Henry Luce’s goal for LIFE Magazine was, according to its tagline, as much to cover news of lasting consequence (“to eyewitness great events”) as to marvel at cultural curiosities ("to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed”). As one of those curiosities, the world of fashion enjoyed extensive coverage across the five decades the magazine witnessed.
Though LIFE only caught the tail end of the 1930s—its first issue was published in November 1936—the remaining years of that decade saw the confluence of a host of influences on fashion. The Depression years had seen a shift to more conservative hemlines than those of the looser 1920s. At the same time, the fashions favored in Hollywood were increasingly reflected in the everyday streetwear of the masses. And as the decade drew to a close, the shadow of war began to reach all the way into the wardrobe.
LIFE’s fashion covers of the 1930s capture a variety of trends, from the saddle shoes of schoolchildren to the continental influence on college students to the formal details that completed a gentleman’s look. And if the occasional strong brow or high-waisted swimsuit looks familiar—well, as the saying goes, everything old is new again.