How To Get A 1930s Look Without Spending A Fortune

How To Get A 1930s Look Without Spending A Fortune

If you’ve ever searched online for 1930s garments, or have been luckily enough to find them in vintage shops, you’ll have probably been rather shocked by the price and, even though you’ve fallen in love, you just can’t justify paying that much for a dress or top. Quite often you’ll also find these very costly pieces of fashion history not to be in the best of conditions and your heart sinks a little more. Believe me, I have been there many, many times.

So what do you do if you love the 1930s but can’t afford genuine pieces? Well I’m lucky enough to be able to sew so I can make my own clothes from original 1930s patterns, which I personally prefer because it means they’re not going to fall apart the minute you put them on (as some more delicate vintage pieces can) and so they’ll last a lot longer. But I know that not everyone has the ability or the inkling to do this, so what’s the secret to achieving a 1930s look without spending a fortune? The 1970s!

“Ahhhhhh”, I hear you scream! “Not flairs, platforms and lashings of lurex!” Well, no. There was a lot more to 1970s fashion than this and one trend that continued right the way through from the late 1960s to the tail end of the 70s was the 1930s. And what’s better, right now vintage 1970s clothes are soooo much cheaper than original 1930s ones and there is so much more of it available.

The trend was mainly thanks to a flurry of Hollywood films being released such as Cabaret (1972), which was inspired by Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel The Berlin Stories, The Great Gatsby (1974), adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 book of the same name, and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), about the infamous outlaws from the early 1930s.

The French film Stavisky was also released in 1974 and featured costumes designed by Yves Saint Laurent. It starred Jean-Paul Belmondo who portrayed the infamous financier and embezzler Alexandre Stavisky who died in mysterious circumstances in 1934. His death lead to the Stavisky Affair, fatal riots in Paris, the resignation of two French prime ministers and a change of government.

So, what were the 1970s does 1930s trends?

Photograph by Bill Klein for Petticoat magazine, 1974

Photograph by Bill Klein for Petticoat magazine, 1974

Fair Isle jumper and skirt, 1978

Fair Isle jumper and skirt from the Bus Stop collection by Lee Bender, Grattan mail order catalogue , 1978

Fortnum and Mason illustration, 1974

Fortnum and Mason ad illustrated by David Wolfe, Harpers and Queen, October 1974

Below the knee skirts with narrow hip that fluted out when they hit knee, often with inserted pleats were teamed with long line jumpers or tucked in tops. Classic 1930s headwear such as berets, turbans and headscarves worn low over the forehead were popular in many fashion shoots to complete the look.

Resort ensemble, 1972

Resort ensemble, 1972

Manuel Pertegaz, 1970s

Manuel Pertegaz, 1970s

Big bows and interesting necklines were back. The archetypal secretary blouse with pussy bow was huge in the 70s, and even lasted throughout the first half of the 80s. Trousers and skirts returned to the higher natural waist in the 1970s, moving away from the low hip designs of the end of the 60s. Wide leg trousers that begin flaring from the hip, rather than the knee or calf like flairs do, were typical of 1930s trousers and beach pyjamas.

Yves Saint Laurent, 1973

Yves Saint Laurent and Anjelica Huston, photographed by David Bailey, Paris, 1973

Twiggy in a cloche hat, 1973

Twiggy in a cloche hat, 1973

Cloche hats were everywhere in magazine shoots thanks to the The Great Gatsby (watch the Mia Farrow version, it’s much better than the recent one!). They were still popular throughout most of the 1930s, although styles often got smaller than the wide brim ones of the early 20s. Note Angelica Huston’s cloche, bow blouse and narrow hip skirt. She could’ve literally stepped out of the 1930s.

Yves Saint Laurent, 1974

Yves Saint Laurent costume for Annie Duperrey in ‘Stavisky’, 1974

White, ivory and cream were big colours during the 1970s and complete outfits were put together in various shades. Jersey and knitwear were also very popular, as well as the quintessential 70s fabric polyester, which all lent themselves perfectly to 1930s style sportswear. Seriously how stunning is this outfit by Yves Saint Laurent? I’d wear the whole lot in a heartbeat!

