modern take on the look, but after seeing and viewing actual 30’s children’s fashions and images in magazines, online, old photos and then seeing this, it almost made me laugh. They are adorable outfits, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think very atypical of a little girls outfit in the Depression. If they were meant to be teenagers, I could see it, but not children up to and even including 14 year olds.

Now onto the boys:

fauntleroy1 Continuing into the early part of the 20th century, boys continued to be dressed in terms we would consider today feminine. Clothes for boys were a specific style and in no way mimicked their adult male counterparts. Long hair and curls was prevalent as well from the Victorian period on. This little fellow here in his little Lord Fauntleroy suit proudly bears his rows  of lace. frankroosevelt Even President Roosevelt's childhood held feminine clothing. It was simply the norm of the time. Here he is looking by modern standards like a little girl. I wonder if part of the feminine quality of young boys in the nursery was that they had not as yet moved on to manhood so were simply thought of as different creatures. When, you think of it, they certainly are. Little boys and girls may act a certain way, “Oh he’s a typical boy, or she’s a girlie girl” but that is most likely our modern perceptions of those roles being noticed in some traits. A great difference, however, from the little boys of the President’s childhood to the 1930’s.

20schildren Here we see Post WWI by the 1920’s little boys dressed like miniature version of men. Though often at this time, young boys wore short pants still, their top half were often a small version of a gentleman’s suit/vest/tie combination. This young fellow even has a lovely handkerchief in his suit coat pocket.

30sboysuit A typical 1930’s little boy’s suit.

30sboys And boys typically wore long pants even as school clothes up until after WWII, when mass production allowed for more clothing per child cheaper as well as styles being reflected by the new TV media.

In some ways we can see this ‘growing up’ of the little boys clothing as a sign of the changing times. After the trench warfare of WWI, the innocence of old warring was lost to the world. No longer was war campaigning an organized system with rules and almost a chivalric code. Now, we have deadly gasses, bombs from planes, it was take any advantage you could get. The innocence of the old world was gone and the little boy in the nursery was no longer to be considered a little darling, similar to his sister, but in a way hardened for the new world. To be the tough ‘little man’ that the modern world required of him. In a way, to me, it seems rather sad.

Today, of course, we see children’s clothes versions of adult clothes. And many adult clothes are simply easy and rather sloppy and some are rather inappropriate for young girls, but it is the style. I am not sure what that says about the modern world. I do know that the easy to buy cheaply made clothes of today are certainly reflected in the amount of clothing and shoes owned by children.

As I have said before, even a rather poor child today would seem insanely rich in clothing to his 1930’s counterpart, who may have had simply one good suit, a few school short pants and tops, and a set of play clothes. And two pair of shoes, if he was lucky. Some were poor enough to simply not wear their shoes when they were playing to save the wear and tear.

I think one problem or misconception we have when we look back at the Depression and say, “Oh they had it much harder” can be misleading. It would be true they simply would not have shoes sometimes or clothing, but there was no Old Navy or Payless down the street. They also did not have credit cards and the debt that went along with it. I only hope the odd network of things we seem to take for granted as simply ‘the way it is’ doesn’t disappear over night. We all live on a very thin line of complete poverty and what we think of as plenty. And we also pay much more of our income in housing costs, taxes, fuel, insurances and so on. As I have said before, it can be scary to live in such a constant state of flux.

I will return to more posts on recipes and the home, I promise. I simply have been allowing myself more time to work on other things and have not been as diligent a blogger as I would like.

What do you think about children’s clothing today? Do you think it is good we have so many cheap things to buy or do you think more is not always better? What about quality? Do you think any of today’s children's shoes would last for generations to wear?

Happy Homemaking.


  1. Quality is definitely important, but Old Navy is so cheap, and just right there! What I don't like is the trendiness of the children's clothing, especially the girls' clothing. I try to keep my boys in more classic styles, sturdy clothes that can handle abuse. I encourage them to change into play clothes and keep things nice to hand along when we are through with them. I do try to buy second hand when possible: my best tip I ever read was that if you find a nice garment second hand, esp for kids, it will probably be durable because it's already survived at least one owner! For shoes I buy new, and I buy the brickiest pair I can find, usually athletic shoes. I think if you are willing to spend the money on things like good dress shoes they will last a long time. People don't tend to do that though because the kids grow so fast, and we don't operate as a community. I am lucky to have a lot of friends with boys younger and older than mine, so we try to keep things flowing as best as we can.

  2. While I never saw a picture of my father as a young child, my mother did, or at least was told, that he had long blonde hair like a girl. Ma mere, did, however, express her disapproval; she was certain that my grandmother, who desperately wanted a girl, was dressing my father to fit the part. My grandmother was born in 1892. Her decision was probably a reflection of her time period.

