In Budgeting, Discussions, Money, Shopping, Style, Women

How much did women spend on clothes and upkeep in the past?

I’m always curious about my and other people’s spending habits (what? I’m NOSY!), and it’s interesting to learn what people spent in the past.

In the 1930s, there was a basic wardrobe list that every woman could follow, and every year would have cost approximately $191.81 for clothing and $46.21 for upkeep and personal care.

If we add inflation to today’s 2012 dollar*, it would mean: $2516.55 for clothes and $606.27 for personal care, which I am assuming includes haircuts, and spa-anything.

*$1.00 in 1930 had the same buying power as $13.12 in 2012. Annual inflation over this period was 3.19%.

That means you could expect to spend about $209.71 for clothes per month, and $50.52 for personal care.

That actually sounds quite reasonable. More reasonable than MY spending, anyway.

A BASIC WOMEN’S WORKING WARDROBE IN NEW YORK CITY IN 1937

(Source: ‘Clothing’ (Latzke and Quinlan, 1940))

Note: This wardrobe would have been updated each year, so 8 dresses would turn into a bit more every year if the dresses didn’t fray or wear out.

vintage-nyc-manhattan-1930s-wardrobe-women-closet-clothes

vintage-nyc-manhattan-1930s-wardrobe-women-closet-clothes-2

Medium quality fur-trimmed coat, every third year


Wool spring coat, every other year

4 felt hats, two heavy, two light

8 dresses

  • 2 cotton, for summer street wear
  • 4 rayon, 3 fair quality, one inexpensive
  • 1 wool dress, medium
  • 1 rayon party dress

1 wool skirt

1 sweater, every other year

1 blouse

1 smock (I put an apron here)

Underwear

  • 2 undervests (rayon) (Used tank tops instead)
  • 3 knit rayon bloomers
  • 2 panties, 1 rayon, 1 silk
  • 4 slips, 3 rayon, 1 silk
  • 2 corsets or girdles
  • 3 brassières
  • 3 nightgowns, 1 cotton, 1 rayon, 1 cotton flannel

Flannel bathrobe (every 3 yrs.)

Rayon kimono, every other year

20 pairs medium silk stockings (I didn’t put all 20 in here)

Handkerchiefs, $1.50

Shoes

  • 2 pairs medium quality street shoes
  • 1 pair medium quality dress shoes
  • 1 pair evening slippers, every other year
  • 1 pair inexpensive white shoes

Rubbers 1 pair every other year

Overshoes 1 pair every other year (I took some liberty here, not knowing what overshoes are…)

House slippers 1 pair every other year

Umbrella, every other year

Raincoat, every 3 years

3 pairs gloves, 1 leather, 1 fabric

3 handbags at $1 each (or fewer and better)

Via shared by reader ES

MODERN TIMES HAVE CHANGED FOR A FEW THINGS

I don’t think anyone owns or wears bloomers, or stockings to require 20 pairs of medium silk stockings, nor do we wear corsets, girdles on a regular basis.

We also do more than just take dictation or calls as secretaries these days. Women are in what were traditionally men’s roles in the past.

Wardrobe basics I see missing for me in there are:

  • 1 suit — Just for the rare interview to be pulled out and dusted off
  • Jeans — Skinny, bootcut
  • Pants — Cropped legs (just an inch or two above the ankle)
  • Work pants
  • More work shoes — At least one other pair
  • Work blouses
  • At least another sweater or two

My basic minimalist wardrobe would look more like this, if I had to pick 20-items:

Minimalist Capsule Wardrobes for Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter

Basic-Minimalist-Womens-Wardrobe-Summer

wardrobe-clothes-seasonal-minimalist-autumn-winter

Images above all created via Polyvore

What do you think? Anything missing in there for you?

