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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.


‘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.


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.


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

Things Organized Neatly

Things ­Organized Neatly does exactly what is says on the tin: this strangely compelling photography blog collects and catalogues carefully ordered images. The brainchild of Indianapolis design student Austin Radcliffe, it sets out to document ‘things that have been laid out carefully, precisely, evenly; things on shelves, in vices; studio photography, diagrams and right angles’ – be they matchboxes, spoons, cake ingredients, or even bananas.

[All images from Things ­Organized Neatly]

lovely lula

I think I have a new favourite magazine – the beautiful Lula. Just look at some of these glorious page spreads from the latest issue (no. 8) which I have been happily browsing this afternoon:

Whilst I can see that its style may be a bit girly and whimsical for some tastes, I have to say that for me it is an utter treat to read a fashion-led magazine which isn’t entirely focussed on persuading readers they desperately need to buy this week’s “must have” item and should slavishly follow the latest celebrity trends. Even better, Lula includes a minimal number of advertisements, which are placed only at the start and end of the magazine, meaning that as a reader, you aren’t constantly bombarded – or worse, left wondering what is genuine editorial and what is marketing copy.

As the ever-wise Hadley Freeman points out, “contrary to popular belief, fashion magazines aren’t catalogues” and the great thing about Lula is it really doesn’t feel like one. Rather than being primarily about shopping, Lula is really all about inspirations, ideas and aesthetics. OK so I’ll admit there’s a “sleb” or two in there but at least they’re not the usual suspects – this is, after all, a magazine that eschews the apparently inevitable choice of Victoria Beckham as fashion icon du jour in favour of such alternative (and far more interesting) choices as Louise Bourgeois, Gertrude Stein, Diana Vreeland and Peggy Guggenheim amongst others. And there are some thoughtful, interesting articles as well as beautiful fashion shoots – because guess what? The two aren’t mutually exclusive! This issue, for example, brings together a feature on Edie Beale, a life-size dolls house installation by artist Heather Benning, short fictions by Rupert Friend and Louise Cork, and an interview with the incomporable Luella, as well as a whole treasure trove of lovely images to enjoy.

The only thing I would say is that the typography can get a bit annoying: the distinctive Lula font designed by Becky Smith and Pedro Cid Proenca looks cute for titles but becomes a bit unreadable when used for larger blocks of body text. But that aside – what better way than to spend a lazy Saturday reading Lula, drinking tea and eating ginger biscuits?

I’m now feeling inspired by… boater hats; grossgrain ribbons; birds and butterflies; tea parties; hats with veils; paper cut-outs; 1940s hair; anti-minimalism; giant Alice in Wonderland bows; doodles; latter-day Victoriana; cup cakes and cocktails; plaits; ephemera; Dalmatians; seamed stockings; misty old photographs; layering; eye-popping rainbow brights; and wearing socks with peep-toe shoes. Lovely!

free encouragement

I found another interesting web-based project recently, which seems very appropriate for my daily post of goodness. Booooooom! and Design for Mankind have joined forces to create Free encouragement, a project which is absolutely all about positivity and nice things. The idea behind the project is to counteract the negativity that we find “all around us these days… infesting the internet… taking over the big screen… showing up on your bank statement”.

The first part of the project, led by Booooooom!, has been the creation of an online ‘gallery of encouragement’ – anyone can submit their own personal encouraging messages to the project: “You can use this gallery to encourage a close friend or someone you just happened to pass by on the street. You can encourage a relative who may be ill or the girl who handed you your coffee this morning. You could even use this place to encourage yourself!” You can see the gallery here, which makes very entertaining reading. The images here are some of my personal favourites from the gallery.

The second half of the project, led by Design for Mankind, has not yet been announced – it’s veiled in mystery until it kicks off this Friday. I’m intrigued to see what will happen next, but there’s no doubt that it will certainly be cheerful.

I went back to work today. It was quite challenging, but I survived the day and made it home, despite the freezing cold, and nearly falling over on the ice about a hundred times on the short walk from the train station back to my house. Here are some other cheerful and lovely things from my day:

  • Frosty hedgerows and sunshine in the morning
  • Steak and kidney pudding, chips, gravy and peas for lunch (which really should have been on my ‘100 favourite things list I think) – greedy but good
  • This monkey
  • A forecast for 8 inches of snow tonight!