Afternoon dresses and costume jewelry from Vogue, 1938
That being said, there were reasons why ladies who had the means and opportunity to dress for a specific occasion might enjoy doing so. As author Marianne Meade says in Charm & Personality (1938): “there is a good deal of pleasure in dressing especially for the afternoon, if this is convenient, as more latitude for expression is permissible in richer colors and materials, jewelry, and furs.”
A town dress for fall, 1938
Cover of Style & Beauty, a McCall's publication, 1935
John Fredricks hat. From Vogue, Sept. 1., 1939
“Materials for afternoon wear might include velvet and satin for suits and dresses, lamé, satin, and lace, etc. for blouses, and suede, silk, velvet, etc. for purses. Dressmaker suits, afternoon dresses, and more dressy suits are correct. A little more trimming is permissible and the skirt is usually a little longer. Shoes may have higher heels and may be of more delicate construction. Hats may be more formal in design, material, and trimming, and if possible, they should blend with the dress, since it is very often necessary to wear them after removing the coat. Coats should be of the formal or semi-formal type. They may be of fur – preferably not raccoon or similar sporty furs – or of cloth, fur trimmed. Gloves should be dressy and may be of white, beige, black or any harmonious color. Jewelry may be worn, but should not be as elaborate as that for evening wear. Perfume may also be used, the only restrictions being those imposed by good taste.” Purses could be dressy, “with elaborate clasps, handles, etc.”
All but the one in the lower left are afternoon bags, Vogue December 1939
Above: at left, a silk afternoon dress, "perfect for a holiday shopping tour and its dressy atmosphere permits you to go places in the evening without changing. The one on the right is a Sunday night dress. Although it is not a 'formal' it is appropriate for taverns, theatres, or informal wear." November 28, 1933.
Above: December 1932, McCall's
Above, newspaper illustration Nov. 9, 1939. Stylists predicted the winter would bring a "return to elegance." You can see what slobs they were before that!
For those "don't dress" occasions. Vogue, January 1940. "For late afternoons or impromptu evenings, a red silk velvet suit with a day-length skirt. For 5:00 pm dress it up with a gold embroidered cap (larger photo), black jersey blouse, gold colored jewelry. For evening (inset): a befeathered black velvet cap, yards of jet jewelry, and a jet studded blouse."
It was once said, only semi-jokingly, that “you could tell the time of day by the length of a woman’s skirt,” but this distinction became blurred in the 1930s, with day-length skirts sometimes favored for afternoon wear, especially toward the later years of the decade. It was more the materials, trim, and accessories that set day wear apart from afternoon wear, as trends in skirt lengths for afternoon changed constantly, as did "in" fabrics and colors. In February 1937, for example, stylists predicted that “after seasons of comparative neglect,” lace would likely replace lamé for cocktail dresses and suits in the spring. In January 1939, reports from Paris had it that lamés were “set aside for the short cocktail or dinner dress, but are not worn for a bridge party, in direct contrast to previous seasons.” There would also be periods where “informal formality or formal informality” ruled, followed inevitably by a “return to formality.” Trying to keep up with it all made our heads swim.
“What is a cocktail dress?” William Powell asks in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936). Many women in the audience might have been wondering the same thing. The definition of this garment was a constantly moving target! According to an article in March 1927, “the ‘cocktail gown’ has just been endorsed by Paris… this is for wear in the afternoons before the dinner hour.” A newspaper fashion correspondent wrote on November 27, 1931: “In relation to the rest of the feminine wardrobe, the ‘cocktail dress’ is a first cousin to both the evening gown and the afternoon dress. In some instances, a matching jacket turns and evening dress into a cocktail frock. As described by smart shops, it’s the ‘formal informal’ frock that can stop by for tea – or what have you – and go right through to dinner, the theater, or bridge.” In October 1935, one stylist described the cocktail dress as “a type of dress which we wear downtown to dinner, to dine, and possible dance a round or two, before going to the theatre.”
Someone's humerous idea for a "cocktail gown" 1927.
From cocktails to dinner. Vogue 1933.