    Growing up in the mid 50's/60's, it was commonplace that kids dressed up for school, girls with dresses and boys with collared shirts and nice pants. When we came home from school we went out to play, but not before changing into our play clothes. We had "dress" shoes, "school" shoes, and "play" shoes. Play shoes were old school shoes and sometimes old dress shoes. My mother purchased one pair of shoes in the beginning of the school year to be worn until summer recess. My mother would complain if either my brother or I had a growth spurt in the middle of the school year and needed another pair! A pair of Keds were purchased at the beginning of summer.

    A child of the Depression, born 1925, she did not think it necessary for her children to have an extensive wardrobe. I did not realize this until I was in the area high school, but was comfortable with the idea that it didn't bother me. I did not have extensive wardrobes for my children, either.

    Since my teens I prefer to buy quality that lasts rather than a lot of something that will not last; surprisingly enough, so do my children. Unfortunately, it is a mixed bag when it comes to shoes. While shoes today do not usually have the repairable, thick leather soles of the past, my husband does have a pair of dress shoes like that. The leather does not last as long as the plastic soles of today and is in the shoe repair establishment more than we prefer. I wear orthopedic (upper) leather shoes with plastic soles. In all honesty, even wearing them every day, they last for years. The cheaper shoes my one son prefers to buy lasts much less. My girls buy inexpensive shoes, but have more shoes than I. Wearing the shoes to match the outfit, and not wearing them every day, permits the shoes a better "life span."

    There has been a new paradigm to children's shoes since mine were small. I was able to buy the traditional shoes of my youth for the oldest children. The rest wore more and more modern style shoes. Today almost everything is sneaker-like, or worse. Toddlers do not wear those ankle high heavy duty shoes; they wear a soft moccasin type footwear.

    The clothing, in general, is not made to last. I am amazed at quality of the sewing; the computer can be amazing. The material being sewn, however, can be poor. I, as well as all my daughters, sew. I sew my own clothes, but they still purchase.

    During the Depression, mending was an important skill. It extended the life of the garment, and kept the wearer neat and presentable. Today, this seems to be a lost art. While the average woman today will feign the ability to mend, especially "hems" and buttons, they really do not. The Depression motto, "Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without," is of little use to the 21st century person. Those of the depression era understood the benefit of mending. With mending (women type skills) or repair (man type skills), "doing without" is much reduced.


  3. It is unusual for me to get everyday clothes to go through all three girls nowadays. :( Church dresses are usually still nice, b/c they are only worn maybe once a month (they usually have about 4 church dresses). Church shoes, in similar fashion, can usually be passed down to the other childthe next child nowadays.

    This was not hte case even when *I* was a child, in the 80s. My clothing and shoes were always good enough to give to my younger cousin to wear.

    My aunts, who grew up in the 40s and 50s, say that they had about 2 church dresses, church shoes which doubled as school shoes (one pair per year) and about 5 school dresses. They wore the school dress and shoes to school during the day, then *immediately* upon returning home, they hung up the school outfit and put away the shoes. They had 'play/work' clothes to wear at home. They were for after school and Saturdays. They had old shoes to wear in the winter, but as soon as it was warm, shoes were not worn at home at all.

    My own children do have more clothes than I did as a child, and I'm seriously considering a 7 outfit plus 4 church outfits policy with a few 'play outfits' for working in the yard, and playing outside. That should be PLENTY.

    Mrs P

  4. The biggest problem I find with modern clothing, is that it is so low in quality that it is practically disposable. And I'm not even exaggerating! I have lots of children, and there are very few pieces of clothing I can hand down to the next child-- pretty much NONE. The fabric is so cheap it gets holes easily, stains immediately, stretches and fades.

    I am actually considering going down to one or two outfits for each of my four little girls, and covering their everyday dress with a denim apron. (If I can find any high quality denim fabric!) It wouldn't be hard to throw things out, since I have to throw away their cheap clothes after each season. (They're not even fit to give away to thrift stores!)

    Yes, I'm sure my great-grandmother, who raised her children during the Depression, would be horrified! :(

    1. I had six children, three boys and three girls who are all adults now. They wore stained and patched clothing for play if the stains and patches were not socially acceptable. My negative opinion of our consumer crazy society aside, my kids didn't need that kind of stress from their peers at school.

      Inexpensive denim is not that difficult to find and they come in various weights. I would think twice, however of making the apron (pinafore) out of indigo colored denim. It bleeds. You would not like those dresses or outfits to have blue stains on them. If you made pinafores, a sturdy brown fabric that did not bleed would be better...if they would wear them. What about a sturdy jumper? Or bib overalls. (We had an older visting preacher once say that they were so poor that he didn't wear waist pants until he was twenty. Bib overalls are very 1930s.

