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depression-era beauties

There's nothing sexy about bread lines. And yet, thanks to a bevy of glam 1930's starlets, the Great Depression decade was more than just soup kitchens, the Dust Bowl, and the collapse of Lehman Brothers (oh wait, that came later). Yes, hemlines dropped like the Dow, but calf-covering skirts couldn't conceal the appeal of babes like Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow—just ask Clark Gable; he married Lombard and starred with the rest.

The era's sinuous siren gowns were as much a result of practical constraints as they were of a nationwide mood change. Fabric was in short supply, meaning not only that tighter silhouettes came in, but also that designers cut corners in the lining department. What's more—and maybe this is where Lindsay and Britney got the idea—women sometimes skipped underwear. Take Josephine Baker, who often played up her feminine form in nothing at all. Ernest Hemingway dubbed her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw," and he saw a lot of her. Nudity aside, present-day designers can take comfort in knowing that fashion as escapism meant a booming business for their Depression-era counterparts. As for present-day women who might be looking for doldrums departure routes, they can take a page out of their predecessors' book and play up their natural assets. As Claudette Colbert put it in The Palm Beach Story, "You have no idea what a long-legged gal can do without doing anything."

—Alison Baenen

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