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Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

Millionaire at 36 after getting out of $60K of student debt in 18 months, a little over a decade earlier, using TheBudgetingTool.com. Since then, I have paid my $600K home in cash (my half was $300K), my $180K casr in cash, worked 50% of my career (taking 1-2 year breaks), and quadrupled my income within 2 years of graduating, going from $65K to $260K with an average lifetime savings rate of 50%. I could retire today if I wanted, but love my work-life balance as a freelancing consultant in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). I am all about balance - between time and money, and also enjoying my money. I also post daily on Instagram @saverspender.

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47 Comments

  1. Andrew

    Remember the women in The Great Gatsby? Although a decade earlier, much applies.

    What 1930s women wore reflected their class: upper, middle, lower. Very distinct.

    The list you’ve shown applied to Jordan Baker and her fashionable group. Daisy Buchanan would be a maturer look, more luxurious. They weren’t the majority, especially in the 1930s, a terrible long recession, widespread poverty.

    Most people who were poorer dressed in subdued versions of Myrtle Wilson (Tom’s mistress). Drab. The 1930s was also a very conservative age for most people. Color – in the valley of ashes.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      That is interesting!! I didn’t even think about different social classes.

      Reply
      1. elana

        II did because I don’t make enough money on my disability pension to spend antthing on clothes ie shoes. But I could get away with spending only $120.00 annually!

        Reply
  2. Kathy

    The money spent on hats, white dressy gloves, girdles and corsets/bloomers can now be directed to jeans and shorts. Women didn’t wear those too often back then. It is too funny to see pictures of people at a ball game or even a rodeo back then wearing hats, gloves, hosiery and heels for the women and suits, white shirts ties and hats for the men. I think women in Europe still dress up much more than we do here. I see pictures of people in England attending weddings and church very much dressier than here where we often see girls wearing flip flops to those events. And I only see hats in the U.S. at the Kentucky Derby.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      I can’t imagine wearing gloves and corsets today. Bloomer budgets should be directed to underwear, no?

      I do think that in Europe they definitely dress up a lot more for events like weddings and church as you said. I’ve been to a number of weddings here in North America and have been horrified at the inappropriate outfits, particularly the shoes as you’ve mentioned. Short, tight and shiny is NOT wedding or church wear!!!

      Reply
  3. tianna

    such a trip! Jeans are definitely a MUST and workout clothes haha. those definitely weren’t a thing in the 30’s – great post ♥

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      Jeans and trousers for me are a must have these days.

      Reply
    2. Stephanie

      Actually “workout clothing” would have been more of beach wear or sport clothes. They were for swimming, golfing, lounging and stuff that wasn’t hugely active, but required a different outfit. So, it’s similar. The pants that we wear actually came about because of lounge and beach wear.

      Reply
      1. save. spend. splurge.

        Oh yes! I read that in the Chanel bio that she popularized pants for beach wear and it turned into loungewear

        Thank you for the insight

        Reply
  4. Rachel Holliday

    Wow! This is really interesting 🙂 I love how many hats they had!

    Rachel

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      Stylish, no? 🙂

      Reply
  5. Kathy

    Had to chuckle about you not knowing what overshoes were. You give away your youth with that statement. They were rubberized boots, usually ankle high that people wore over their regular shoes when going out in the rain or snow. You didn’t have to carry your regular shoes in a bag and change into them. You just slipped the overshoes on and off and your shoes were protected. Haven’t seen anyone wearing them for decades.

    I’ve always loved clothes. I think it’s because as a kid I had so little. But the funny thing is, now that I have enough money to get whatever I want, I have very little need for much. I’m retired and don’t go out a lot so live mainly in jeans and tee shirts or shorts. I took a lot of my work suits to a consignment shop when I retired, but have never lost my love of nice clothes.

    Reply
  6. Tania

    Have you ever watched Mad Men (midcentury 50s/60s)? The women were so put together and had curves for days partially due to underpinnings like girdles and corsets. I have a vintage Vogue pattern dress form from the same period and the waist is super tiny (only fits my sz 0/2 or xs/s belts) but the shoulders and bust are more like an 8/10 or large. I found it fascinating because fit dress forms/models are much smaller busted now with less of an hourglass shape. The reason I know what fits is I use the dress form when taking pictures of my clothes to sell and my clothes span from an xs to L.