Madame Grès silk evening dress, 1970

Madame Grès silk evening dress, 1970

Halston evening gown, 1976

Red silk jersey evening gown by Halston, American, 1976

High quality silk jersey was used by designers such as Madame Grès and Halston to create dramatic draped evening gowns and this was replicated in the high street using cheaper jersey and polyester. The look was very similar to evening gowns in the 1930s and the Halston one above could easily be mistaken for a Madame Vionnet piece from decades earlier.

What to Look Out For When Vintage Shopping

1970s bow blouse and skirt

Pussy bow blouses and narrow hip skirts in typical 1930s colours such as burgundy, green and navy blue. This matching set from Shop Twitch Vintage can be worn together or mixed and matched with other separates and it’s only £25 for the two pieces.

1970s white pleated skirt

Below the knee pleated skirts in white for sportswear, tweed for country wear, and wool or good quality mixed fibre suiting for an everyday look. This white polyester one from J L Vintage is an absolute classic 1930s design and is only £10!

70s Jean Allen sailor dress

1930s look flutter sleeve dress

Day dresses in interesting jersey knits like the ivory and blue one from Vieux Amies are perfect for sports or cruise wear. This particular one is just £27. Look out for cape sleeved dresses or ones with interesting necklines or sleeves like the one above at £30 from Recycling History. Be careful of going for cheap polyester dresses though as they will immediately look 1970s.

1970s maxi dress

Caped 1930s style dress

1970s maxi dresses are great for evening wear or glamorous picnics in the park and cotton or chiffon are the best fabrics to look for. I absolutely adore the yellow one above from Hungry Heart Vintage and at £34.50 I’m seriously tempted. The black chiffon maxi from Second Hand Rose Worc has the classic 1930s cape sleeves and layered frills around the hem and is great for a budget 1930s evening gown at £25.

1970s wide leg trousers

Wide leg trousers in suiting, linen or cotton will easily emulate the look of 1930s trousers, just make sure they flare from the hip. How about these amazingly bright linen ones from Fine Stone Vintage at £41, they’d make the ideal beach pyjama trousers.

1970s burgundy fur cloche

1970s cloches are so much cheaper than 1920s/30s ones and this burgundy fur one from Vintage Easy Style is just £14. Berets on the other hand can usually be picked up for about £5 or even cheaper if you spot one in a charity shop.

1970s green wool cape

Finish off outfits with slim, longline, fur trimmed coats or interesting wool capes, like this beautiful striped green one from Brick Vintage at £43, for a complete authentic look.

I personally have several carefully chosen 1970s pieces in my wardrobe that look very 1930s, including a full length grey suede coat with a huge fur collar and a beautiful orange, red and brown floral top with a distinctly 1930s neckline and bishop sleeves. I’ve also got a beautiful burgundy suede waistcoat that I’m hoping to get up on Etsy soon as it’s too big for me (which I’m really annoyed about) that looks very much like something Lady Mary would’ve worn in Downton Abbey.

So, when you’re out there rummaging through all those rails of old clothes don’t overlook the 70s stuff, but just remember to go for quality fabrics that are, or at least look, man made. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester, Lycra and nylon were not used in clothing during the 1930s and the cheaper versions of these will look obviously 1970s.


Just a vintage gal suffering from the Golden Age syndrome. A lover of all things old, especially the 1930s, seamstress, crocheter, maker of hats and enjoys rummaging at flea markets.


  1. This is a wonderful post! I’m going shopping right with these tips, I’m on the hunt for the wide leg trousers (on my vintage want list for a long time). thank you!

    Liz 🙂

    • No worries! I do hope you find what you’re looking for. The perfect pair of trousers are always so hard to find, aren’t they? x

  2. what a great post i especially enjoyed the photos and in particular the sportwear clothes even though i don’t play any sports i am always drawn to them

    • Yes, it’s the sportswear look I love but I don’t do any sports either! I came across a 1920s tennis dress in a vintage shop at the weekend and it was silk!! Can you imagine playing tennis these days in silk?

