Flirty Thirties – Sophistication And Elegance – Dolls in The 1930s by Sue Brewer
Lights! Camera! Action! This was the decade of the movie idol. People from all walks of life filled cinemas to watch glamorous actors and actresses on the big screen, escaping everyday worries as they drifted on a sea of music and romance. Stars became household names – though, unlike today’s celebrities, managing to retain their mystique in a waft of fur, satin, diamonds and aloofness.
1930 opened with a literal high for women when Amy Johnson became the first female aviator to fly solo from England to Australia. Sadly, the year ended with a tragic aviation low when the airship R101, on its inaugural flight from England to India, crashed in France, exploding in flames with a loss of 48 lives. The early years of the decade were a combination of emotions as light-hearted young people danced the night away to jazzy music, contrasting with despair and poverty faced by millions as the Depression, following the earlier U.S. Wall Street Crash, hit home. Characterised by instability, with changes of governments, unrest amongst lower-paid workers and, amazingly, three kings in one year (1936), the Thirties were turbulent times. Germany was proving a constant threat, and a sense of unease permeated the atmosphere – this was sensed even in the fashion industry, where clothing became more simple and casual, as though preparing women for the lean times ahead.
Even so, it certainly wasn`t all doom and gloom. A magnificent 1000 ft. liner, the ‘Queen Mary’, was launched in 1934; cruising was the height of fashion amongst the upper classes, and this magnificent ship with its Art Deco design, was deservedly popular. Sophisticated, elegant and stylish, just like her passengers, she summed up the very best of the decade. On her maiden cruise she arrived in New York to find the harbour filled with a welcoming armada and cheering crowds lining the shore. Millionaires, dukes, heiresses and, of course, film stars, adored the ship – this was the height of luxury and style.
The rising movie culture was enthusiastically embraced, and elaborate cinemas with velvet seats and plush fittings were built at a frenzied pace. Soon it seemed that every town had its own ‘Picture Palace’ where audiences could lose themselves in a fantasy world. This was the era of Busby Berkely, a choreographer who directed amazing dance routines featuring dozens of feather-clad performers, and many films featured song and dance numbers. Glamorous stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo and Mae West made the cinema the place to be, while ‘The Wizard of Oz’ starring a young Judy Garland, was released in 1939, just one of the many classic movies which appeared during the decade. Two years earlier, Disney had produced his first-ever full-length cartoon, ‘Snow White’, allowing companies such as Chad Valley to make stunning commemorative dolls. Additionally, a golden-haired tot called Shirley Temple became such a cinema cult that she was created in doll-form to thrill both British and American girls alike, while sassy cartoon star, Betty Boop, was such a hit that she is still adored today.
By the mid-thirties, composition had largely overtaken bisque as the best medium for doll manufacture, and while many dolls made by this method were almost as beautiful as their elegant bisque forbears, others were much more crude with slapdash face painting and basic moulding. Some of the bisque manufacturers switched to composition, while new companies evolved, keen to take advantage of the fashion for a medium which didn`t require firing in hot kilns. America had a particularly extensive doll industry at this time and amongst the classic dolls developed were Dy-Dee, Patsy and Shirley Temple.
The first Shirley Temple dolls appeared in the shops in 1934, sporting a red and white spotted dress resembling the outfit the little girl wore in ‘Stand Up and Cheer’. The dolls were made by Ideal, using a kind of wood-pulp composition, and their success ensured that Shirley Temple dolls would continue to be produced for several years, wearing costumes from her various films. Additionally, extra outfits and accessories could be purchased, including a beautiful dolls pram. Composition Shirley Temple dolls were finally discontinued in 1939 as interest had waned. Nevertheless, in the late 1950s, a combination of nostalgia plus new interest in Shirley, led Ideal to release an updated range, this time using modern vinyl. Today, Shirley Temple dolls are still produced for collectors by companies such as Danbury Mint.
In Britain, Cascelloid experimented making baby dolls from a material they called ‘Plastex’, which was a glue-reinforced unbreakable composition, while companies such as D. G. Todd, British National Dolls and Pedigree produced various composition dolls to a fairly basic design. These were the dolls which would later prove such comfort to children huddled in air-raid shelters, or, alternatively, be the one reminder of home to a child taken to the safety of the countryside, parted from her mother.
Britain – in fact the world – was rocked in 1936 when Edward VIII, renounced his throne in order to marry American heiress Wallis Simpson. She was divorced, and so was unable to become queen. In a broadcast at the time, Edward declared that he could not carry on ‘without the help and support of the woman I love`. Instead, Edward`s brother reigned as George VI, and his delightful wife Elizabeth became universally loved, later becoming affectionately known as ‘The Queen Mum’.
Before the 1939 hostilities began, the decade was an elegant age, with evening wear influenced by the slinky, sparkly gowns worn by stars such as Ginger Rogers, who whirled around the dance floors in the arms of Fred Astaire. Women embraced a feminine, curvy look, simple by daytime and stunning by night. Schiaparelli, the classic Italian designer, promoted the zip fastener which at the time had been scarcely used in fashionable clothing. At last, it was unnecessary to employ a maid to do up all those hooks and eyes on the back of the dress – with a wriggle and a little nifty arm movement, a woman could usually manage to zip up her own dresses.
This same designer created an innovative perfume bottle which was based on Mae West`s voluptuous figure. Mae West, of course, was the ‘Come up and see me sometime’ actress, a delightfully bawdy lady with a great line in double entendres and witty one-liners including such gems as ‘I used to be Snow White but I drifted,’ ‘Its not the men in my life that counts, it’s the life in my men,’ and ‘Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?’ Sailors named their life-jackets after her biggest (43 inch) assets.
Pretty little flat hats, perkily angled over one eye, complemented by a feather or two and perhaps a little piece of veiling, were sported by fashionable women, while snoods made from fine net or crocheted from fine cotton also became the rage. These snoods were practical, especially when women found themselves taking on factory work as men left to join the forces. Towards the end of the decade, simple berets, knitted hats or knotted headscarves were popular – they could be quickly donned during the mad dash to the air-raid shelter. In 1939, the first ‘nylons’ – nylon stockings – appeared, though in Britain many women had to wait until after the war before they would get to feel such luxuries on their legs.
The 1930s was a great time for books – Arthur Ransome penned his classic ‘Swallows and Amazons`, while J.R.Tolkie n couldn`t possibly have imagined the epic he had begun when he wrote ‘The Hobbit’ in 1937. ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ by Stella Gibbons and Flora Thompson`s ‘Larkrise’ (first in the trilogy of ‘Larkrise to Candleford’) rubbed uneasy shoulders with ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, which was at last published openly, uncensored. It was a classic period for design too, with artists such as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper producing their distinctive ceramics. Sophisticated art deco was the in-thing, from buildings to jewellery.
The idyll couldn`t last, and on the 3rd September, 1939, at 11.15 am, British people gathered around wireless sets to hear a very important announcement from the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain. His slow, measured tones proclaimed ‘This country is at war with Germany.` The listeners were prepared, as already the government had distributed gas masks, and small children had been evacuated to safe havens in the countryside. Poignant photos taken at the time show little girls bravely holding back their tears, each wearing a label bearing her destination and, in many cases, clutching a composition doll.
For the next few years, most of the British doll factories were to be commandeered for the manufacture of munitions – but one benefit for the toy industry was to emerge from this enforced closure. Plastics!