      I found that knits are *not* sturdy! If you do not already sew, I would recommend that you do. I became an expert at mending. The outfit, and its associated fabric real estate is worth the effort, provided, of course, that the fabric was sturdy to begin with.

      I mend and repair more than clothes. As I have said before, fabric, especially fabric that has been made into an item, is an important piece of real estate. I focus on its replacement costs. I keep it going (think bath towels, wash cloths, utility cloths, cloth napkins, and bed "linens") until I must re-purpose and make something else from what has integrity. I have been doing this for a very long time.

      I will darn a sock and have my paternal grandmother's darning egg. Few of the modern, cheap socks are worth darning. They make better rags. Evidently, clothing fits into that category as well.

      My mother's grandmother, born somewhere around 1867, always said, that you should have three of everything. One to wear/use(think sheets) one to wash, and one clean in the drawer. It makes sense, even today.

      My mother b.1925, told me of getting hand me down dresses that had been hemmed up and down a number of times, and the rick rack covering the worn hem edge didn't help. When she pulled the dress over her knees, the skirt ripped at that weak point.


    2. Great advice, Gigi! I do sew, but I hadn't considered the demin bleeding onto the other clothes. Hmmm...

      You've given me great food for thought. Thank you! :-)

  5. I have pictures of my mother, a child in the 1930s wearing dresses and skirts that are very short and then my sister and me in the 1960s wearing dresses of a similar length but as you say often with tights , although long socks were the thing as well.
    I don't really know much about children's clothes today as my youngest is 14 but I do know there are lots of small businesses making clothes for children and doing every well, mostly just 1 or 2 people in the business rather like my dollmaking. So if you can't make things yourself there are choices, they aren't cheap but I guess then you just have fewer clothes

  6. Growing up in the 50s we wore dresses or jumpers with blouses. The only time we wore slacks to school was half day on gym day. During grade school we walked home for lunch each day so we changed back into dresses that day at lunch. We did have leg gins in the winter made out of the same wool material as our coats and as thick to wear when we were out in the snow. Like others said we had a good pair of shoes and then they were passed down to be our school shoes then play as they got older. One new pair a year usually. When you got them they were fitted with room to gown into. I am sure some years we did have to get new ones in between though as our feet got too cramped in the first pair. We usually got a new dress for Easter and that was our church dress for the rest of the spring and summer and into the coldest part of the year when we might get something around Christmas. Or we would have a hand me down dress to use at that time. Every year in late July or August when it was the hottest and most humid Mother would get the bags down from the attic full of all the hand me down clothes and we would have to try them on to see what we could use for school the next year. So we fidgeted and squirmed was Mother would check each garnet to see if it fit and if it needed hemmed or altered. There was no way we were would have been allowed to go outside of the of the house in clothes that did not fit right or were not starched and ironed. :) Even play clothes if they got holes war mended. I think how you dress your children carries over to how they dress later. I agree that classic styles and such are the best. My children almost 100% were dressed in used clothing or clothes I sewed for them. They were passed down and still in good shape and after they were all done I sold them and the people that bought them would ask me if they were actually worn. !! The quality was very good and we took care of our clothing. I usually could get back all the money I spent on the clothing when I resold them. I bought them very cheaply and sold them cheaply but they were not made cheaply. Our motto is you may shop at the junk stores but you never buy junk. One thing about the children wearing the short short dresses in the 30s. I wonder if they did wear the shorts under them as a rule? I know I made them for my daughter for her dresses all the way through grade school. She would play on the monkey bars and such at school and so I thought them more appropriate. So many of the girls today are so used to wearing slacks. When they do wear skirts they have no idea they should watch how they sit and move in them. Mothers should teach their daughters to wear and move and sit in dresses and skirts with comfort and modesty. They do not have many examples as we did as we were surrounded with others wearing them. I knew of the styles children wore in the 30s but had not thought of the way they distorted those styles in the movies ..not showing how they actually dressed. Making them more modest. Seemed almost odd as you would think of times in the past being more modest in length then later.. when in reality in some instances that was not so. This again was a very interesting post. thanks for the time you can give to this blog. We appreciate it. Sarah

  7. My own 3 girls and I wear dresses and skirts nearly exclusively. They wear slacks when riding horses or doing some extremely grubby work, like perhaps digging potatoes in the garden. They all *did* have to be *taught* how to sit and play, etc without exposing themselves. The younger ones, like under 12 or so do wear shorter dresses and wear shorts(the bike shorts, or bloomers made to match) underneath.

