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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

Behind the Scenes: The Edwardian Country House Party

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Illustration by Karl James Mountford, from The Midnight Peacock

One of the first things most of us think of when we think of the Edwardians is the grand country house. It appears everywhere from Downton Abbey to The Go-Between, not to mention in dozens of mysteries, romances and ghost stories. The period from 1861 – 1914 is generally considered to have been the ‘golden age’ of the English country house – and the country house party in particular was a mainstay of upper-class Edwardian social life.

Entertaining was a mark of status for well-off Edwardians. For the Edwardian gentry, their country estate was a place to display their wealth, power and refined taste via their art collections and elegant furniture, their sumptuous grounds, their army of servants, and the lavish food and drink at their table. Hosting a country house party would allow them to showcase all this to their peers.

Sometimes lasting weeks at a time, but more often from Saturday until Monday (literally referred to as ‘Saturday-to-Monday’ – as we’ve learned from the Countess of Grantham, the word ‘weekend’ was considered rather vulgar) country house parties most often took place during August and September.

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Up to 20 or 30 people would typically be invited, each of whom might bring their own servants with them (perhaps a maid or a valet, and possibly a chauffeur) as well as a large quantity of luggage. An Edwardian lady would not want to wear the same outfit twice during her stay, and with different clothes typically expected at breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, a three-day visit could require as many as fifteen different ensembles!

Gentlemen of the party would spend their days shooting, while the ladies wrote letters, read, strolled in the gardens or perhaps took part in outdoor activities like riding, croquet or lawn tennis.

Food was of course a most important aspect of any Edwardian house party! The day would begin with a vast breakfast spread, featuring fruit, eggs, toast, muffins, rolls, bacon, ham, kidneys, pies, haddock, kedgeree, tea, coffee, cocoa and  more – though the ladies of the party might well take their breakfast in bed. As well as a generous luncheon, there would be afternoon tea in the drawing room, and in the evening the party would gather for a sumptuous dinner.

After dinner the ladies would typically retire to the drawing room, leaving the gentlemen to enjoy their port and cigars before rejoining the ladies for an evening of music, dancing or card games like bridge or baccarat (the latter was actually illegal at the time, but like Leo’s brother Vincent in The Midnight Peacock, many people in Edwardian high society enjoyed scandalous gambling!)

As well as being an opportunity for socialising, country house parties could offer a chance for matches to be made. Young ladies who had not found a  husband during the Season might have the opportunity to meet and get to know a suitable young man, often of their parents’ choosing. (That’s exactly what Veronica Whitley’s parents have in mind in The Midnight Peacock – but things don’t quite go to plan…)

In the world of the Sinclair’s Mysteries, we’ve already had a peep inside a grand Edwardian country house in The Painted Dragon – Leo’s family home, Winter Hall. In the final book, The Midnight Peacock, I wanted to take us back to Winter Hall, and allow Sophie and Lil to experience the world of a high society Edwardian house party, with all its complex rules and traditions. Here, it’s a Christmas house party, complete with ice-skating, snowy walks, and a Christmas party for the children of the estate. But amongst all the festivities, there’s a mystery afoot – and Sophie and Lil soon discover that Winter Hall is hiding a sinister and spooky secret…

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

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Behind the Scenes: Being an Edwardian Servant

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Edwardian maids, 1907

In the Sinclair’s Mysteries I’ve enjoyed exploring what life was like in the Edwardian era for children and teenagers from different backgrounds. Unless they were from a wealthy family, most children in the 1900s would leave school when they were 13 or 14 years old, and would be expected to go out and work for a living. Many would take on apprenticeships; they might find work in a shop, like Sophie in The Clockwork Sparrow; or they might become a clerk, as Billy does in The Jewelled Moth. The less fortunate might end up working long hours in a factory, like the children Billy and Joe meet in The Midnight Peacock; or some, like Joe in The Clockwork Sparrow, might struggle to find work at all.

But one of the most common routes into employment at the time was to ‘go into service’ – in other words, to become a domestic servant. In 1911, 800,000 families in Britain employed their own domestic staff. For many of these, this would be a single servant (sometimes called ‘a maid of all work’) – often a girl in her early teens who dealt with all the domestic work single-handed. In the days before the labour-saving devices we take for granted today (washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers… the list is endless) this often meant an incredible amount of work.