    I’m dying over that black pencil skirt with the flower art! So pretty, feminine yet still quite minimal. A friend of mine used to hand paint dresses and skirts in a similar way but she’s since abandoned that business and moved on to having a home décor store instead.

    The thing that’s missing for me of course, is denim and Ts. One skinny, one boyfriend and one boot. Ts/tanks in black, white or grey and a soft fabric. Also a tweed like or sweater jacket (Chanelesque) and a plain black boyfriend jacket. Shorty cowboy boots (Billys by Frye) are a must for me too. Besides the jeans, I can totally live in dresses. I used to be more of a separates girl but I’m finding a wardrobe of dresses works better for me especially with stretch fabric.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      I LOVE MAD MEN!!!! Yes, women had perfectly put together outfits, which is kind of my style now that I think about it. I loathe the idea of going out in sweatpants.

      I do not know how they managed to breathe and eat with such small waists. I have their size waist at Size 0 (around 25″ pre-baby), but my shoulders are definitely in the size 6 range.

      I wish I had a dress form it would make life a lot easier I think.

      I am certainly with you on missing the jeans and t-shirts in skinny, and bootcut. I am not a fan of the boyfriend look because I do not have very large hips so it just looks awkward on me. Mmmm Tweed…

      I am more into vintage clothing now, Etsy has become my stop to find vintage treasures, the hard part is figuring out the sizing…

      Reply
  7. Ksenija

    Great post!
    I am steadily downsizing my wardrobe. For the past 3 years I live on 3 pairs of shoes. Also, I started saving money to take sewing class so that I can repair and maybe eventually even make myself some clothes. What I see missing in the 30s pic is the gym wear and that is something essential nowadays for many women.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      @Ksenija: I’d like to learn how to sew as well. It would be a really handy skill. 🙂

      Yes, gym wear is definitely missing! Personally, I don’t go to the gym but I do have a yoga outfit..

      Reply
  8. Rose

    Oh, I forgot, wearing a basic capsule wardrobe everyday and nothing else should wear ones clothes out, which is why the list states certain things should be replaced at certain times, they will wear out, get thread bare, etc. The worn out clothes were recycled into cloth for the home….cleaning rags, quilts, linens, etc. My understanding is it was rare that people donated clothes to the less fortunate outside the home, but rather passed them down or as we call it now upcycling or recycling. Ones wardrobe didn’t get bigger, it stayed the same. Clothes were replaced because of need to not want to. I have been wearing the same basic clothes for 22 years, a capsule, while I don’t have to replace every item as often as this list recommends, underpinnings should be replaced every other year, tank tops last longer, etc. I belive one should spend for quality not quantity and keep it simple, so as to splurge on the accessories, that beautiful well made handbag, silk scarf, gorgeous shoes, a stunning statement necklace, etc. (think Birkin, Hermes, Louboutin, Tiffany’s, etc.)

    Reply
    1. saverspender @ save. spend. splurge.

      Even more good info: I read in one of my books on fashion this summer that a middle-class, fairly well off woman had an average of 9 dresses her entire life.

      She’d wear them until they were done, recycle them and then buy a new one only if they wore out.

      I think buying quality also matters. It’s a lot harder to find quality these days in the sea of F21 and H&M.

