A privileged few gained access to
the Prince of Wales, later known as King Edward VII and his personal circle of friends known
as the 'Marlborough Set'. Wealth rather than birth was a passport to the society
People soon realised that the doors were open to anyone who could succeed in
winning the King's interest by ostentatious display. Even so his personal set
was fairly small made up from a selection of people from the main six hundred
London society families.
Cutting was a social
punishment in both Victorian and Edwardian times. Indiscretions which gave rise to public gossip were
punished by social death or 'cutting'. Swiftly and efficiently names could be
removed from guest lists, so that those who deviated from the expected behaviour
and were publicly indiscreet soon found themselves almost socially extinct.
Coming out was a
formality and the period when a girl joined society usually at age eighteen. Most aristocratic families
gave girls little preparation for this; the majority brought their children up
in the country where they developed a love of outdoor life. Girls received
little education other than learning to play the piano and to dance, plus a good
working knowledge of French and German. This, together with a sound training in
table manners, was all that was considered necessary for someone who could,
overnight, become a society debutante.
The London Summer Season
lasted from May to August and was when young girls had their coming out. As early as February some would have received invitations for their
presentation to the King and Queen at the first Court. In any one season
approximately one hundred girls would be received at Court, with thirty or forty
debutantes being presented at any one time.
An S-bend was a body
silhouette achieved by use of an S-bend corset. It created the S-bend
figure an exaggerated S bend shape associated with the fashions of the
era. The fashionable hour glass silhouette belonged to the mature woman
of ample curves and full bosom. The S-bend health corset set the
line for fashion conscious women until 1905. The corset was too tightly
laced at the waist and so forced the hips back and the drooping
monobosom was thrust forward in a pouter pigeon effect creating an S
The Gibson Girl was created by the artist Charles Dana
Gibson and she wore an outfit which consisted of a white high necked shirt
blouse and a flared skirt. It was practical and it set a skirt and tailored shirt style that has remained
in various forms ever since.
This particular image was a cartoon character drawn by the
American artist Charles Dana Gibson. For twenty years between 1890 and 1910 he
satirised society with his image of 'The New Woman' who was competitive, sporty
and emancipated as well as beautiful. Her clothes were fashionable in both
America and Britain and set a fashion for skirts worn with embroidered blouses.
Another Gibson look was a shirt collar worn with either a tie, floppy artist
bow, tie neck cravat with stick pin bar brooch or crosscut ruffle jabot.
supermodels and fashion leaders of the Edwardian era were royalty such
as Queen Alexandra and also actresses, singers and professional beauties
such as Mrs. Wheeler, Lily Langtry and Constance Collier who all acted
as mannequins for designers of the era.
The French called the era from 1895 to 1914 La Belle Époque. It was an epoch of beautiful clothes and the peak of luxury living for a select
few, mainly the very rich and the very privileged through birth.
The waistline was
raised until it was a column like empire line or
Directoire after the styles
designed by Paul Poiret. So after 1907 a longer line corset almost reaching the
knees intended to make the figure look slimmer became fashionable.
The artists portraying Orientalism included Paul Iribe (1908), Georges
Lepape, Raoul Dufy and Erté. Over the years Poiret worked with several
artists who drew fashion drawings and textile print designs for him.
Poiret's influence on fashion illustration and
fashion presentation was enormous and attractive prints by these artists are
still used in interiors to set a mood.
been influenced by the Ballets Russes and in 1913 he produced exotic
designs based on oriental harem pants. Poiret loved bright colour
and introduced brilliant hues whilst the sweet pea colours of the
Edwardian era were still very fashionable. His lampshade tunic and
turbans were all in vibrant glowing shimmering colours, with beaded
embellishment. To complete the outfits there
were exotic Eastern inspired jewelled slippers which drew together Orientalism
in the outfit.
Having liberated women
by putting them into pants Poiret then sought to design extremes and became
famous for designing a hobble skirt which drew the legs closely together as it
was so narrow. To increase the hobble effect women needed to wear a 'fetter', a kind
of bondage belt that held the ankles together and prevented the wearer from making
any movements other than small steps in imitation of Geisha girls. The hobble skirt was
probably Poiret's last real success as new designers like Chanel and Lanvin
opened up Fashion Houses and began to design unrestrictive clothes that women
really felt comfortable wearing.
neck for daywear was thought so shocking that it was
denounced from the pulpit in 1913.
was one of the artists that founded the Fauvist movement. Dufy made
fabric prints and worked on interesting dyeing techniques to enhance
Paul Poiret's work in fashion. Later Dufy worked for a French textile
firm where he designed dramatic prints for silks and brocades. Today
many of us remember him for his wonderful light infused paintings of the
south of France.
