1900s womens fashion – In the Edwardian eraJanuary 2, 2016
The period 1900-1909 by chance almost exactly covers the Edwardian age in Britain.Queen Victoria died in 1901 and King Edward VII acceded the throne in the same year, dying in early 1910. Of course, the Edwardian age was highly influenced by the long period of Victoria’s reign which had gone before it, and some say that really, the Edwardian period was more like 1890 -1914, the eve of the first world war, when 1900s womens fashion and society in Britain abruptly changed forever.
The time period of 1871-1914 is also called the Belle Epoque and fin-de-siecle (end of the century) in France and Western Europe, and sometimes the Gilded Age in America.
On the whole, events of the Victorian period greatly influenced the Edwardian one, and the Industrial Revolution, with its inventions and factories was a great part of that. That’s why some of the topics under discussion reference things a little bit further back than strictly 1900-1909, because they had repercussions on women’s life in Edwardian times.
As well as social and economic legacy from the Victorian era the fashions lingered, especially in older or poorer women. They had no need to suddenly abandon a good dress just because fashion and times moved on.
1900s womens fashion – the Older Woman
The Edwardian period was a release for upper class society after the rather dour rule of Victoria in her later years. King Edward was a pleasure seeker and lover of fashion and the mood of the times lightened accordingly.
He was said to have up to fifty-five romantic liaisons and many of his mistresses were older society ladies. This, along with the fact that his wife Queen Alexandra was a 1900s Womens fashion leader at fifty-six when she became the Queen, meant that unlike our times the older woman was not just respected, but actively admired and set the fashions. Even a “matronly” body shape was imitated, with a wider waist and lower bosom, and white and grey hair was considered elegant.
1900s Women’s Outfits
For the very highest echelons of society 1900s Womens fashion started to move more quickly, and twice yearly visits to Paris to the couturiers were necessary to choose their wardrobes for the next six months.
They would have carefully scrutinised fashion plates in magazines first to get an idea of what they wanted, but couturiers were happy to change details of their original designs to their clients wishes, so details like colour could vary wildly across a collection, one lady having the dress in pastel pink but another in scarlet.
Preferred body shape
The preferred body shape at the beginning of the century was a low, full monobosom, straight waist and flat stomach, and the bottom was emphasised. Hair and hats could be massive, and tiny, dainty feet completed the ideal picture. By the end of the decade the shape had changed to a high busted, uncorseted empire line.The Victorian waist-pinching corset was out, as were crinolines and skirt-enhancing hoops that emphasised the tiny waists.
Instead skirts were gently fluted, falling straight and quite fitted from hip to knee to flare towards the ankle. Some skirts were so fitted that you could distinctly make out the shape of a woman’s thighs. Applique designs on the skirt were popular.
Evening dresses and some day dresses in 1900s Womens fashion had a bustle at the back. The shape was mostly formed with swags of fabric, sometimes with a roll of fabric or pad or horsehair underneath to exaggerate the shape. Evening and ball dresses often featured a train.
Bodices were tightly fitted and usually separate from the skirt for ease of dressing. The bodice fabric might match the skirt to form a dress, but a popular day look was a dark skirt of wool, silk or linen paired with a white cotton blouse. The blouse could be pin tucked, or have lace or ruffles, and was sometimes worn with a tie. This very masculine look was usually topped with a tailored jacket.
Changes of clothes
A wealthy woman would have many changes of clothes throughout the day to suit every occasion. She would buy underwear, morning and afternoon gowns, walking dresses, a cycling outfit, an outfit for motoring in, evening gowns for different occasions (a dress for dining at home would be different to a dress for a theatre), perhaps ball gowns, and gowns for special occasions like a wedding or Ascot. And of course, accessories: handkerchiefs, gloves, hats, bags, a slender umbrella or walking stick and coats to go with each. The bustle of the dress meant that a coat could not always fit over them, and so the mantle, a loose cloak-coat, went with this.
The middle class woman would have as many of these variations as she could afford, and a working class woman might just have one week day dress and her Sunday best, which she was often married in as well.
On the whole, fabrics for the poor were linens, the middle class had cotton and the rich wore silk and fine cotton.
How did a day’s clothing look?