For very wealthy families living in grand houses, however, it was usual to employ a large staff, all of whom would live on the premises in the ‘servants’ quarters’. This could include kitchenmaids, a cook, housemaids, footmen, nursemaids to look after the children, lady’s maids, valets, chauffeurs, and of course the all-important butler and housekeeper – the most senior and important members of staff, who were responsible for the other servants. In very large houses the staff might also include more obscure positions such as: the ‘odd man’, who was responsible for tasks like carrying luggage; the ‘still room maids’ who  worked in the still room making jam, preserves and soap or brewing beer;  the ‘lamp-and-candle boy’ whose specific responsibility was filling lamps and tending to candles (at Longleat in 1915, where there was no electric light, a lamp boy had to collect, clean, trim and fill 400 lamps a day) or even the ‘gong man’ whose main duty was ringing the gong three times a day to signal mealtimes!

A grand country house like Winter Hall could have a huge number of servants: at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, the Duke of Portland maintained an entourage of 90 indoor servants. Even when there were a smaller number of staff, guests arriving for a country house party might well bring their own servants with them, such as a lady’s maid, valet or chauffeur. The Duke of Devonshire found 200 servants the bare minimum to look after a house party of 50.

Servants' bells in the Bell Chamber at Dunster Castle, Somerset.

©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

It sounds extraordinary now, but the Edwardian upper classes were so used to being looked after by their servants that they were sometimes incapable of doing quite simple tasks for themselves. They might ring the bell for a footman to do something as straightforward as poking a fire. Famously Lord Curzon was so baffled by the challenge of opening a window in the bedroom of the country house in which he was staying (no servants being available late at night) that he smashed the glass!

Traditionally servants at a big house would start young, at about 13 years old. Life in a country house could be tough: these young servants worked long hours doing hard physical work, and (like Sarah the scullery maid in in The Midnight Peacock) they would often feel homesick at first, living away from family and friends. But being in service was considered a good, secure job, offering the opportunity to climb the ladder. Starting out as a footman or housemaid, a young servant might aspire to one day achieve a prestigious position as a butler or housekeeper, where they would be afforded special privileges such as having their own private sitting-rooms, and might even be waited on themselves by the more junior servants.

In The Midnight Peacock we meet Tilly, a young under-housemaid at grand country house Winter Hall, (which readers of The Painted Dragon may remember is Leo Fitzgerald’s family home). Tilly has grown up ‘below stairs’ at Winter Hall, and the servants’ quarters are her home. Cook, who has brought her up, hopes that she will one day rise to the important position of lady’s maid – but Tilly herself has very different dreams. In this way, Tilly anticipates the changes that were already on the horizon at the end of the Edwardian era. The First World War would bring about disruption to traditions, and the old ‘upstairs, downstairs’ world would soon be gone for good…

If you’re interested in reading more about the life of servants during the Edwardian era and beyond, I’d heartily recommend Lucy Lethbridge’s fascinating book Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th Century Britain. There are also lots of children’s books featuring servants in the 19th and early 20th centuries: try The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson, Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfeild, Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee, Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett to name just a few.

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 the Edwardian era.

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

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Behind the Scenes: Exploring London with the Sinclair’s Mysteries Map!

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London map, 1900

When I started writing The Clockwork Sparrow, I knew that London was going to be a hugely important part of the Sinclair’s Mysteries. I started writing the first book not long after moving to London, and I wanted to take inspiration from my own experiences of living in the city, as well as the real history of London in the 1900s, and weave this into the world of the books.

I’ve spent lots of time walking around London, exploring everywhere from the glitzy shops, restaurants and theatres of the West End (including of course, the department stores that helped inspire Sinclair‘s) to the former docklands of the East, which plays such an important part in The Jewelled Moth. I’ve wandered the streets of Bloomsbury, where art school the Spencer Institute appears in The Painted Dragon, and the twisty streets of the City, where mysterious gentlemen’s club Wyvern House can be found. I’ve enjoyed spotting all kinds of traces of the old Edwardian city which still exist in the fabric of modern-day London – from the intriguing ‘ghost signs’ that you can still see on some old buildings, to 1900s lamp-posts, and even pubs like the Lady Ottoline, named for Edwardian society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell.