  3. Ooo you’ve rounded up some fantastic tips here – I do indeed find myself drawn to some 70s styles that are emulating the ’30s, but I do get disappointed at polyester, which I actually seem to be allergic to (last time I wore something I came out in a rash!!). ’30s styles do come back onto the high street to, you just have to keep a sharp eye out for them. I have a fab little cape from Topshop of all places. xx

    • Yes, I hate 1970s polyester. I can’t even bare to touch it when I’m going through rails of clothing. The problem is this is the fabric that lasts and lasts, so there’s still tons of it around. I never shop on the high street so I always miss anything in normal shops. xx

  4. Some really great ideas here. I always think it is worth raiding other decades to get the look that you want at a price that you can afford.

    • Absolutely! I’ve got a lovely 1980s dress that is very 1940s style. You’ve just got to remember to take note of the fabric as it can scream of its own era and not the style you’re trying to emulate. x

  5. This is such a fantastic and informative article! I had my suspicions about finding 30s styles from the 70s, but was quite sure what to search for exactly. Thank you for sharing this; I’m actually tempted stray from my beloved mid-century 40s and 50s looks and try some 30’s styles now! ❤

    bonita of Lavender & Twill

    • Thanks Bonita. Hoorah, someone else who will explore the 1930s with me! x

  6. Great tips! Most 30s shapes overwhelm my short, curvy self, but I love seeing them on ladies that can pull them off. I think repro brands are realising the demand for wide legged trousers these days – I have definitely seen a few pairs lately.

    • I’m short (5ft 3) and very curvy, much more of a 1950s hourglass silhouette, and I wear 1930s everyday. The main thing to remember with 1930s styling is to keep the hip area slim, flutter skirts and kick pleat skirts achieve this perfectly. It’s all about finding the style from that era that suits your figure and remember there were short and curvy women in both the 1920s and 30s and they still wore the fashions of the day. x

  7. I love a bit of 70s-does-30s. (Or, indeed, 70s-does-40s, you can get some great skirt suits from then.) One of my favourite films from that era is The Sting, which is great for inspiration for the chaps. And I totally agree with you that the Farrow version of The Great Gatsby is better than the most recent one.

    • I came across a whole rail of 70s does 40s skirt suits at the weekend in Camden but they were so badly displayed I couldn’t get past the first two hangers and so walked out! I’ve never seen The Sting but really should, it’s very much of that 1970s Great Gatsby era. x

  8. what great items! I don’t think I ever realized how much the 70s referenced the 30s until I saw this great post

    retro rover

    • Yes, it’s funny isn’t it? We just think of the 70s as one particular (bad) look and it isn’t until you start exploring the others that you realise just how big they were too. x

      • I used to think I was into ’70s fashion. Now I realize my real love was the ’30s that’s why I was drawn to the decade of my birth. It’s been wide-legged pants for me forever.

  9. Great post! I am a big fan of 70’s and 80’s does 30’s and 40’s, I have a few wool tweed pleated skirts from the 70’s which are perfectly 30’s with the right accessories, and were a fraction of the price! I am also a sucker for a 70’s maxi dress as long as its not too polyester, I am not sure how ladies managed in the 70’s with all the static and, ermm, sweating they create! x

    • Yes, I think the wool tweed skirts are probably one of the easiest, non-polyester, things to find. I just missed out on a gorgeous one from Two Old Beans on Etsy, I’m so annoyed as it had two beautiful kick pleats in the front. It was sooooo 1930s! xx

  10. I have fallen in love with sailor pants for a late ’30s look. If you are in the U.S. you can get a linen blend pair in navy, white, or vanilla for under $30 at Venus. They are fabulous and look great with a halter-style top or elbow-sleeve striped tee shirt.

    • I agree, 30s sailor trousers are fantastic, and the wider the better!

      • I always get comments on them, mostly “Where did you get those?!?”

  11. I wanted to wear a 1940s skirt suit when I got married a couple of years ago. I looked at hundreds of them on EBay and Etsy. Many of them had stains, moth holes, rips, etc. I eventually found a gorgeous pale green 1970s does 1940s suit. It was in perfect condition having never been worn (the original tag and extra button were still attached) and best of all I only paid $17 for it!

    • Wow, that’s brilliant! It’s always worth looking at 1970s stuff, although I do always check the fabric content as I have a huge hatred for polyester and the 70s was riddled with it 🙂 xx

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