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Behind the Scenes: Edwardian Fashion

Regular readers will know that my Behind the Scenes series explores some of the background to my Sinclair’s Mysteries books. I’ve written about everything from the real-life Edwardian department stores that inspired my fictional Sinclair’s, to 1900s gentlemen’s clubs, to the lives of Edwardian servants.

But one thing I haven’t yet written about is Edwardian fashion – which is rather surprising, given what an important role fashion plays in the series! And it’s also one of my favourite areas to research. So without further ado, let’s plunge into the wonderful world of Edwardian style…

From a contemporary vantage point, the fashions of the Edwardian era were incredibly elaborate. Ladies of fashion decked themselves out in ornate gowns, requiring an array of undergarments beneath. Typically these would include ‘combinations’ (a kind of vest and knee-length bloomers all-in-one), a corset or stays, and in some cases, silk pads on the hips to help create an exaggerated body-shape. Over this would be worn a lace-trimmed camisole, silk stockings and petticoats, and then finally the gown itself – often decorated with lace, embroidery, ruffles, frills and flounces.

edwardianladyThe typical Edwardian lady, with ruffled gown and S-shaped sillhouette

Being an Edwardian lady required constant outfit changes (‘a large fraction of our time was spent in changing our clothes’ said Cynthia Asquith). There were different styles for every possible occasion – day dresses, evening dresses, walking dresses, riding habits, ball gowns, the fashionable new ‘tea gowns’ which were supposed to be worn whilst lounging in the boudoir enjoying afternoon tea, and many more. There were also a huge variety of accessories; as well as enormous wide-brimmed hats decorated with feathers, bows and artificial flowers, these would include gloves, parasols, jewels, fans, handbags and a range of outerwear – mantles, jackets, boleros, pelisses, and furs.

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‘Calling or afternoon gowns’

Paris was very much the fashion capital and wearing a Paris gown was considered the height of elegance. Wealthy London ladies might make special trips to Paris to have their fashionable dresses made by a top modiste. Alternatively, they might visit the grand salon of a British couturier (like the fictional Henrietta Beauville, who appears in The Midnight Peacock) to select their made-to-order gowns and have them fitted. However, new ‘ready-to-wear’ clothing was also becoming available, meaning that for the first time, people could buy their clothing off the rack in a shop (as most of us do today) rather than going to a dressmaker, or making it themselves at home. Even the very wealthy, who continued to have their clothes made for them by fashionable dressmakers, would visit grand department stores like Sinclair’s to purchase blouses, hats, stockings, or even the occasional dress. ‘A day’s shopping in Town’ became a very popular entertainment and ladies would enjoy shopping for items like scent-bottles, dressing-jackets trimmed with swansdown, chemises, and boudoir caps.

At first glance, Edwardian fashions may seem as elaborate as their Victorian predecessors – but in fact, from the 1890s onwards, it was beginning to go through a significant change. Silhouettes were shifting away from full skirts and bustles towards a slimmer silhouette – firstly the swan-like S-shape that was so popular in the 1900s, then the narrow ‘hobble skirt’ of the 1910s. What’s more, simple tailored suits (known as ‘tailor-mades’) were becoming popular for women, reflecting the changes to women’s lives. The so-called ‘New Woman’ of the period needed more practical clothing for work, study and an active lifestyle. In particular the vogue for cycling meant that adventurous young women began to experiment with wearing bloomers or knickerbockers. Motoring also required practical clothes such as tailored skirts and leather topcoats which would act as a protection from the weather.

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An example of some of the new tailored styles

Styles also began to move away from the pastel, feminine ensembles of the turn-of-the-century. From 1909 onwards, the Ballet Russes had a huge influence on fashion, setting a trend for bolder colours and new less structured, more flowing shapes. Empire lines, draped skirts, kimono sleeves, cloaks and turbans became popular. Some young women even wore pantaloons – though at first these styles were considered very daring and controverisal! The French designer Paul Poiret had a particularly important influence on this style. In The Midnight Peacock, these new styles are very much in evidence at Mr Sinclair’s New Year’s Eve Ball.

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Some of Poiret’s gowns, featuring flowing shapes and vivid, jewel colours

In this way, it’s clear that the styles of the 1900s and 1910s were beginning to pave the way for the bold flapper fashions which would soon follow in the 1920s.

The pictures in this post all come via my trusty Edwardiana Pinterest board (click the image for the source) where you can also find lots more pictures of Edwardian fashions. Stay tuned for some more fashion-themed posts to follow soon!

Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries

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