Fall Fashion Flashback: 1938 Autumn Styles from LIFE

Photographs made by the magazine's Alfred Eisenstaedt prove that the fashion world has a knack for repeating itself—while still managing to feel utterly, thrillingly new.

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When LIFE magazine published a preview piece on the trends that were expected to reign in the autumn of 1938, the editors focused much of their attention on one particular aspect of the coming season’s styles: namely, the indication that straight lines seemed to be giving way to a softer—or, at the very least, a somewhat less rigid—silhouette.

“This September,” LIFE informed its readers, “shoppers will find saleswomen swooning over romantic evening dresses. It seems the western fashion world is emerging from the second tubular cycle, i.e., mostly straight lines, into a bell-shaped cycle.”

“This July,” the feature continued, “buyers from all over the U.S., on their annual pilgrimage to New York showrooms, were amazed at the number of hoopskirts shown by Kallman & Morris, evening-dress specialists. Here were aristocratic hoops for the masses. Here was fashion repeating itself.”

Hoops for the masses. Not a bad rallying cry. But in pictures made by LIFE’s Alfred Eisenstaedt for that year’s fall round-up, other equally clear trends emerged: plaids; co-ed sweaters; calfskin everything—and in his inimitable, warm style, “Eisie” made them feel as vital as anything that the vaunted “bell-shaped cycle” could deliver.

Here, in photos that were published in LIFE in September 1938, as well as previously unpublished pictures that never ran in the magazine, we revisit some of the most promising themes and accents of a long-ago season, when fashion again repeated itself—yet still managed to feel utterly new.

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