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1906 womens fashion – Linley Sambourne photography

January 23, 2016

Edward Linley Sambourne, an Edwardian cartoonist for Punch and keen amateur photographer, left a legacy that accurately records 1906 womens fashion, but provokes very mixed feelings, for me at least.

His archive of thousands of photographs of everyday women captured in candid shots on the streets, beaches and on public transport are amazing as they show just how women really dressed, how the clothes, so elegantly illustrated for magazines or stiffly posed for studio portraits, looked like in movement, how they were accessorised, or how bathing suits, for example, look like when worn for swimming and not in a saucy postcard.

Candid shots in 1906

Two ladies in similar bathing costumes and headscarves. You can see how much the water has stretched the lady on the right's skirt.

Two ladies in similar bathing costumes and headscarves. You can see how much the water has stretched the lady on the right’s skirt.


But how did Linley Sambourne get such natural, unforced shots? How did he get to show us a lady’s rear as she bends into a bathing machine, with its wet woollen swimming costume sagging around her and clinging so revealingly? He used a hidden camera. I don’t think many women, even those of today who are used to wearing tiny shreds of lycra, would be happy with a photo like that. It’s an image definitely lacking consent. (Because of that I’ve decided not to show it here).

Sleeping women, Brighton Sept 1906

Napping women, Brighton Sept 1906


Most of his photos, however, are not so intimate, although it’s noticeable they’re often taken from behind, almost exclusively of young women and girls. Photos of strangers sleeping would probably not have been welcome either, if the subject had known about it. It’s also remarkable how many different beaches Linley Tambourine visited just in summer 1906 – Brighton, Weymouth, Ostend, and Folkestone among them. Was he spotted and asked to refrain, or did he just like the variety?

1906 womens fashion – beach photos

Folkstone Sept 1906

Folkstone Sept 1906


Other fully dressed beach photos show that women didn’t really change what they wore for the heat of the beach – the summer of 1906 was reported as a stifling heat wave. They lounge on the beach in their frothy white dresses – if lounging can be achieved while still wearing a corset.


In the days when hitching up your ankle length skirt just a little to avoid a muddy footpath constituted an occasion for men to stare and bus conductors to cheer, the bathing machines were needed for privacy not just in getting changed but in entering the water directly without being seen too much in what for us seems like a voluminous, quite thick bathing suit, but for them the knitted, knee length and short sleeved costumes would have felt dangerously revealing. Proper beach fashions didn’t come along until the 1930s.

1908 and Sambourne acts as his own model for cartoon.

1908 and Sambourne acts as his own model for a cartoon.


Edward Linley Sambourne initially began photographing himself in his makeshift home studio in various poses, often exaggerated or ridiculous, for source material for his Punch sketches. He also photographed his daughter, Maud, and his wife, Marion, and then took to the streets. Presumably the reaction he when he tried to photograph ladies out in public wasn’t favourable, and led him to the use of a hidden camera. The number of photos he took far exceeds that which he’d have needed for studies however, and Marion complained photography was becoming “an obsession”. A useful one for us, however – there is a huge archive of his prints kept at his family home, which is now a museum.

1906 womens fashion – Parisian families

kensington Church St Sept 1906

Kensington Church St Sept 1906


-A picture taken in Cromwell Road in July 1906

A picture taken in Cromwell Road in July 1906


Cromwell Road Feb 1906

Cromwell Road Feb 1906


Cyclist 8 sept 1906

Cyclist 8 sept 1906


1906 womens fashion-School girl - Earls Court Kensington London 30 May 1906

School girl – Earls Court Kensington London 30 May 1906


1906 womens fashion-Kensington London 4 June 1906

Kensington London 4 June 1906


1906 womens fashion-Kensington 4th July 1906

Kensington 4th July 1906


Here are some other shots from 1906 womens fashion. I love the one of the girl reading a book whilst walking. Linley Sambourne lived in Chelsea and most of the photographs are taken in the area, for example Kensington Church Street and Cromwell Road. He also travelled that year and took photos of Dutch women, Parisian families and passengers on the boat he went on.

1906 womens fashion-Parisian family, July 1906

Parisian family, July 1906


1906 womens fashion-Parisian ladies in mourning, 4 Jun 1906

Parisian ladies in mourning, 4 Jun 1906


Passenger on a boat, April 1906

Passenger on a boat, April 1906


This woman’s coat is interesting – quite a bulky garment lending her a matronly appearance, in contrast to the very simple streamlined coats that were mainly seen. However, it was also in fashion and not an anomaly, showing that then as now quite opposite trends were in at the same time!