Farewell to All That
An exhibition of clothing from the Edwardian and Pre First World War period.
‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there’.[*]
The romance of the Edwardian era has not been lost on later generations. For the wealthy at least, it was a time of great luxury and privilege. This fortunate minority lived life according to a long-established code of conduct, and deep-rooted modes of behaviour extended their reach into every aspect of social interaction. Such was the enduring nature of this lifestyle, it seemed to those who lived it that things would never change. However, the horrors of the Great War were soon to bring this period to an abrupt end. Such carefree lives of decadence, which after all only truly existed for very few, would soon disappear forever.
There is no doubt that as we view the Edwardian and pre First World War period in Britain, knowing what came after, we invest it with an air of nostalgia. However, a little research soon reveals that this was not the simple, unchanging period we might imagine. The upper classes did lead lives of relative ease, but those at the bottom of society experienced great hardship. At the same time, the middle classes were an expanding demographic; rapidly gaining more spending power and leisure time. This was a period of great technological, social and cultural upheaval. Art, architecture and theatre all experienced major innovation during the early years of the twentieth century. The motor car now jostled with the horse and cart on the roads and aeroplanes took to the skies. A growing awareness of women’s rights saw the Suffragettes demand the vote. Workers too were fighting for better pay and conditions as waves of mass strikes took place between 1910 and 1914. This was a highly complex period of history, with many different undercurrents beginning to bubble to the surface. The edifice of an enduring and strictly stratified society was starting to crumble long before the guns sounded on the Western Front.
As always, clothing reflected these shifts. Women’s fashions, which at the start of our period were still very much dictated by the upper classes, remained essentially ‘Victorian’ in silhouette during the first seven or eight years of the twentieth century. Skirts were long, waists were pulled in tight using corsets and women’s bodies were covered up at all times during the day. Clothing was highly decorative, cumbersome and overtly feminine as many different and elaborate devices were employed to create complex layers of texture and sheen.
By 1907 a radical shift was in progress. It was as if the world had suddenly opened up and designers began to give themselves a much broader palette, drawing inspiration from a plethora of exotic sources. These ranged from middle and far eastern design to historic clothing and traditional regional dress. Many elements of this new approach filtered down into more general fashion. A high-waisted, columnar silhouette with a shorter skirt was adopted. Interest was created using strong colours and layering in the form of tunics and floating panels. Decoration too became bolder and more striking with large embroidered motifs, buttons and tassels. Though men’s fashions were slower to change and still owed much to the late nineteenth century, they too started to admit more modern ideas. The lounge suit now began to dominate menswear, taking over from more formal tailed morning coats and skirted frock coats for all but the smartest occasions. Summer saw casual blazers and light trousers worn with boaters.
The period from 1901 to 1914 was in fact a transitional time of social and cultural upheaval. It looked both backward and forward to the momentous decades to come, and the range of garments created during such a pivotal epoch were traditional and groundbreaking in equal measure. Our display uses carefully selected clothing and accessories, mostly drawn from the Olive Matthews Collection of dress, to explore this distinguished and cherished era of fashion.
[*] Famous opening line from Hartley, L.P., The Go-Between, (London, 1953); a novel set in the summer of 1900.
The correct undergarments were an essential part of the fashionable Edwardian woman’s wardrobe. New finer fabrics were introduced in the early 1900s, but the garments themselves had changed little since the late nineteenth century. They consisted of chemises, camisoles, ample open drawers, combinations and layers of petticoats – their softness accentuated by rows of lace and pin tucks.
Solid corsetry was required in order to achieve the fashionable high Edwardian silhouette. The era saw foundation wear reach its apogee in the extreme form of the S-bend corset. With a deep fit under the bust and a straight front, it thrust the chest forward and the hips back, distorting the body so that it curved in a tortuous ‘S’ shape. This overtly feminine style remained a force in fashion until around 1907. After this date a straighter line, pioneered by innovative new designers such as Paul Poiret, required long, narrow stays which extended low on the hips. Poiret himself eschewed the corset, but many women continued to wear them well in to the First World War.