Cocktail ensemble from Vogue February 1940. This is where cocktail fashions were headed in 1939's "return to elegance"
What length shall it be? According to an October 29, 1935 fashion article, this was “the one great worry of the woman who needs a semi-formal or so called ‘cocktail’ dress.” The answer? “Dresses of this type may be ten or twelve or even more inches from the floor, if one wishes. The shorter dress is just as fashionable and newer. It is more practical too, for wear in all kinds of weather and under all conditions.” Sylvia Weaver, the Los Angeles Times’ talented fashion columnist, asserted in her January 7, 1936 column that the ‘short cocktail or bar dress’ had been introduced in August 1935, and remained “the most definite new style for this current season. You simply must wear a short dress to a cocktail or an informal dinner party unless you’re going to a formal party afterward.”
Designing Women: The Art, Technique and Cost of Being Beautiful by Margaretta Byers (1938) notes a “cocktail costume may be street or ankle length. The street length has become extremely popular and is considerably smarter because an evening wrap would be silly with such informal clothes” (ditto the opposite - a street-length coat with an ankle-length dress). “Here is where the vogue for fur capes is so very apropos. Because fur capes can be used for the street and over ankle-length cocktail frocks, too, if you must wear them. When it gets too cold for a fur cape, you switch to your fur coat.” The book advises a three-quarter length coat “so when it goes out with an ankle-length cocktail costume it won’t broadcast the fact that you wear it in the daytime, too.”
"Underneath these wraps, long sleeved jackets of bright colors or aglitter with sequins, pailettes, or lamé, are practically a cocktail convention, probably because the jacket and skirt idea. Essentially a daytime note, interpreted in rich fabrics, make just the right compromise for a sundown costume.”
What to Wear Where?
Sylvia Weaver wrote in early November 1935: “for many months we’ve been trying to solve a satirical problem – if you’re invited to a matinee, tea, a bridge party, or an afternoon cocktail party by some of your feminine friends, how can you find a gown appropriate for that affair and also suitable for meeting your escort for dinner after the party? For a long time, it was necessary for the properly gowned to go home after the symphony, or the bridge-tea and change to a long, dinner, or cocktail gown. This required a lot of time and usually slowed up dinner and the evening by an hour or so. And it was a nuisance when your escort could have met you downtown after the concert instead of going home after you. But our fashion prayers are always answered in due course of time. This season we have a blessing in the formal afternoon dress which is perfect for all kinds of parties before the sun goes down and then it carries through the rest of the evening beautifully as an informal dinner dress. When the Philharmonic Orchestra plays its first Friday afternoon symphony November 15, you’re going to see scores of these short cocktail or formal afternoon dresses – and we might add right here that the long dress for an afternoon party is practically obscured by the fashion sun which is shining so brightly on these short dresses for afternoons and informal evenings.”
On November 19, 1936, she waxed enthusiastic about a “smart black crêpe cocktail dress trimmed with metallic gold embroidery which bands the neckline and short sleeves.” It sported a metallic ascot and a close-fitting jacket of “embroidered green and gold Persian design lamé against a background of black.” “Dazzling at a bridge luncheon, smart at the bridge table or informal dinner, this gown will be outstanding at any social function.”
Vogue, Sept. 1, 1939
Formal Luncheons. Charm & Personality notes: “a formal luncheon is considered a rather important occasion, therefore you should wear your smartest afternoon dress, a dressy hat which blends well with the dress, a dressy coat and gloves of beige or white kid or suede. The gloves are removed, but the hat is worn throughout the luncheon.” At informal luncheons [where informal daywear may be worn as well], “guest often remove their hats, although it is equally correct to wear them. So be guided by your hostess’ wishes or the conduct of the other guests.” If you have a chance to see The Girl From Tenth Avenue with Bette Davis (1935), there's a great scene involving a ladies' luncheon party at the Waldorf. In The Women (1939) Norma Shearer hosts a ladies' lunch at her country home.
Above: Ladies who lunch, McCall's December 1932
Top, above: “If you sit in the lobby of any smart luncheon place at high noon, you’ll see these smart women come in. The one who wears a black and wool dress with slits in the streamline skirt and shining satin sash (red, at right) and the one who wears a bright crêpe dress punctuated at the neckline and wrists with black.” Middle: Caped model, “perfect for late afternoon” is cellophane crêpe! Bottom, above: The kerchief neckline model has a natural wood buckle and clip is wool ribbed with cellophane. At right is a number with a cartridge neckline and smooth shoulders in gold threaded crêpe. Hats: Lily Daché. Delineator, November 1934.
