Iconic Historical Movie Costumes of the 1930s

45

This is an occasional series highlighting historical movie and TV costumes that best represent the decade they were produced in. They may or may not be the most historically accurate, but we think these costumes stand out as icons of when they were made. Comment with your faves, and watch the blog for the next decade we review!

 

Let’s look at some of the most memorable frock flicks from one of the most memorable decades of film.

 

Mata Hari (1931)

Greta Garbo plays the original femme fatale, WWI-era spy Mata Hari.

 

Berkeley Square (1933)

Leslie Howard looks fabulous in 18th century, and apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so, because he was cast in The Scarlet Pimpernel a few years later.

 

Queen Christina (1933)

Queen Christina

Brooding, sexually ambiguous, a social misfit … Garbo really was pretty much tailor-made for the role of the Queen of Sweden.

 

Little Women (1933)

This is one of the iconic film renditions of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel that people will live or die by. I liked it, but didn’t really connect with Katharine Hepburn as Jo March.

 

Cleopatra (1934)

Every costume in this film is iconic.

 

Madame Du Barry (1934)

Dolores del Rio as the notorious mistress of Louis XV was actually our original Frock Flicks poster girl.

 

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

Leslie Howard & Merle Oberon in "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (1934)

I love this movie and will fight anyone who says it’s not as good as the 1982 version.

 

Anna Karenina (1935)

Garbo in another tortured role wearing fabulous costumes…

 

Naughty Marietta (1935)

I’ve never actually watched this film, but it’s always on the list of “best historical flicks of the 1930s” so I included it here lest anyone attack me for leaving it off.

 

Mary of Scotland (1936)

Katharine Hepburn as Mary, Queen of Scots. The actress apparently hated the film, but the costumes are surprisingly accurate for the time this was made.

 

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

I love me a good Leslie Howard film, and this one does not disappoint.

 

Camille (1936)

Garbo being Garbo in fabulous clothes, what more do you want?

 

The Prince and the Pauper (1937)

Actual twins were used for this take on the classic Mark Twain story.

 

Heidi (1937)

I watched this movie so many times as a kid, and completely forgot that there’s a scene where Heidi dresses up in an 18th-c. costume!

 

Conquest (1937)

The great Garbo plays Countess Marie Walewska, love interest to Napoleon Bonaparte.

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Arguably one of the most iconic films of cinema history, just in general. But rather than focus on Errol Flynn in his tight green tights, let’s admire Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian.

 

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Once Technicolor happens, everything goes Next Level. And it doesn’t get more Next Level than Norma Sheerer as Marie Antoinette.

 

Jezebel (1938)

jezebel 1938 costumes

Allegedly, this was Warner Bros.’ attempt to compete with MGM’s Gone With the Wind. Jezebel as a film isn’t as well known now, but the costumes are hard to forget.

 

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Probably the best-known historical costume film ever made.

 

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. The era is fairly ambiguous, but the film went on to become heavily referenced in all subsequent versions, including the Disney animated film.

 

What’s your favorite historical movie costume of the 1930s? What would you add to the list as most iconic?

45 Responses

    • Al Don

      When you’re referring to a bloke, the term is “mammal toe” thank you very much.

      Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      Charles Boyer would never do such a thing. He was a pretty good Napoleon; helps that he’s actually French and can act. I love Garbo costume dramas because for such a big, gawky female, she wears clothes really well. Claudette’s Cleopatra is loads of campy fun, but I never did believe Norma Shearer in anything costume (and especially not as a teenage Juliet). Finally, Leslie Howard is such a charmer, not in GWTW, but everything else.

      Thanks so much, F.F.; all this is a perfect distraction from the nonsense coming out of the White House (located, according to Trevor Noah, “in the bad part of D.C.”).

      Reply
  1. Susan Pola Staples

    Can we count Glinda the Good Witch’s costume in Wizard of Oz and the costumes of the denizens of Oz or it it CV considered fantasy?
    Then there is A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a very young Mickey Rooney.

    Reply
  2. mmcquown

    Big fan of the real Queen Christina, who brokered the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the 30 Years War. Like the movie well enough. Flynn’s never was my fave because the whole Norman-Saxon issue was by then 100 years out of date. DeHavilland is still going strong. Apparently, she kept messing up the kissing scene in order to keep Errol on the boil; his tights were pretty well stretched when she was done. I think Jezebel deserved better marks than it gor.

