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1904 womens fashions – loose women

January 15, 2016

The mood of Edwardian times was quite libertine, especially compared to the somewhat repressed Victorians that went before, with their gloomy female monarch, and certainly to World War II that came after. King Edward was a man of many mistresses, and the general feeling was that extra or pre-marital sex was quite natural for a man – not something to be shouted about but not really frowned on either. Although of course the same didn’t go for the opposite sex – a respectable woman must maintain her chastity. So there was quite a large market for prostitution, especially considering that a man would normally need to save up in order to support a wife and children before he got married – meaning in some cases it was quite a long time before he could enjoy sex with his wife. 1904 womens fashions were influenced in part by “loose women”.

Naughty postcards

But although we know there were a lot of prostitutes – women who had sex for money – in Britain at the time, it’s hard to know just how many. We’ve probably all come across across a quaint Victorian or Edwardian naughty postcard of a woman in her frilly undies, smiling coyly. They seem sweet and quite harmless. In fact, even before the advent of mass market photography (which happened around 1850, 50 or so years before the Edwardian period) there had been a long tradition of artist’s models who posed nude or semi nude.


I’ve always heard that these women were prostitutes as well as models, but it turns out that this is a bit of a loose term – some records consider any unmarried woman who lived with a man, women who had illegitimate children, or women who had any relations with men outside of marriage to be a prostitute. I’m sure getting undressed and posing for the cameras was quite enough in its own right to brand a person a prostitute, whether or not she also was in the traditional meaning of the term.

1904 womens fashions – celebrity fashion leaders


It’s interesting that although models, actresses, mistresses and prostitutes were looked down upon, simultaneously some were also feted as famous beauties and celebrities – women who set fashions that thousands followed. They must have held quite a lot of charm and allure to many sections of society to become household names, and the names Lillie Langtry, Evelyn Nesbit, Lilly Elsie, Sarah Berhardt and Coco Chanel (all women who could have come under the umbrella of “prostitute” at the time) are still known today.


However, not ladies of easy virtue had quite so much charm. Those lovely ladies of the postcards in reality probably looked far more like this:

1904 womens fashions – Prostitution

You’ll notice that these women are all making a bit of money on the side of their main jobs as charwomen, polishers and woodchoppers. Seamstresses were also suspect, and a “millinery establishment” may, a bit like a “massage parlour” today, turn out to be “a house of ill repute”, as gleefully revealed in the tabloids of the time.


Prostitution may have been a fact of life for many but it wasn’t safe for women. It was illegal in all but name, there was no reliable contraception, abortion was illegal and extremely dangerous, and venereal disease like syphilis was rife.


But some still found it easier or more pleasant than the other options: one woman explained that “she had got tired of service, wanted to see life and be independent; & so she had become a prostitute…She…enjoyed it very much, thought it might raise her & perhaps be profitable.” After three years, she had saved up enough to become the landlady of a coffee-house.

Immodest 1904 womens fashions ?

The other thing about streetwalkers is that it was quite hard to identify one. It was said that they wore their gowns a little more low cut and raised their skirts a little higher. The only way to be sure was to ask the lady in question. Naturally, many ladies if so approached didn’t enjoy the implication that they were working girls.


A vigorous debate in the letters page of the turn of the century Times newspaper included the opinions of a wide range of people, from fathers who complained that they were fed up of their respectable daughter being hit on by scoundrels to women saying well, it had never happened to them personally – maybe his daughters were encouraging these men by what they were wearing? Maybe they should consider dressing more modestly. The conversation sounds so much like the comments on a modern blog piece that it’s almost funny. The debate about catcalling in the street goes on.


Alice Tatlow, a polisher and prostitute in 1904, arrested for being drunk and disorderly.
A mugshot of a charwoman and prostitute called Mary Cooper arrested for being drunk and disorderly, 1904





A welcoming lady of the night.

Evelyn Nesbit is “Ready for Mischief” in this postcard.

Lily Elsie

Eliza Fallon, a woodchopper and prostitute in 1904, arrested for being drunk and disorderly.