Creativity and Fashion in the Great Depression

Cover, mother and daughters showing dresses they made from flour bags Second, ad showing easy it is to make use the fabric from flower bags
Shelah A Johnson

Shelah A Johnson

The recipient of 9 awards from The Society for Technical Communication, is also a published photographer and has produced and directed more than 40 lifestyle broadcast segments focused on eco and small space living.

The birthplace of modern-day upcycling

The Great Depression was a time of social change. One of the most interesting ways that society changed to the dire economic and socioeconomic times was through fashion. During the Depression, fashion adapted to the rising cost of materials and the difficulty most people faced in accessing new and increasingly expensive clothing items. Now, let’s dive a little deeper into how people used creativity and innovation to keep themselves clothed during the Depression and how we might take a page from their playbook.

Pared-down wardrobes and hand-me-downs were common

Not everyone could afford new wardrobes for themselves and their families, even before the Depression. But once the Depression hit, hand-me-downs became the norm, as did slimmed-down wardrobes that covered only the basic necessities.

Children might only have three sets of clothing: Sunday best for formal occasions such as church and regular clothes for everyday wear at school, play, or doing chores around the house. Rather than getting brand new outfits from the store, children would get their clothing from older siblings, purchase it secondhand, or make it by hand. We learn in the historical novel, such as Steinbeck’s, Grapes of Wrath, that thousands of interlal migrents traveling west, lacked event these basics.

Adult’s wardrobes likewise became more practical. Women who needed footwear would purchase only one sensible pair of shoes since they could not easily repair heeled shoes. Likewise, socks became the norm over stockings because stockings could not be mended cheaply.

Hint: If you know that the garment is destined for the rag pile, remove any buttons or zippers to use on other upcycle projects. But don’t be like my mother, who walked the isles of the Saint Vicente DePaul’s with her tiny embroidery sizzlers.

Altered clothing with unique aesthetics became the norm

Fixing up tears in clothing wasn’t unusual before the Depression, but during the Depression, altered clothing became the new norm. People altered clothing by mending it and altering it from previously existing garments. For instance, a mother might take apart her dress and mend it into a dress for her daughter; or someone might repurpose an old wedding dress into several day dresses.

The most unique aspect of this fashion change was the existence of patchwork clothing. It was not unusual to see people from all genders wearing outfits made from multiple fabric types or featuring multiple patterns, such as a polka dot bodice with striped sleeves, all made from different repurposed clothing.

Today, we would call this upcycling, and we are beginning to see brands like Patagonia and Coach repurposing their products. Some fantastic ideas come from highly creative people; in fact, some savvy entrepreneurs have made a business of it. Check out Angelina’s channel Blueprint DIY for some excellent high fashion upcycle ideas.

“Flour” clothes: myth or reality?

The infamous “flour sack dress” really did exist–and it became an extremely popular method for families to supply themselves with new clothing that was both practical and fashionable. During the Depression, people made “flour sack” clothing using plain cotton flour sacks, which they repurposed into dresses, shirts, and other items. This was a perfect example of how people who lived during the Depression made use of everything at their disposal to save money.

When flour and chicken feed companies became wise to this “trick,” they started selling their bags of flour in cotton sacks with lovely prints instead of plain white or beige. This allowed consumers to make dresses using attractive prints, thus reducing the stigma of wearing “flour” dresses and other clothing.

Final Thoughts

For many people, purchasing new clothing was simply out of the question during this period of great hardship. Instead, people turned towards reusing secondhand clothes. They started altering existing clothes, and using any fabric at their disposal–including cotton from flour sacks purchased at their local grocery store. No wonder we see the lead male, Monroe, and his brother, Wyatt, in the period drama Perpetual Gloom. They spend most all their money on new boots, hats, and belts once they start making a little money. They were born and raised during the Depression, and once they had a set of clothes, they were hell-bent on never going back to poverty…at any cost.

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