Primary Source Highlight: Historic Women’s Wear Daily


Those who follow my Twitter feed (@Fashionhistoria) will know that I’ve been spending a good deal of time in the newspapers and manuscripts division of the UC Berkeley Library looking through historical volumes of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD). I’ve been slowly making my way through 10 volumes covering the first six months of 1927, and the first six months of 1929 (don’t ask me why, but that’s all  Harvard and Northwestern sent from my Interlibrary Loan Request). It is my intention to go through all the volumes from 1927-1933.

Turning the pages of these large leather-bound books is a long, but interesting process. WWD was and is, as the name implies, a daily publication. Looking through a single month can take me many days (each day has between 40-60 pages of very small print). That said, some of the things I’ve found are rather enthralling. I’ve been posting some of what I’ve found via Twitpic (click for examples), but here are some goodies I’ve been saving for WT, perhaps they’ll inspire one of you to research and write a paper on one of these topics.

(A coat by Bechoff, with Pahmi Fur trim, WWD, February 28, 1929).

WWD delves into an amazing number of details and facets associated with the fashion business. It also looks for and analyzes trends in many of the same places that fashion journalists and writers look for them today – on the street, at the theatre (both on stage, and in the audience), in films, at the beach (especially during winter months), and in museum fashion exhibits. In these articles, now primary source material for researchers, writers looked well beyond New York and Paris, reporting on doings and trends (from marketing strategies to popular sale items) in virtually every region of the US. Until this project, I had no idea Portland, Oregon was such an important center for fashion in 1929.

(WWD May 21, 1929, “Plus Fours Adopted for British Film Depicting Life in 1950”)

Illustrations are, of course, a key element of the historic importance of these volumes – especially the ads. The publication is entirely black and white, but both photographs and illustrations are used to depict everything from stage costumes, to sportswear to millinery, shoes, cottons, silks and rayons.

(Ad for Ted Kraisler Dresses, WWD, March 5, 1929)

A brief survey of these volumes illuminates just how connected the theater was to fashion trends and aesthetics: I did not know that so many couturier’s designed for the theater (both in New York, and in Paris). Martial et Armand, Lanvin, Patou, Poiret, Hattie Carnegie and many others regularly designed theatrical costumes (though they were generally not constructed by their own workshops). This brief, but obvious note makes me all the more curious about the recent publication, When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture

Some pretty outlandish things were worn for benefits, including this example by The Brooks Costume Co. for a benefit held at Madison Square Garden on May 3, 1929. (clicking on the photo to enlarge it is well worth it). The surrealism just blows me away. (For more on surrealism in theater of this era, take a look at Peter Nicholls’s article “Anti-Oedipus? Dada and Surrealist Theatre, 1916–35″ published in New Theatre Quarterly (1991), 7:331-347 Cambridge University Press.)

Ethel Barrymore’s prominence in the theatrical world was also nothing short of a sensation in the mid to late 20s. Article after article tracks her performances, her new productions and even her costumes. In 1949, Aline Bernstein included an earlier example of a Barrymore costume in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Behind American Footlights“(via The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 7, No. 7 (Mar., 1949), pp. 199-204).

(Front Page, WWD, April 16, 1929, for a production of The Love Thief)

and aviation, it seems, was becoming more and more popular with women. Both ads and news pieces featured important style developments for a new garment type, the aviator suit. Many of the trend reports included pictures of Amelia Earhart and other lesser-known ‘flyers’, as well as photos or illustrations of the fashionable attire seen at popular air shows. (For more on this phenomenon see the essay by Karla Jay “No Bumps, No Excrescences: Amelia Earhart’s Failed Flight into Fashions” published in On Fashion, eds Benstock and Ferriss, 1994).

(Front page, WWD, “Paris Develops an Alluring Chic in Costumes for the Aviatrix” April 30, 1929)

All that is to say – if you looking for a topic to research Women’s Wear Daily will lead you in more directions than you can possibly need. Those in New York can find copies at the NYPL, and many other libraries in the country have different sections of its print run available for study.

For more information:

Barmash, Isadore; et al. Fashion, Retailing and a Bygone Era – Inside Women’s Wear Daily. Washington, D.C. : Beard Books, 2005.

Bryant, Michele Wesen. WWD Illustrated: 1960s-1990s. New York: Fairchild Publications, 2004.

Kelly, Katie. The Wonderful World of Women’s Wear Daily. New York: Saturday Review Publications, 1972.

Lessing, Alice and Ermina Stimson. Sixty Years of Fashion: 1900-1960, The Evolution of Women’s Styles in America. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1963.

Women’s Wear Daily. WWD Century : One Hundred Years of Fashion. New York: Fairchild Books & Visuals, 1998.

Women’s Wear Daily. The Changing American Woman : 200 Years of American Fashion. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1976.

*Directorie and Empire Fashions to Appear This Evening at Annual Beaux Arts Ball” WWD, January 25, 1929.

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  • Sarah September 09, 2010 06.17 pm

    Thanks for the great resource. I have to say, I love your blog! I just found you last week while doing my own research on early twentieth century hat pins, which I just wrote a post about.

  • Lisa September 23, 2010 12.16 am

    Just for everyone’s knowledge, I’ve been advising a writer on an upcoming book on 100 years of WWD. I’m not sure about the publication date, but it promises to be a good resource. My writer friend is mostly “captioning,” so I have high hopes that actual spreads will be featured. Will send news upon publication!

  • Heather Vaughan September 23, 2010 08.31 am

    Marvelous news Lisa! Please do let us know when it becomes available!


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