Leon Bakst designed and made flamboyant exotic colourful
costumes for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. He used colour in an oriental way, using bold
hues and sharp contrasts with highlights of embroidery and heavy appliqué. The idea
behind the clothes was that women would look like harem slaves. To emphasise
this he put women in turbans and harem pants. Much of his work showed oriental
The American, Gordon Selfridge, invested in building a huge store in Oxford
Street, London in 1909. Staff were hired months before it opened. They were
trained in selling the Selfridge way.
Shoppers flocked to the store when they
heard of the delights inside. At last they could openly obtain goods such as
make up and perfume easily. Clothes departments sold all manner of goods and
hard to find items. Music greeted the shoppers and browsing there could be an
all day experience. Shopping there was intended to be a recreation.
In August and September
there were Cowes week, the Scotland
grouse season and the health resorts of Marienbad or Bath to visit.
typical house party dinner menu had 12 courses.
the day they might ride in the park, shoot or hunt until teatime.
They might also play bridge or other card games indoors.
For a brief weekend stay a society
lady would take at least one huge domed trunk called a 'Noah's Ark',
possibly more, plus hat boxes and a heavy dressing case. These contained
clothes enabling her to change up to half a dozen times a day. A lady would
never wear the same outfit twice during one stay.
In the early 1900s
fashion colours were sugar almond
and sweet pea colours, with stronger colours emerging after 1908.
The Titanic sink in 1912.
The first bra was patented in 1914 by Mary Jacobs an American.
It is not thought to be the first bra ever, but it is the patented
record that gives her the credit. Cretan women had the idea long before and various BBs or
Bust Bodices or improvers had been around in Britain and France since the
Edwardian era and exist today in costume collections. Several designers including
all say they invented the bra as correct underwear for their new dress
innovations and admonished clients to abandon their corsets. Mary Jacobs had the
intelligence to patent a design for a bra and has her name linked forever with
Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)
In 1918 all women over 30 were given the vote with women over 21
able to become MP's.
Nancy Astor (1879-1964) was elected to Parliament in 1919 and was the first
women MP to take her seat at Westminster.
By 1928 all women over 21 were given equity with male
voting rights and it was called the 'flapper vote'.
In 1918 an attempt was made to introduce a utility garment as
a National Standard Dress. It had no hooks and eyes, but metal buckles and was
supposed to be an all purpose garment that could be a dinner gown, day gown or
nightdress. It never took off! Lessons learned from this
were used in the 1939-45 war when women were given ration coupons, but had an
element of choice in what they wore.
Bright Young Things drank cocktails and flouted old
rulkes after the First world War. The era 1921-22 saw a great change in the drinking habits of the affluent and the debut of the
cocktail at the first night clubs in London. Most people still retained
pre-war values, but the behaviour of 'The Bright Young Things' was written about
with distaste by journalists and writers of the era.
The Shimmy, the Charleston and the Black Bottom. Unlike
clothes of the Edwardian era the lack of corsetry helped the dancers
move easily and the often sleeveless clothes were unrestrictive. The
Rumba, Samba and Conga were all popular dances in this period.
The French called the flapper fashion style the 'garconne'. The costume history image in our minds of a woman of the 'Roaring Twenties' is
actually likely to be the image of a flapper. Flappers did not truly emerge until
1926. Flapper fashion embraced all things and styles modern. A fashionable
flapper had short sleek boyish hair, a shorter than average shapeless shift dress, a
chest as flat as a board, wore make up and applied it in public, smoked with a
long cigarette holder, exposed her limbs and epitomised the spirit of a
reckless rebel who danced the nights away in the Jazz Age.
Skirts only revealed the knee briefly between 1926 and
1928, and this was the only period when evening dresses were short in line with
day dress lengths. This was the flapper period. New students of costume
history often mistakenly assume that all dresses day and evening were
short in every year of the twenties and that flappers were the only
fashion style of the twenties. Dress and coat lengths were actually calf
length and quite long for most of the decade. Shortness is a
popular misconception reinforced by the availability of moving film of
the Charleston dance which shows very visible knees and legs on the
Gabrielle Chanel 1883-1971 self
styled herself to be known as Coco Chanel and as the greatest fashion designer
of her era. By 1920 the silhouette of her
clothing designs have come to be the epitome of 20's style. The work of other
famous designers beside hers seemed old fashioned and outmoded belonging as they
did to the pre World War One era.
