Celebrity, Children, & Fashion, 1920s-1930s

This is a brief excerpt from the book to which I was contributor, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing through American History, 1900 to the Present.

The twenties and thirties saw an increase in movie attendance, with children being influenced as well. Not only did popular child movie-stars endorse and/or create their own clothing lines for both boys and girls, but they also affected trends in general.

1920

In the 1920s, after Lindbergh’s famous flight in The Spirit of St. Louis, aviator outfits became popular playwear. Other archetypes were also imitated including: space men, cowboys, Indians, and baseball heroes (Olian 2003). Film stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Jackie Coogan appeared in ads for boys’ clothes, eventually developing their own clothing lines (Cook 2004). While Buck Rodgers and similar adult stars continued to influence boys clothing through to WWII,  age appropriate stars began to have a greater influence (Olian 2003).

Mickey Rooney 1930

Mickey Rooney 1930

Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters appeared on T-shirts and other sportswear for both boys and girls (Olian 2003). A host of youthful Hollywood stars such as Judy Garland, Virginia Weidler, Mickey Rooney, Jane Withers and Sonja Henie had their own clothing lines, or began endorsing clothing for department stores catalogs, (including the Sears Catalog) (Cook 2004). By the late 1930s, Hollywood costume designers such as Vera West and Edith Head were being recognized for the costumes designed for their petite stars (Cook 2004).

Shirley Temple

Of course, the most famous child star of the 1930s was Shirley Temple, who set the bar for all other child endorsers and merchandisers (Cook 2004). She made her film debut at the age of five in 1934 and by the following year she was making $1,000 a week from merchandising tie-ins alone (Cook 2004 and Ewing 1977). Mothers everywhere dressed their children in Temple-imitating clothing.

Sears ad, 1935

Sears ad, 1935

Temple merchandise included dresses, coats, snow suits, raincoats, toys and accessories (Cook 2004). However, it was the Shirley Temple “look” that most mothers were after. Her iconic hairstyle of all-over-ringlets was imitated everywhere and is still recognized today. Her style of dress, frequently identified with toddler-hood, included simple frocks made to accentuate a toddler’s belly, with puffed sleeves and hemlines that were consistently 19 inches from the floor (Cook 2004).[i] These were trimmed with simple and unobtrusive decorative elements, such as embroidered or appliquéd, and lace edged hemlines and collars. Interestingly, conflicting fan magazines reports suggest that Temple was both disinterested in her film costumes[ii] and insistent that they be of a consistent design.[iii] Regardless, her style left its imprint on children’s fashion of the 1930s.

Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret

June 1936 at Windsor

June 1936 at Windsor

Non-film child celebrities also drew considerable attention and affected children’s clothing trends. The child Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of England affected design worldwide (Ewing 1977 and Laubner 2000). The press regularly photographed the pair and reported on their preferences. Beginning in 1932, young girls in England began wearing “Margaret Rose dresses” (a rosebud trimmed knitted dress) (Costantino 1991). Primrose yellow and pink were the reported favorite colors of Princess Elizabeth, thus dresses in those colors flew off the shelves (Costantino 1991).

Bibliography:

Cook, Daniel Thomas. The Commodification of Childhood: The Childrens Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer. Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2004.

Costantino, Maria. Fashions of a Decade: The 1930s. Valerie Cumming and Elane Feldman (eds). London: B.T. Batsford, 1991.

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Children’s Costume. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977.

Laubner, Ellie. Collectible Fashions of the Turbulent 1930s. Atglen, PA: Schiffer: 2000. 219

Olian, JoAne (ed). Children’s Fashions 1900-1950 As Pictured in Sears Catalogs, Mineola, New York: Dover, 2003


[i] Blackford, Marion. ‘Miss Temple’s Best Bib and Tucker,’ Screen Play, August 1936, pg. 54

[ii] Blackford, Marion. ‘Miss Temple’s Best Bib and Tucker,’ Screen Play, August 1936, pg. 54

[iii] Martin, Sally. “Hollywood’s Charm School: Shirley’s Personal Wardrobe,” Hollywood, November 1936. (40)

8 Comments »

  1. Alaina Zulli said,

    May 10th, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Interesting little article, I never thought about early 20th c. child endorsements. And the way people carry on now about Hannah Montana clothes, as if it were a new thing!

  2. Heather said,

    May 10th, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Thanks Alaina, glad you enjoyed it. Nothing in fashion is every really new :) Even celebrities as fashion designers is nothing new!

    Heather

  3. Katie Lee said,

    May 28th, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Personally, I wish we’d get back to dressing little girls to look like little girls instead of streetwalkers. I was at the mall recently and saw fingerless black lace gloves for toddlers! Black leather short, tight skirts for four-year olds, and sex, sex, sex everywhere I looked! Are these children’s mother’s completely clueless? We complain about kidnapping and predators but buy into the idea of dressing our daughters like harlots for men to consume! I left with some soft, pink fabric I intend to use to make a Shirley Temple dress for my little girl. I know she’ll love it. She was in tears looking at the trash the mall offered. (She’s six years old.)

  4. Heather Vaughan said,

    May 28th, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Katie Lee – thanks for your comment. I just became aware of this (now passed) exhibition “Child’s Play: Aesthetics, Gender, & Children’s Clothing” at the Monroe County History Center in Indiana, which lives on in a blog available here: http://childsplayexhibit.blogspot.com/

    You might find it interesting.

    Best,

    Heather

  5. Modest Gowns said,

    June 3rd, 2010 at 10:28 am

    I agree with katie. I think that modesty is classy. Our world is going downhill as far as clothing goes. The things you see people wearing these days!

  6. Alex Johnson said,

    April 26th, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    From which pages in the book was the excerpt taken? I’m interested in reading further!

  7. Heather said,

    April 27th, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Alex – thanks for your query! It starts on page 316 of Volume 1. Hope you enjoy!

    Heather

  8. hope full said,

    July 3rd, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    i dont know if anyone knows this but graeme greene, the famous author, actually was one of the first people to openly criticize the sexualization of children, his critique was actually of Shirley Temple. To be fair she was actually quite risque, like the Japanese anime who dress like children but in a cheeky sexual way.

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