"Monk's Dresses" for afternoon, Delineator January 1935
Teas and Receptions. Per Charm & Personality again, most women would wear their informal daywear or dressmaker suits to informal teas “but for a more formal tea, reception, or bridge party, she might wish to dress more formally. If so, her prettiest afternoon dress, with a dress hat, coat and gloves would be appropriate. On a very formal afternoon occasion, she might wear a simple Sunday night dress [basically, a sleeved dress, often in bright colors, more formal than an afternoon dress but less formal than dinner dress], a rather formal hat, and a dressy coat and gloves. If you partake of refreshments, you must remove your gloves, but you must not remove your hat.”
“The hostess may wear a tea gown if she wishes, or she may wear the same type of clothes as her guests. Incidentally, this is one time when the rules of etiquette permit a hostess to dress more elaborately than her guests – when she wears a beautiful tea or hostess gown. Generally, a woman friend who is to “pour” for her hostess at a formal tea does not wear tailored clothes, and of course she does not wear a hostess gown. Her costume is usually a flattering afternoon dress.”
Above: Afternoon dresses, McCall's 1932. We assume the hostess is the one in the floral print, top left, fingering the flowers. The red and white one in the bottom middle reminds us of an early '30s version of the drool-worthy AbleGrable 'Miss Betty Amanda' Dress.
Above: this looks like an informal tea among close friends who all happen to love rayon. Vogue 1936.
Descriptions of tea party attire (gleaned from a newspaper society columns). At an engagement-announcement tea in Reno, Nevada on January 4, 1937 held from 4 to 6pm, the hostess wore a black velvet frock with a collar and jabot of sheer white lace. Her two helpers at the tea table wore a maroon velvet gown and a frock of black net trimmed with a crimson flower, respectively. Other attendees wore: a red cocktail frock worn with a snug jacket; a dinner gown of pale green with a lace bodice; a black velvet dress made with deep V décolletage and puffed short sleeves; a black crepe frock with a black and white flowered jacket; and a smart black cocktail dress with a short jacket and a gardenia corsage.
At a very formal public tea honoring the first lady of New Mexico that took place January 1, 1936 from 3 to 6 pm, the guest of honor wore a “gown of petal pink lace, made floor length, with slippers of dull gold and matching antique gold earrings and a spray of white gardenias.” Her helpers for the first hour wore 1) a floor length afternoon dress, shirtwaist style, of black sheer chiffon with long full sleeves caught at the wrist and a picture hat of black velvet and lace; and 2) an afternoon dress of black metal crepe with a touch of green at the collar and a gold metal turban with black velvet trim. For the 4-5 hour, the helpers wore 1) a formal afternoon dress of plum crepe and a black turban with gold sequin trim; and 2) a brown afternoon dress with white trim and a matching brown turban. The helpers from 5-6pm wore 1) a gown of black satin with white quilted satin collar and cuffs; and 2) a floral print afternoon dress of blue black and red and a silver hat with a veil.
This was one type of event where daywear and formal evening garb might rub elbows without anyone being considered underdressed or overdressed. As Charm & Personality puts it, “if guests come directly from the office, they will probably be wearing informal day clothes or dressmaker suits with ‘dress up’ touches. Those who are going out for dinner afterward may be wearing formal and semi-formal evening clothes. Others, who have come from afternoon parties, may be wearing formal afternoon clothes. This variety of costume is perfectly correct, and no one need feel conspicuous…” As quoted in the daywear post, Designing Women concurs that morning daywear can be worn even through the cocktail hour, “unless it’s a real party.” It goes on to say that in town, “the first and often the only change in a busy woman’s day comes at cocktail time."
Any of the afternoon attire described above would be appropriate. Chic ladies often chose frocks with interest centered above the waist (the part of the garment that would be seen seated at the table): in necklines, shoulders and sleeves, or contrasting colors top and bottom. Designing Women advises caution in the use of contrast, though – more on this in a future post.
Above: Dresses for a bridge-luncheon, Ladies Home Journal, November 1931