An Eton crop was a short haircut. Hair was first bobbed,
then shingled, then Eton cropped in 1926-7. An Eton crop was considered daring and
shocked some older citizens, since hair had always been thought a woman's
crowning glory. Only maiden aunts and elderly dowagers avoided the severe
shorter styles, but by the 1930s softer waved hairstyles were a refreshing
The Mary Jane ankle strap button shoe was the style of the
twenties. T bar shoes with buckles and bows and straps featured in the
1920s. . Strapped shoes were called Mary Janes. T bar shoes or others with
buckles and bows made interesting fashion statements. Sequin or diamante trims
were quite usual. Footwear was visible beneath short dresses and was selected with more care as a
In 1922 Suzanne Lenglen shocked the world when she dressed for
tennis at Wimbledon wearing a short skirt. She abandoned the hat and also caused
a stir with her hair bandeau designed to enable her to actually see what was
going on. Such seriousness of purpose was unknown before. By 1930 a bare head
was acceptable for tennis playing.
Even more shocking than Lenglen was Alice Marble who strode
onto court wearing white shorts in 1932. Both outfits were at the time
considered outrageous, but over the years other sports women have braved new
ground with more appropriate dress.
was the 1920s fashion icon with a distinctive bobbed haircut.
Chanel had introduced the world to the jumper and it was worn
by both men and women. Knitted garments for men really took off in the twenties
and women eagerly wore the same knits too. Fair Isle patterns became very
popular for both sexes.
The French designer Madeleine Vionnet devised methods of bias cross cutting during the 1920s using
a miniature model. She made popular the halter neck and the cowl neck.
Although the modern instigator of bias cutting, historical evidence suggests that close fitting gowns and veils of the medieval
period were made with cross cut fabrics. The Edwardians also made skirts that
swayed to the back by joining a bias edge to a straight grain edge and the
result was a pull to the back that formed the trained skirt. She did really
popularise it and the resulting clothes are styles we forever associate with
movie goddesses and dancers like Ginger Rogers.
Italian Elsa Schiaparelli 1890-1973 had a love of rich
fabrics and feminine fantasy clothes that frequently had a surreal twist. She would accessorise with humour and designed funky hats made to appear as
lamb or mutton chops or ice cream cones. Her eccentricity was much loved and her clothes
were revolutionary at the time.
Wallis Simpson. In 1936 Edward VIII abdicated his right to the throne to marry
Mrs. Wallis Simpson. On marriage she became the Duchess of Windsor, but was
never ever granted the title H. R. H. However they self styled themselves as
Royal Highnesses and the Duke bought her vast quantities of jewellery.
Her dress was designed by Mainbocher as was the rest of her
The British Civilian Clothing Order of 1942 introduced
economies in fashion designs. In1942 under the
Civilian Clothing Order the British government introduced sumptuary laws
designed to give weight to the Utility scheme. The laws made it illegal and
unpatriotic to spend time embellishing clothing for sale, and forbade
manufacturers using the CC41 label shown in the header from using fancy trimmings, unnecessary
buttons, extra stitching or tucks or pleats or pockets more than was essential to
function. Mass production of clothing was refined in the UK during the 1939-45
war. Strict restrictions ensured that manufacturers produced goods of a
high standard under the Utility Scheme. Manufacturers were only given
cloth if they produced a percentage of utility clothes. Only those
companies who could achieve high standards stayed in business. This set
the tone for superior production of well made clothes after the war.
The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers was
led by Captain Molyneux and included Norman Hartnell, Digby Morton,
Victor Stiebel, Angèle Delange, Peter Russell, Madame Bianca Mosca and
Hardy Amies. They created 34 smart Utility Clothing designs in
1942 that were officially
approved by the Board of Trade. Of these a selection was mass-produced. Finally they
were finished off with the official and now famous CC41 (Clothing Control 1941)
label designed by the commercial artist Reginald Shipp.
Christian Dior. In 1947 Christian Dior
presented a fashion look with a fitted jacket with a nipped in waist and full
calf length skirt. It was a dramatic change from wartime austerity styles. After
the rationing of fabric during the Second World War, Dior's lavish use of
material was a bold and shocking stroke. The style used yards and yards of
fabric. Approximately 10 yards was used for early styles. Later using up to 80 yards for
newer refinements that eliminated bulk at the waist. Life magazine dubbed Dior's Corolle line
the New Look. Dior had specific names for each style which all
featured the fuller skirt. Dior's New Look dominated the fashion world for about ten
years, but was not the only silhouette of the era.
A toque is tall
hat. Queen Mary continued to wear toques long after the fashion died.
cloche hat was fashionable from 1908 to 1933 was one of the most extreme
forms of millinery ever with an appearance that resembled a helmet.