      Reply
  9. Rose

    I just ran across this article….. There were two classes of women in the 1930s, socialites and non-socialites. This wardrobe list was probably written for the fashion magazines which were originally aimed at NYC society women where this article would have ran, probably Vogue, Harpers Bazar or other socialite audience magazine. Models were originally the society women and daughters of NYC area. And to stay updated with European fashion. But a non-society woman or daughter would have had less than this, by half or more. I think that the comments clearly reflect a more normal list of wardrobe than the article recommends for the 1930s. Fashion magazines were always about marketing fashion and will always be. This list would have been to encourage shopping, the NYC garment district was getting established. Although, I agree that a capsule wardrobe is essential for any woman/daughter.
    Since then the fashion magazines shifted to everyone as a market, thankfully. There is an amazing book that really explains this shift in fashion magazines about the woman that was the most influential in this shift, in America and fashion itself: “Diana Vreeland, the Empress of Fashion.” DV was amazing, she was before AW, AW almost exactly walked in DV’s footsteps, career wise.

    Reply
    1. saverspender @ save. spend. splurge.

      THANK YOU for clarifying!

      I actually JUST READ that book — DV: Empress of Fashion, and I was struck with the similarities between her and AW, although I think I prefer DV in the end.

      Reply
  10. MelD

    Hm. I don’t think NYC in the 30s is particularly typical for the era!!

    From what I have gleaned from family and books, things were very different than this. I think women may have had a “good” winter coat and possibly a lighter one. They may have had a “good” dress and a few separates, maybe a couple of skirts and blouses. They will have worn their few clothes far more repeatedly than we do and hand-rinsed blouses and underwear overnight. They will have had very few stockings and taken great care of them because they were relatively expensive (silk). They will have always worn a hat and gloves out of doors but maybe only owned a couple. Shoes were another expensive item: one pair for winter, one for summer – if they were lucky.

    Look at the size of old-fashioned suitcases: they are much, much smaller. If you were rich or rich enough to travel for a longer distance/time, you had a trunk but otherwise you had a tiny suitcase, ergo you can’t have had much to put in it!

    I asked my mom about her trunk when she went to study in the south of France for a year in 1958 and was living on a pittance: she said she had one suit, a couple of dresses and a few separates. Most of her trunk was full of books. And she did like to be nicely dressed, as it was important in those days. In fact, my grandmother made practically all their clothes so that they had any choice at all, including cutting blankets up to make coats and so on.

    In books, young women are often described as buying a “core wardrobe” as they progress to their first jobs or a change of situation, and these are often extremely limited – phrases come up like “she wore her blue blouse” or “her best skirt”, indicating that women didn’t have 25 pairs of black pants or Ts or whatever!!

    So I think the cost will have been lower, with individual items costing relatively more than we are used to paying today.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      I daresay not 🙂 NYC was the fashion’s mecca!

      My mother had practically nothing but wasn’t living in the U.S. She said that she could carry everything she owned in a small bag.

      You know, I’m thinking that I’d like to go back to this kind of time.

      Buying less, higher quality (not from China helps), and I’m even considering having my clothes made from fabric I choose.

      Reply
      1. MelD

        My mom, whose birthday is in June, is fond of telling me how she had two new dresses each year as a child, one each for birthday and Christmas, so that would have gone on till she grew up, I guess! They were English working class.

        Yep, I’m thinking doing a bit of my own sewing might not be such a bad idea, either… but sourcing ethical fabric is hard (sourcing any decent fabric is hard!).

        Reply
        1. Mochi & Macarons

          Yes that’s true. But at least we can eliminate the one middleman of the stores.

          Reply
    2. Mochi & Macarons

      Oh and maybe they don’t replace each item each year either 🙂

      They just keep what they have, and replace it when it does wear out.

      Reply
  11. Mrs PoP @ PlantingOurPennies

    Okay, so if you take away the bloomers and the sequined dress, I clearly should have been alive in the 30’s. Oh the hats!

    But that doesn’t seem like a particularly minimalist wardrobe – that seems like a pretty big wardrobe to me.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      Which one? The 1930s one or mine?

      The 1930s one wasn’t meant to be minimalist.

      Mine is just a capsule wardrobe which is pretty much what I wear all the time, so I should just stick to that.

      Reply
  12. Anne @ Unique Gifter

    I definitely need that spike ring. I used to have one very similar back in the day.