This example is for a well off upper middle class woman:
The first layer were the underclothes, usually made of fine cotton lawn embroidered with white work. Either a chemise for the top half, then open drawers or knickerbockers below, or “combinations”, which were the two joined together, made the first layer. Then cotton, wool or lisle stockings to the knee or just above for day, or embroidered silk for evening, held up by suspenders attached to the corset. Over the drawers go the layers of petticoats, (warm flannel for winter) and over the chemise your corset, then a corset cover over that.
Then the morning outfit, usually the blouse and skirt described above, with a jacket for colder days.
Then after lunch an afternoon dress would be worn, usually in pastel coloured silk.
At about 5pm this is replaced with a tea gown. It was worn for relaxing at home, on your own or with friends, and didn’t need a corset – a bit like the moment you come home and take your bra off!
In the evening the corset, or possibly a different evening corset, came back on, with maybe a change of under clothes and silk stockings. On top of this went an evening dress.
Last thing at night it all came off again, and a high necked, long cotton nightgown would be put on. All dresses and corsets fastened at the back, so a maid was needed for all matters of dressing, as well as hairdressing. Front fastening clothes and the fan lacing corset made it possible for the less well off to dress themselves.
1900s womens fashion – Artistic Clothing
There have always been women who buck the fashion trend. One example were painter’s models. Popular painters of the time included the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, who dressed their sitters in medieval clothes, a time they admired as being pre-industrial and more innocent.
Gradually these costumes evolved to become their own style, loose garments in rich colours. They did not fit in with a specific time period and were worn without corsets. The sitters, who had become famous from their portraits, began to wear these costumes as every day wear, and other women took up this new trend in 1900s Womens fashion.
It became known as “Artistic clothing” and it coincided with the aims of groups like dress reformers who thought that corsets should be done away with for health reasons, and that clothing should be simpler, more comfortable and washable.
Ready to Wear Clothes in 1900s womens fashion
Until this time, most clothes in 1900s Womens fashion had been hand made either by the wearer themselves or by skilled seamstresses. The styles were often copied from fashion plates in magazines, which detailed the latest French styles. These magazines also offered paper patterns. The sewing machine, which had become a common item in middle class homes by the 1860s, helped with this.
Towards the end of the century the phenomenon of ready to wear clothes in a range of standard sizes had been introduced and shopping for clothes became a fashionable activity.
However, conditions and wages for seamstresses, whether working for an exclusive house or for mass production, had never been good and the unregulated “sweated industries” came under focus by reformers, although it was many years before legislation came into force to protect them.
As well as smaller shops there were department stores like Harrods and Debenham & Freebody. Selfridges department store opened in London in 1909, and it sold not only ready to wear clothes but gloves, accessories and quite shocking things like underclothes and cosmetics quite openly.
The concept of vintage clothes hadn’t quite been invented yet in 1900s Womens fashion, but clothes often had a very long life. When a wealthy woman became tired of a garment, she might have sections remade. For example, the skirt could be made narrower to fit in with current fashions or a lace frill could be added to ring the changes. It also could be dyed. In fact, if an important family member died they would dye their existing dresses black.
If a mistress grew tired of a plain dress, rather than alter it she might pass it on to her servant. The servant might wear it for a while until it became too shabby, then sell it on second hand, or pawn it. There was a big second hand market, and working classes often spent a great deal of time dying clothes, re-making them and altering them to fit just like wealthier ladies did, except that they generally carried out the work themselves.
When the dress wore out again, the good part of the fabric could be re-made into children’s clothes or accessories, or sold on once more, until the original dress had been through maybe five or six owners. Even rags had a value.
The Industrial Revolution, with its focus on textiles with new ways of spinning, weaving, dying and knitting began to mean fabric and clothes became a little cheaper and more accessible, but most, especially the working classes, did not have the bulging wardrobes of today.
The Corset in 1900s womens fashion
Corsets in 1900s Womens fashion were not worn morning, noon and night – upper and middle class women wore them in public but took them off in the afternoon for informal entertaining at home with their female friends. They also did not generally wear them at night.
Debates about the health of women who wore corsets had been going on for decades by the Edwardian period. Dr Gustav Jaegar instructed that women should wear wool next to the skin, as it was more breathable, and the Aertex company created a fabric with holes in it for the same reason. It should be noted that women did not really have such tiny waists as idealised fashion illustrations showed, as in most people it just wasn’t possible, and even the vainest women wanted to be able to breathe and walk around.