    My aunts inform me that they wore bloomers under their dresses as children of the 40s and 50s. :) The dresses were shorter, but the bloomers in the summer and thick tights in the winter were to keep them 'modest' :)

    Mrs P

    1. We do this in our family, too. Bloomers and leggings are my girls' best friends! :-D

  8. There's a store in town that sells little shorts called Monkey Bar Buddies for girls to wear under skirts and dresses. They came out after my girls wore dresses on a regular basis but I was glad to see them. Girls should be able to wear feminine clothes without having to sit on the sidelines. Here's a link:

    I'm so glad this company found their niche because there was a real need! I used to buy my girls boy-short styled underwear from Europe because I thought the regular panties sold here in the US were too skimpy under dresses and skirts. Both girls still prefer this style but unfortunately the company that makes it stopped distributing to the US.

    I think it's sad that so much of our clothing is considered "disposable". I remember when I was pregnant with my second child Target came out with maternity clothes and a lot of woman I knew started buying them. It didn't take then long to realize that many of the pieces wouldn't last thru one pregnancy! Donna, I remember you posting once that you had worked at Old Navy and the sales cycle was so short and the unsellable items were cut with scissors before being put in a dumpster. That made so mad! It just highlights one of the many problems with mass consumption in this country.

    I hate to admit this but I was once sucked into thinking cheap clothes were a bargain. I've been focusing more on quality and less on quantity but I find it hard to only buy what I consider well made clothes that are made in America. There are just so few companies right now. But I see the number growing, which is encouraging.

    Thanks for another interesting post!

    Sarah H.

  9. Thanks for another great post - I just thrifted a Shirley Temple movie double dvd, so will have to watch it with the kids now!
    I am so over cheap chain store clothing for all of us. Not only is it all made in third world countries, it's unsustainable and often unwearable after a few washes.
    I now buy all of my children's clothing (except school uniform t shirts - which are sadly made in China, and underwear) secondhand, at op/thrift shops. I have found lovely dresses for my daughters this way, as many people have saved them for 'good' so the kids have outgrown them instead of outworn them. I get great shirts and pants for my son this way too. Luckily he loves shirts with collars more than t-shirts. And everything is pre shrunk and you know if it's going to run, ball etc! I do sew too if needed, but buying fabric seems a waste too, so I prefer to cut down thrifted clothes for them (turn a skirt into a dress etc).
    They get two new pairs of shoes a season, runners and either leather boots slip on or leather sandals, and a pair of thongs. Some shoes are thrifted as well, as their are many new shoes to be found. They go barefoot at home as it's so hot here, and often wear bathers after school. Old clothes are for play, painting etc, and even for pjs.
    Deb xx

  10. I think there are two reasons little girls dresses were so short in the 30's. 1 The 'modern' idea that exercise and exertion were healthy for little girls unlike older generations that though a girl should not run and climb like a boy. 2 The economics of the time that made clothing and material difficult to afford.
    I do not have any children to buy clothing for at this time, but in the future I plan on buying most things second hand. I would consider paying slightly more for a few special outfits handmade from somewhere like etsy.

  11. I wanted to share this old time radio show with you. The exact dates are not known but it says believed to be the early 30's. I could not find any exact dates but thought I would share anyway.

  12. Mama Rachel, I always think my grams would be disappointed too! Yes, the typical chain store merchandise is pretty disposable. Stuff you couldn't even mend if you wanted to.

    1. So true! I've tried to mend things, and it just doesn't work. :-(

      Time to sit at my sewing machine, I guess! :-)

  13. Oh and another: This one is supposed to be 1932. Just thought you might like to add some programs to listen to this year. :)

  14. Not trying to be annoying.. I am just super into vintage stuff so when I see something from "your" time period I want to share. Not sure if you have seen this already: Its the prices for thanksgiving foods in 1931.

  15. Amy you are not being annoying in the least. We appreciate the links and I am sure many followers will enjoy, as will I, the opportunity to listen to these great broadcasts.

  16. I think the clothing worn by children of this era was disgusting. You cannot watch a Shirley Temple film without having the child exposed on more then one occasion. Of course, it appears we are back at that today.

    I cannot find in any shops today dresses. There are thongs, string bikinis and mini skirts that do not even cover underwear for little girls, but only holiday dresses give any sembelence of dignity. We shop used, add fabric to the bottom of the mini skirts and use old, smaller dresses as tunic tops over leggings. Why anyone would send their daughter walking around in skin tight pants or mini skirts with nothing but skimpy panties on underneat I will never understand and I am no old prude, I am in my early thirties!

    My girls wear "bloomies" under all skirts. I take leggings and they wear them long in the winter and cut short in the summer (you can also use biker shorts) and if you want you can add some fun trim. We even wear shorts over stockings in the winter because they are active.

    I was horrified at the park the other day when a small girl was hanging upside down in very skimpy underwear that was showing under her skirt and her Mother did nothing.

    Where have all the Mothers and Fathers gone? Ever heard of predators?


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