Other underwear garments also changed from around 1907. Narrow fashion styles brought a new simplicity to lingerie. Underwear was pared down to prevent distortion of the columnar silhouette. ‘Directoire knickers’ were introduced – tight closed drawers with elastic to secure them at waist and knee level. Separate bust bodices provided support and the term brassière was in use from around 1912. Brassières began to resemble our modern equivalents by 1915, and the scene was already set for the simpler underwear of the 1920s.
No garment epitomises the vanished world of Edwardian leisure and privilege so completely as the tea-gown. These diaphanous, loosely draped creations were worn by women during the
late-afternoon period, which incorporated tea at 5 o’clock, before it was necessary to change for dinner. This time of the day was seen as a chance to relax a little, and tea-gowns were generally worn without corsets.
Tea-gowns first appeared during the late 1870s. They continued to be worn as part of an established day time dressing routine for well-off women during the Edwardian era, when they reached a pinnacle of femininity and decadence. At first it was only acceptable for married women to wear tea-gowns, due, no doubt, to the unrestricted and flowing nature of such garments. Though this had changed by the Edwardian period, they continued to hold romantic connotations, with perhaps a whiff of seduction. In the Elinor Glyn’s novel The Career of Katherine Bush, the character Lao Delemar is described as “lying upon her sofa in a ravishing saffron gauze teagown smoking scented cigarettes”.
Tea-gowns were sold by all the main department stores. Marshall and Snelgrove produced some particularly attractive ones, and Liberty & Co of London made beautiful gowns designed along aesthetic and historical lines. These were adopted as tea-gowns by London society hostesses of an artistic bent. Tea-gowns were still being worn in the period just after the First World War, but during the 1920s they were eclipsed by afternoon gowns and cocktail dresses as women’s lifestyles became more active.
Dress for Sport
Since the late nineteenth century women had begun to lead much more active lives. Cycling, walking, riding and golfing had all become popular female pursuits, each with their own specific garments. These were carefully designed with modesty, and some limited freedom of movement, in mind.
Tennis was also played by women. Special tennis outfits were worn, but other than being in white cotton rather than thicker wool fabrics, they differed little from the normal day wear of skirt and blouse and even included high neck collars. The only concession to the activity involved was the wearing of slightly less restrictive corsetry, and in her memoir Remember and be Glad, Cynthia Asquith recalled how cumbersome these garments could be: “Even our lawn-tennis dresses…were so long that it was impossible to take a step back without treading on them”.
Swimming too was a popular activity for women. Women’s swimwear was a cumbersome affair compared with more modern equivalents. Some still wore streamlined versions of Victorian bathing costumes, though these were only practical for a simple dip. They consisted of a long, belted tunic and matching bloomers. A more modern version was an all-in-one costume, still with long legs, and a matching skirt around the waist for modesty. This design reflects the growing trend for proper swimming, since there was no danger of bloomers falling down. The fabric had also changed from wool serge or alpaca to cotton by this time, but would still feel heavy when wet.
Edwardian eveningwear represented the pinnacle of style and sophistication – the ultimate display of glamour and luxury. During the high Edwardian period (from 1901 – 1907), the ultra- feminine ‘S-bend’ shape was more apparent than ever in low-cut, slender-waisted evening gowns. Bodices were cut wide across the shoulders with short sleeves, and the narrow waistline was further emphasised by frills and ruffles at the chest. Skirts closely followed the line of the hips before broadening to a considerable width with a train behind. This was also a period when beautiful embroidery was much in evidence; enhanced with the addition of pastes, sequins and other appliqué work, floral designs trailed around bodices and down the length of skirts. Fabric colours tended to be pale and feminine, with creams, pale pinks and other pastel shades dominating.
Just as with daywear, women’s eveningwear saw a distinct style shift around 1907. Waistlines rose, silhouettes narrowed and decoration became bolder. Couture houses such as Lucile, Callot Soeurs, Doucet and Poiret were at the forefront of change. Poiret produced stunning and sometimes playful designs. During the next few years he used strong jewel-like colours, challenging, often asymmetrical cutting and bold surface decoration to create lavish eveningwear inspired by the exotic East. His work fed off and coincided with a general broadening of cultural horizons, and the public enthusiastically embraced these innovations. Modified versions soon found their way into the mainstream, transforming the fashionable silhouette and preparing the way for the radical 1920s styles to come.
Images by John Chase Photography