Nor were corsets in 1900s Womens fashion the real reason for the vast range of health problems ascribed to them. Women would have experienced shortness of breath, back pain, indigestion and constipation. These were bad enough. But permanent re-arrangement of the organs, circulation, heart, liver, kidney problems, the formation of gallstones, damage to the womb and cancer of the breast, and spinal floppiness, let alone hysteria and mental problems, were unlikely to have been caused by the corset.
S curve corset
However, despite these claims, women were not quite ready to abandon the corset yet. Instead, from 1900 to about 1910 they started to wear the S curve corset, which promoted a flat stomach, a sticking out bottom, and a more natural, wider waistline. It finished beneath the bust, leaving it unsupported or only slightly supported. This was thought to be healthier, and also followed the fashion already noted of having a more mature looking body, in the style of Queen Alexandra. However, though it would have released the stomach, the extreme bend of the back probably led to more lower back problems.
Corsets in 1900s Womens fashion were made with strong canvas structure and whalebone or steel rods, sometimes covered with colourful and decorative satin. They had long suspenders for stockings attached.
By 1908 the shape changed again, and the corset started to lose ground to early brassieres and hip girdles.
In 1900s womens fashion buttoned leather ankle boots in practical brown or black with a small, sturdy Louis heel were usual for daytime, while in the evening both boots and shoes were worn. The shoes also had the Louis heel, with an almond toe and high tongue.
Footwear for evening could be leather, but also silk, brocade or velvet, and it could be in a range of colours to go with the outfit and decorated with beading or embroidery on the toes, which were the main part that showed.
Tiny feet were desirable and people squeezed themselves in shoes a size too small. There are stories of Edwardian women who had their little toes amputated to make the feet narrower.
In 1900s womens fashion hair was considered an Edwardian woman’s ‘crowning glory’ and they did a lot to decorate it, keep it lustrous and in good condition. They never cut their hair short willingly – female prisoner’s hair was cut off as much as a source of humiliation as of convenience and to prevent lice, another reason for female short hair. A woman might also sell her hair if she was hard up. None of these circumstances made the idea of short hair attractive.
Teenagers and younger women might wear a simple plait or low ponytail, or have their long hair loose over the shoulders until they “came out” at the age of eighteen, when it was put up.
If you were older but didn’t fancy following the 1900s Womens fashion of steel grey locks, hair dye was available. Women used plaits, rags, or steel hair curlers to curl or wave their hair, but in 1906 the permanent wave was invented by Charles Nestle. It used an electric heat machine. In 1908 Marcel of France created the famous Marcel hair waving machine. Women talked about having their hair “Marcelled” – it was immensely popular.
These curls and waves were incorporated into an soft, upswept hairdo, usually culminating in a loose bun or curls at the back. Hair might be centre parted, or slightly off centre – fringes weren’t worn.
The “Gibson Girl” style was popular, with a pompadour at the front and bun at the back. Sometimes these pompadours reached great heights and needed some support from a pompadour frame, which the hair was combed over, or hair pieces often made from carefully saved hair from a woman’s own comb. At least it matched in colour! These and other hairpieces were called “rats”.
All of these styles were held in place with ribbons, combs and hair pins, or sometimes sewn in place with matching thread by a maid.
Hats in 1900s womens fashion
To crown the crowning glory, hats were always worn out of doors in 1900s Womens fashion. Even the poorest of women had at least one hat, as it wasn’t respectable to go out with an uncovered head.
Hats came in several styles in this period. A plain, quite masculine straw boater or felt homburg went with the more tailored styles of day dress that were coming in, and were useful for cycling or motoring. As a contrast, huge, cartwheel creations decorated in swathes of tulle, ribbons, feathers and fake fruits and flowers could be perched atop the carefully dressed curls and pompadour.
In Edwardian times, the beauty ideal was a very pale face and lightly flushed cheeks. A tan was not yet fashionable, as it signified someone who worked in the open fields. Soft, healthy skin was prized. Overt cosmetics were frowned upon as being for prostitutes, but face powder, made from oats, bismuth, talc and crushed pearls was used, as was facial blotting paper, and rouge for the cheeks and lips. The ideal was the no make up make up look.
There were a lot of DIY recipes for face creams to keep you pale of a perfect complexion, but not all were natural, using various ingredients from the chemists as well as ingredients like egg yolks and lemon. Helena Rubinstein opened up a beauty salons during the Edwardian period, offering facials, massage and other beautifying treatments. They were popular but discreet – women arrived veiled, often through the back door.