    Reply
  3. EAG46

    I love Robin Hood. Flynn and DeHavilland’s chemistry was real and they co-starred together a number of times. Yet they were able to stay just good friends. Bette Davis was too good for GWTW, that’s why she got Jezebel as her film.

    Reply
  4. Nzie

    I need to watch or rewatch some of these Garbo flicks. I know I saw her as Christina ages ago. I know she ended up in a lot of middling movies (somethings she seems to have suggested was the result of her refusal to go along with the “casting couch” crap) but I love Maureen O’Hara. She always had some zest to her.

    I grew up with the LW with Margaret O’Brien as Beth and while I’d prefer many aspects of the 94 and 2019 ones, I don’t think anyone can top her as Beth.

    Reply
  5. Constance

    I think Bette would have over-acted Scarlett…Vivien was perfection. Sadly few of these are free on Youtube :(

    Reply
    • Lee Jones

      She certainly didn’t over acted in “Jezebel”. And honestly, even Vivien Leigh had her moments of hamminess in “GWTW”.

      Reply
  6. Valerie

    I loved Jezebel. She was also Brilliant in TheLittle Foxes- another period piece

    Reply
  7. VKestrel

    What a lovely list of movies to watch. I have only seen three of them before and the Shirley Temple Heidi was so long ago I don’t remember much of it (Robin Hood and Gone With The Wind are the other two). I live in Seattle (still healthy) and will take my list to Scarecrow Video as soon as it reopens.

    Reply
  8. Lee Jones

    I don’t know what to say about some of the costumes for these films. Those for “Mary of Scotland” seemed the most impressive to me.

    Reply
  9. Sharon in Scotland

    I love the costumes in Mata Hari. The film is in black and white but there is a velvet confection that I know in my soul is green and gold.
    And the coat she wears when she visits her love in hospital is wonderful. I don’t suppose her clothes in the film are historically accurate as they are clearly off stage costumes

    Reply
  10. Al Don

    It’s hard to beat The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) for a pure Technicolor romp. It’s not my favourite Robin Hood film, and if we include series as well there are others than rank above it. It think it unfairly overshadows the Douglas Fairbanks version simply owing to the latter having colour and sound.

    It was actually the first time I was aware of “California Doubling” in a movie. Even as a child, I saw the forests and thought, “There’s no way that’s England.” Turns out I was right. The Battle of Bosworth sequence in Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955) also really screamed this to me, even when I was younger.

    The iconic sword fight at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood also partly gave rise to the term “Flynning” – a showy type of sword fighting that is based around intentionally aiming at your opponent’s weapon rather than your opponent.

    Reply
    • Alissa Pyrich

      Basil Rathbone was (and is) well known to be the better swordsman and went to great lengths to make Flynn look good every time they were paired in a fight scene. That’s why Rathbone tends to be the bad guy — it’s easier to make your opponent look good that way.

      For a much better fight scene than anything with Flynn, see Rathbone and Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro. They both knew their stuff.

      This has been your temporary historical swordplay tangent. Back to the frocks!

      Reply
      • Al Don

        I’ve heard of Rathbone’s reputation for swordsmanship. It’s an iconic sequence. That said, at the time understanding of any historical swordplay was limited to Olympic fencing (often the case with depictions of the Middle Ages – filmmakers take modern institutions and just retrograde the technology). They’re using 12th century swords like rapiers – and inefficiently at that. They’re not even in the realm of how a 12th century sword would in theory be used. The term “Flynning” really applies to both.

        Again not knocking it as a piece of entertainment. It being a movie, the sword fighting is very showy and any real life martial prowess doesn’t seem to pop through.

        Reply
      • Anna Wasserman

        Oh, yes. Thank you! Basil Rathbone was a much better swordsman than Flynn. And in my opinion, a hell of a lot HOTTER.

        Reply
        • MoHub

          Well, you all know how I feel about Rathbone! Also, Flynn was so bad with a sword, that the sequence in Robin Hood was done slower, and the film was speeded up afterwards. It’s pretty obvious when you watch it.