    I also have lots of bloomers. (jokes)

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      I love spike rings. I need to replace mine… Am hunting on Etsy.

      Reply
  13. Christiane

    I’d add one formal evening dress to the modern wardrobe (either a very elegant little black dress or a long evening gown) and two pairs of pumps, one black or dark navy and one nude. And depending on where you work, 2 suits and 2 more blazers. Maybe another pair of flat but more closed shoes.

    What I’m always wondering when I see those cute night gowns: didn’t they wear a night jacket with them? I remember seeing 1930s vintage quilted night jackets once. Otherwise, I would have a cold constantly when sleeping only in those dresses.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      A formal dress works. I tend to not wear black or formal things often (not many events), but having at least one when the occasion arises to buy one, makes sense to me.

      I was thinking that too — night gowns need a heavy quilted coat or else I’d freeze.

      Reply
  14. Vanessa

    The 1930s figure seems quite high… Usually when I read things like this it’s like “clothing was so expensive that people had 3 dresses and that it for their whole lives!” Interesting…..

    I really like that black and red dress from the first photo

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      It was in NYC after all 🙂

      Reply
  15. sense

    Wow! That’s so much $$ on clothes/beauty!!! Girls had to live by much higher standards back in the day. I’m lucky I was born after the feminist movement. I would have gone crazy having to spend that much on clothes and etc. each year instead of travel and things that are important to me!

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      Gah O_o I spent more than that on clothes and beauty, but I’m trying to cut back!! haha!

      Reply
    2. Emma

      besides the fact that this would have been a well-off NYC woman’s wardrobe, you have to remember too that clothing cost a lot more back then. today, it’s easy to find cheap clothing (f21, target, walmart, etc), but they are all made in countries with bad labor and environmental laws. people are working long hours in unsafe environments for peanuts. everyone please go watch “the true cost.” it’s on netflix right now and it’s incredibly moving. i never wanted to think about how my clothes are made because i figured i couldn’t do anything about it, but that’s just not true. we can. we have the power. if you don’t have a lot of money, follow the 1930’s lead and buy very intentionally and buy less. pick things that will be good in many different scenarios and that wont go out of fashion easily. wearing things more frequently and for longer periods of time can get you a lower cost per wear on each item too.

      Reply
      1. sherry@savespendsplurge.com

        Excellent point. I have been reading Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and it has become glaringly apparent just how expensive clothing was in the past compared to today.

        I watched True Cost and can also heartily recommend it.

        Reply
  16. Melete

    What cool images~ This is great fun.

    Well… I also would have more underwear, since I refuse to do laundry more than once a week and occasionally miss a laundry day.

    But — nyah nyah! — where I live we don’t need warm overcoats, rubbers, and overshoes. 😀

    On the question of how much a wardrobe cost, I think that individual clothing items cost more, relatively. But they were much better made — they didn’t fall apart the way clothes do today. And they fit better. So if a person bought mostly “classic” styles, she could build a pretty substantial wardrobe over three or four years. Today items are cheap, but they’re so flimsy and ill-fitting they’re often not even worth donating to charity after a few months of use.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      I think vintage clothing is a lot stronger than modern-day clothing, that’s for sure. It’s partly the reason why I’m going back to thrift shopping.

      Reply
  17. Michelle

    This is a really cool post! I love the cream dress with pink detailing at the waist. We have similar taste-but I wear a lot of platforms and pointy shoes.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      I wear a lot of pointy shoes too, but platforms make my feet look potted.

      Reply
  18. StudentDebtSurvivor

    Looks right to me, I’d add more underwear because I’m way too lazy to wash every other day (which I’m sure people did in 1930). Love that little blue dress with the red stripe at the bottom.

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      I’d add at least 7 pairs.

      Reply
  19. Bridget

    Oh god I could never get by on $50 personal care per month…

    Reply
    1. Mochi & Macarons

      I was thinking that for CLOTHES. 😛

      Reply

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