The Victorians preferred strong, single note perfumes such as lavender, but then towards the end of the century had a brief craze for heavy and exotic patchouli and green vetiver. However, the turn of the century is where modern fragrances really took off, as synthetic aldehydes were invented and refined. Perfumery became a competitive art form and ionone, coumarin, heliotropine, and vanillin notes were introduced and combined.
Sport in 1900s womens fashion
A bicycle that would resemble the ones we ride today was popular by Edwardian times in middle class households. A lady’s version was available with a dipped centre to accommodate skirts, but it was quite a risque activity for a woman to ride one. After all, who knew where she might dash off to on it unaccompanied? It gave women a very literal freedom.
Tennis was a popular middle class activity for both sexes, and young women in schools did physical education. Horse riding was also possible for the middle and upper classes, as was golf, archery and fencing.
As a leisure activity, roller skating rinks (roller rooms) were popular, as were winter ice skating rinks for all classes, but working class women did not get the chance to play sport as such. Working class men of the time played football in organised leagues. As an example of the male prevalence in sport, the 1908 Olympics listed 22 different categories of sporting events, in which 2,035 athletes competed. Only 37 of these were women.
At the music hall, strong women, female pugilists, female gymnasts and contortionists and trapeze artists were all popular turns. These women wore adapted outfits in 1900s womens fashion, such as bloomers, soft shoes and much shorter skirts – glitzy show outfits that were as intended to cause a bit of a thrill as make the activities easier for the performers. But for the more staid sportswomen, no such adaption was made and most sports were played in the every day costume of heels, corsets and full length skirts.
Cycling outfits, with bifurcated skirts or mid calf bloomers together with a tailored jacket and neat straw hat tied on with a veil were the exception to this, but most lady cyclists simply got on the bike in whatever they were already wearing.
The industrial revolution greatly influenced the way that people lived and worked. Many people moved from small village communities in a more rural setting to work in the factories or, by the end of the century, the offices in big towns.
Upper class women very rarely worked – if they wanted to spend their time meaningfully they might do charity work for free. These women who worked to change the lives of the poor or less fortunate were often called, dismissively, “Do Gooders”.
Middle class women often went to work in offices as secretaries, or in employment such as school teachers – but only until marriage. After marriage, most women found themselves confined to the domestic sphere, as a wife and mother.
Coventry Patmore’s poem ‘The Angel in the House’ of 1854 epitomised the traditional role of Victorian and Edwardian women. In the poem, this angelic wife is devoted to her husband and children above all else.
The husband was supposed to earn, and control, the family income. But a man had to prove to a prospective wife’s family that he could support her, and so sometimes the couple found themselves saving up for many years before the happy event.
Working class women worked as agricultural labourers, servants, in factories, as seamstresses or as prostitutes. They frequently helped with the family finances by working after marriage, often on a casual basis whilst bearing children and taking on household tasks at the same time. In some working class households, especially those with two full time working parents the domestic tasks were split equally.
The industrial revolution itself was in some ways accelerated, in some ways held up by the attitudes towards women in work. Some of the new technologies were predominantly staffed by women and children, because the more highly trained or unionised men refused to take on this kind of new work, whereas women were forced to take whatever they were offered. Conversely, women and children’s work was so cheap to hire that their labour intensive work was more cost effective than any machine.
The New Woman
Although Oxford and Cambridge Universities were opened at this time (1869) for a few wealthy women, many families feared an over educated daughter would have trouble attracting a husband. Doctors quite seriously announced that an over education would lead an unfortunate woman’s ovaries to shrivel like dried prunes.
As well as this, William Acton’s thoughts that “As a general rule a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him and, but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attention.” was generally taken as law.
The new Woman and feminism
Women who showed an interest in feminism, freedoms such as riding bicycles, wearing trousers, not wearing corsets, votes for women, or any interest in sex were viciously satirised by magazines of the time like Punch.
It didn’t stop certain celebrated women from going ahead and having the life she wanted though – people like the upper middle class sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, and other members of the Bloomsbury group which they were part of enjoyed open marriages and multiple partners of both genders.
Despite vigorous work by women’s suffrage campaigners by the end of the Edwardian period women still had few rights over their own bodies, children, money or property and still could not vote in national elections.