          Also, the swordfight in Zorro is considered by many experts to be the best in all cinema—both before and since. However, Power did not do all of the scene; in some parts he was doubled by the son of the fight choreographer.

          Reply
      • Roxana

        I read somewhere that the only film opponent who worried Rathbone was Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, because Kaye was very fast and knew NOTHING about swordplay, meaning he might do anything and do it to quick to be easily parried.

        Reply
  11. Caradoc

    So, does a color version of Norma Shearer’s Marie Antoinette exist??? I have only watched it in black & white, where can I find the color version! It is a stunning black & white movie, so the technicolor version would be even more impressive!

    I’d also like to watch Colbert’s Cleopatra… And I LOVED Gone With the Wind when I watched it years ago!

    Reply
    • Andrew Schroeder

      There is no color version. It was originally planned to be filmed in Technicolor but the budget ballooned so much that they switched to black and white.

      Reply
      • Caradoc

        OK, so the technicolor photos are just that, photos, not screenshoots from a supposed “color version”…
        Thank you so much for the info!
        Watched this Marie Antoinette movie some time ago and I greatly enjoyed it!

        :)

        Reply
  12. Margaret

    One of my favorite things about the 1938 Robin Hood is that the women all have their hair covered all the time, except when they’re in the privacy of their own rooms. I’ve never seen that in any other film set during the same time period.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      That’s about the only correct period detail in those costumes, but I love them madly anyway.

      Reply
  13. Terry Towels

    I WILL ALWAYS think of Carol Burnett when I see the green costume from GWTW

    Reply
  14. Kathleen Julie Norvell

    I forgot how many costume dramas Greta Garbo was in. She was so beautiful you could put her in a gunny sack and she would still outshine any woman in the room. She also inspired me to do 17th century drag.
    If I live to be 100, I will never see Leslie Howard as a romantic lead. I recently saw GWTW again on a huge screen (as it should be seen) and I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to smack the shit out of both Scarlett and Ashley. But he costumes were beautiful. I saw Scarlett’s dresses at LACMA many years ago — she was so tiny!

    Reply
    • Melanie

      Gone With the Wind was Leslie Howard’s worst role! I say the 1934 Scarlet Pimpernel is not the equal of 1982 – it’s better. Sink me if it isn’t Colonel Ramsbottom!

      Reply
    • Al Don

      That is, in my opinion, largely due to the writing of the role and the character. He played it well, but it’s not a refection of Leslie Howard himself. Other roles won me over. I can scarcely imagine anyone else in the lead for The Petrified Forest (1936). Humphrey Bogart was so fond of him, he named his son Leslie Howard Bogart.

      Reply
  15. Vee

    What about ‘The Scarlett Empress’ 1934. Costumes are a bit hit and miss granted but the reference to Fragonard’s ‘The Swing’ is gorgeous. It’s a stunningly weird film. It must have just crept under the Hays code deadline – nudity, violence, grotesque gargoyle candle holders, twisted religious iconography – I hope they paid the actor used a bell clapper well !
    Marlene Deitrich has never looked more beautiful though. Give it a blast, you can find it with a Google search.

    Reply
  16. Susan Pola Staples

    Back again. Just wanted to say that I a DC or both Scarlet Pimpernel versions, but Leslie Howard’s Pimpernel was a tad better. I did, however, preferred Jane Seymour as Marguerite.

    Have you seen Pimpernel Smith? Howard plays a ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’ type hero who smuggles out people the Nazi’s want to destroy.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      Yes I have seen Pimpernel Smith. Remember when he makes a blatantly sexist comment leading the women in his class to walk out? Quite deliberate on his part, he doesn’t want to risk taking women with him into Nazi Germany given the fact he’s using the students as cover for his rescues. Back when the movie was made leading women into danger was something no hero could and keep audience sympathy.

      Reply
      • Susan Pola Staples

        Yes, I remember and was it only four or five years later that Lana Turner played an Allied agent in Holland opposite Clark Gable as her handler/fellow agent?
        Guess the war changed opinion on women field agents.

        Reply
  17. Alissa Pyrich

    Wow. The Mary Queen of Scots dress was good enough that I could recognize the portrait it was referencing. That’s amazing for the 1930s.

    Reply

Feel the love

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.