Guest Post: Monica Murgia on California Playclothes

Today, I’m sharing with you a guest post by former California resident Monica Murgia. Murgia is a fellow fashion studies blogger, college fashion design teacher and a graduate of the FIT program, Fashion & Textile Studies: History, Theory, Museum Practice. This short article is based on a research presentation Murgia gave in May 2011 to the California American Studies Association annual conference.

Los Angeles-based fashion designers have a distinct style, much different than their New York counterparts.  This April, Reuters noted:The City of Angels has carved out a niche for itself as a host for casual brands like American Apparel and as a manufacturer of quick-turnaround ‘fast fashion’ and small orders for emerging designers.  Fashion is the city’s largest manufacturing industry, and employs more people here than in New York.[1] (1)

This might be a surprising statement for those not familiar with the fashion world.  Most would identify New York as the American fashion capital.  But the fact is, California has long been a fashion leader, and this isn’t the first time the Golden State has eclipsed New York.

Two cataclysmic events, the Great Depression and World War II, created a change in the needs of American women.  The active California lifestyle and the Hollywood film industry both affected the demand for a different style of women’s clothing.  It was during this time that California established itself as a fashion capital.

American film played a large part in showcasing the California fashions in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  The theaters were public places of congregation.  Women would go after work to watch the news and see a feature film.  Hollywood was providing entertainment to help citizens escape their glum realities of economic depression and war. Historically, this was a time when the entire film production took place in California.  Actresses like Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West captivated audiences with their style and glamour.  The movie industry, and its costume designers, exerted a direct influence on fashions that were available in stores.

Much like today, when actresses were seen on film, women clamored to imitate their styles. Independent fashion designers and manufacturers began sprouting up throught the Golden State.  Vogue noted the growing power of California on the horizon: “Throughout the 1930s Vogue juggled issues of innovation and ideas with Paris on the one hand and Hollywood on the other, giving equal credence to both camps . . . Paris was working on a seasonal time scale, Hollywood was years in advance.”[2]

It is noteworthy that New York was not mentioned as an innovative fashion capital at the time.  The popularity of the fashions seen in film spurred major department stores to feature pop-up California departments.  However, the California departments were not permanent fixtures of the stores.[3]

California Fashions from 1941 Exude Fun and Youth. Pope, Virginia. California. New York Times: June 22, 1941, D6.

What made California fashion appealing was that it exuded fun, relaxation, and youthfulness.  American women idolized youth, a much different ideal than that of Europe: “How we Americans rebel against looking our age.  The French will trade adolescence for sophistication any day.”[4] The youthful look was achieved by using non-traditional fabrics, like unbleached muslin, and appliqués of flowers and horses.  Youthfulness was, and still is, the most coveted quality of the American look.  Hollywood films had created a young, attractive woman as the national ideal and symbol of patriotism.

The biggest California export during the 1930s was Play Clothes.  Play clothes, or sports togs, originated in California.  As the name suggests, play clothes allowed women freedom of movement while enjoying in activities the outdoors.  They were appealing because they allowed for a lifestyle full of sports, gardening, and sunbathing – all popular activities in the Golden State. Virginia Pope of the New York Times makes it abundantly clear that Californians created and reigned supreme in this casual style:

“It began, if memory does not fail us, when women on the other side of the continent began to wear smocks of muslin in glorious hand-dyed shades over their beach togs or in their gardens.  Some bright mind spied the styles and brought them back to Broadway.  Since then, fashion scouts have been increasingly on the alert and have trekked westward in growing numbers.”[5]

Play clothes were durable, informal, and inexpensive.  They were also easy to wear and wash: “The big idea is to play in togs that are comfortable and at the same time good looking; that are of smart fabrics which will stand hard wear, won’t crush easily, and will bear the rigors of the wash tub or manipulations of the cleaner.”[6]

California Slacks. Vogue: 15 April 1939, 54.

Aside from play clothes, California next biggest export were pants for women.   Pants, or slacks, were much more important for the women of California than the rest of the country.  Travelers to the West came back reporting having seen slack-clad women, well dressed ones, too, on the streets and in the shops of California cities. Clothing manufactures based in California carefully and strategically crafted and advanced the cut and fit of pants.

Pants, or slacks, for women were becoming an accepted wardrobe staple.  However, certain regions were more open-minded to this change.  California was a whole-hearted pioneer.  Other vacation destinations including the Riviera and Palm Beach allowed women to wear pants.  Slacks were not as accepted in northern East Coast cities, like New York and Boston.  Slowly, the traditional dress codes were erodes to allow women to wear pants, although this took decades to be accepted across America.

Each year, American consumers accepted and purchased more California garments.  Designers based in the Golden State brought a youthful elegance to the American Look. The women that flooded the workplace during WWII could also be smartly, and appropriately dressed. Women adopted a more functional wardrobe for work and now indulged in active pastimes.

Although the California may still have to defend its position as a fashion leader, the evidence is quite clear.  Every time a woman wears pants or active wear, it is a legacy of the Golden State.


[2] Watson, Linda.  Vogue Fashion. New York: Firefly Books, 2008, 52.

[3] Pope, Virginia.  “From California”, New York Times. 22 June 1941, D6.

[4] Mulvague, Jane.  Vogue: History of 20th Century Fashion.  London:  Viking, 1988, 151-2.

[5] Pope, Virginia.  California Sports Togs.  New York Times: 18 December 1938, 58.

[6] Pope, Virginia.  Outdoor Frocks Ready for Playtime. New York Times: 17 April 1938, 78.

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