I’ve looked at  maps,  photographs, and even travel-guides to London from the 1900s. I wanted to be able to imagine as vividly as I could what it might have felt like for my characters, as they walked around London’s streets over 100 years ago. And although most of the places in the books are fictional, they are very much inspired by the real places and spaces of the city that I’ve explored and found out about.

With this in mind, I’ve created a new interactive map, with lots more about the real life places that inspired some of the most important locations in the Sinclair’s Mysteries. You can read more about it over on the Egmont blog – or click on a pin to start exploring the map.

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

The Jewelled Moth and The Moonstone

51w7HtA8f9LI wrote the original version of this post when The Jewelled Moth was first published, for the fab YA Yeah Yeah’s ‘Classics’ series. Since a few people have asked recently about the relationship between The Jewelled Moth and The Moonstone, I thought I’d put a few thoughts here too!

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, is often considered to be the first real detective novel written in English. It’s a captivating read – the story of a mysterious (perhaps cursed) diamond stolen from an English country house in strange circumstances. Crime writer Dorothy Sayers called it ‘probably the finest detective story ever written’ and TS Eliot went as far as to say that the detective genre was ‘invented’ by Wilkie Collins. It’s inspired many crime writers including PD James, and it features a lot of the elements that we expect from a classic detective tale – from the English country house setting, to its world-weary detective Sergeant Cuff, to its exciting, twisty plot.

However, whilst it might be a thrilling read, The Moonstone is also very much a product of its times. At the very start of the story, against the backdrop of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, a British soldier steals a priceless diamond – the Moonstone – from an Indian temple. A few years later, he leaves the diamond to his niece, Miss Rachel Verinder as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. But as soon as the Moonstone arrives at her country home, Rachel, her family, and their guests all become aware of the threatening presence of a group of Indians on the trail of their long-lost jewel, who (we are told) will stop at nothing to get their sacred diamond back.

Over the course of the story, the diamond is stolen; a famous detective is called in to solve the case and return Miss Verinder’s diamond; and a whole cast of characters find themselves drawn into the mystery. Yet no one ever seems to point out the obvious: that the British soldier was the original thief, and it is in fact the Indians and not Miss Verinder who are the true owners of the Moonstone.

One of the things I love about The Moonstone is that it’s told in a range of different voices – from that of the Verinder’s old and trusted servant, Gabriel Betteredge, to evangelical busybody Miss Clack. However, the Indian characters are never allowed to relate their versions of events: they appear only through the narratives of the white British characters who encounter them. They have no names, they never speak for themselves, and we know little about them – we are only told they are mystical and exotic, as well as potentially sinister and dangerous. Spoiler alert (highlight to read!): although the Indians do eventually reclaim their diamond, and return it home  for a contemporary reader, the imperialistic overtones of the story are impossible to miss.

With The Jewelled Moth, I wanted to have a go at writing my own tribute to The Moonstone – putting a different spin on this classic story. But as well as having fun writing about my own mysterious cursed jewel, I wanted to explore what the story might be like if it was told from a different point of view.  How would it feel to have your most important and valuable possession stolen from you – and what might happen if you had the opportunity to try and get it back?

That’s exactly the position of Mei Lim in The Jewelled Moth. Mei has grown up in her family grocer’s shop in London’s Edwardian Chinatown, hearing her Chinese grandfather’s old tales of the Moonbeam Diamond – a precious gem that was once the pride of the temple in the village in China where he grew up. The diamond brought the Lim family prosperity and luck, until it was stolen by a visitor to their village – a treacherous British gentleman. Years later, her family believe the diamond is long gone, but when Mei spots a picture of an elegant young society girl wearing it in a London newspaper, she knows she must seize this chance to try and return it to its rightful home.

Even though it’s a very different story, which explores some very different elements of history, I had a lot of fun paying tribute to The Moonstone in The Jewelled Moth. If you’re a fan of classic detective fiction, you might spot one or two of those references and hints (and for those who have asked whether new store manager Mr Betteredge is named after Gabriel Betteredge – he absolutely is!) I’ve joked that the book could be described as ‘The Moonstone for kids’ but as well as being an exciting detective tale that I hope will keep readers turning the pages, it’s also an attempt to tell a different kind of detective story – and to hear from some of the voices that are so often missing from Victorian and Edwardian literature.

Read more about The Jewelled Moth and the historical inspirations for the book.

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