The Edwardian and Teen Eras
(Sadly Neglected Clothing Periods)
By Terry McCormick
In the back room of an antique shop I spotted a musty smelling heap of black plush. Upon closer inspection, I realized I had something wonderful in my hands: A cocoon shaped coat, with enormous fringed frogs under the arms, in the style of Poiret; and obviously pre-1920's. I've rarely seen one in the flesh, so to speak, let alone had the opportunity to own one; so, partially shredded lining, pervasive odor and all, I was thrilled. When I took it to the proprietor, and she said, "Oh, that Victorian cape. You can have it for $35.00." Now, to me, this was infinitely more exciting to me than yet another Victorian plush cape, there're zillions of them; but to many people in and around vintage clothing, the period from 1901 to 1920 doesn't even exist. There's Victorian and twenties, and everything pre-1920's is referred to as "Victorian." Worse, try telling someone that his/her "Victorian" garment is actually Edwardian or teens. You'd think you were insulting not only the garment, but casting aspersions on his mother! (This is not a mistake I make anymore.) Here is a sorry state of affairs! Clothing from 1900 -1920 is not only delightful in its own right, and deserves to be enjoyed for itself alone; but it is one of the most exciting times in the history of clothing. Besides, if your name is Shirley, how'd you like it if everyone called you "Ralph?"
There were actually two official periods between 1900 and 1920: the "Edwardian," usually designated as 1900 -1915 (although, sines Victoria died in 1901, and WWI started in 1914, a purist might quibble); and the "teens" or "WWI" era, from 1915 to 1920. Within the Edwardian period there were two fairly distinctive styles of clothing as well (1900 -1910). This 20 year period represents the advent of the motor car; radio, phonograph records, and movies; women's suffrage, education and professions; and a transition into modern clothing (not to mention modern life.)
Luckily for our purposes, it's still possible to find mail order catalogs, women's magazines, sewing patterns, and other dated contemporary materials to aid us in identifying clothing from this period. Don't ignore the research that's been done by others: the video Out of Africa, has a nice visual reference of clothing 1911 (approximately) to the mid-1920's (although a tad heavier on the jodhpurs and riding boots than most women routinely wore). Do pay attention not only to Meryl Streep's wardrobe, but the other women as well. The horse show scene marks the change from teens to 20's. A Room with a View is another movie with good costume research from this era.
THE EDWARDIANS: Some of you may race right out on December 31,1989, get rid of all your 1980's clothing, and replace it on January 1, 1990 with all new garb. This inspired attempt to become the "all new woman of the 90's" in one day could be thwarted by the stores. They'll still be carrying much the same sort of thing in January, 1990 as they did in December 1989 (or 1988, for that matter). And this in our fast paced, electronic communicating, times! At the turn of the last century such a thing was even less likely, even for the reasonably well off. The average income for a family in 1900 was $1,000 a year, and clothing was still primarily home made. However, some distinctive style changes began to take place shortly into the new century; fashion tending to prevail no matter what the conditions. By 1910 the clothes generally worn by women on the street were easily distinquishable from those of the "Victorian" period.
Health experts had been deploring the Victorian corset, which cinched the waist in an impossible hour glass shape; and finally succeeded in selling women on anew, longer, "health" corset which didn't compress the waist and ribcage. This corset began under the bust, extending over the hips, with a "more natural line." Not to be put off, the ladies of the time discovered that, by cinching in the waist as tighly as possible, they could push out their behinds, and thrust forward their busts, while keepingtheir waist and stomach flat; creating a whole new silhouette known as the "S curve." Also, of course, creating a corset at least as uncomfortable and unhealthy as the Victorian. The boned bodices of Victorian dresses didn't allow the top to poof up in a satisfactory manner; so a loose bodice, gathered into the waist and puffing out over the bosom came into vogue. Sometimes boning was used in the underbodice, sometimes not; but there was usually an underbodice. When you find a dress with such a top, it's likely Edwardian. Most dresses of this period continued to be in two pieces; with the exception of evening gowns. Skirts remained similar to the 1890's; full, but designed to fit smoothly over the stomach and behind. Sometimes a little enhancement was used to buffer up an insufficiently rounded derriere, in the form of pleating or gathers, or even a little padding, a' la the Edwardian version of Fredericks of Hollywood. Colors became lighter, and more pastels were used, although there was still plenty of black around.
Since the clothes of the early Edwardian period took their distinctive shape by Housing over the corset, it can be frustrating when faced, today with such a dress on a hanger. However, a big indicator is lace. Masses and masses of lace used as trimming, and even for entire dresses, is a very big clue that you've got an Edwardian dress on your hands; as opposed to a"Victorian." 1890's women's clothing was seldom trimmed with lace, and certainly not in profusion. The tailored costume was widely worn in the '90's, and more likely trims from this time were braid, niching, and drapes or pleats of self or contrasting fabric. One Edwardian garment that you read about in every costume book, but rarely ever find (largely because they were owned only by the wealthy few, and so far less common than we are led to believe) is the tea dress. It was an elaborate confection of lace and frills, cut a little looser so that it could be worn without corsets for dinners at home with the family.
The "Professional Beauties," or ladies of what we now know as La Belle Epoch, had a softening influence on early Edwardian fashions. The Professional Beauties were, one blushes to admit, women who were "no better than they should be." They were supported in a manner to which they were otherwise not accustomed, by wealthy and titled gentlemen in Europe during the end of the 1800's to early 1900's. They wore fabulous clothing, paid for by their admirers and designed by the leading coutouriers of the time (Worth being the most notable). As the old century ended and the new one began, the influence of the PB's began to seep into the wardrobes of ordinary women. Photographs and post cards showing the beauties in their gorgeous outfits, were sold as little fashion plates; and some of the beauties (Lily Langtry is the most famous example) took to the stage, minus acting, singing, or dancing ability; primarily to display beautiful clothing for the fashion hungry masses. These women influenced the trend toward a frillier, lacier, more romantic look. The play, The Merry Widow, 1907, starring Lily Elsie, introduced a style for enormous hats that lasted to WWI.
Then there was the "Gibson Girl," whose shirtwaist (blouse) and skirt influenced the clothing of millions of young women ready for a brand new look. This is one of the most important looks of the period 1900 -1920; and some version of the waist and skirt figured in women's wardrobes all during that time. Here's a description of how it felt to be a bright, modern young woman of the early 1900's:
"So now I was off to be married. What did I look like, that nineteen-year-old bride of the turning century? That depends on who's doing the telling... to myself, I modestly admit I seemed a pretty snappy number.
"Gibson Girls were the mode. Anything built on long, leggy le's-go lines, could qualify, I was. I did. My profile was supposed to be classic. Surveying those old photographs, candor compels me to confess that my silhouette resembled an amiable young carp, far more than the lady of Milo. But girls weren't supposed to have chins in 1903.
"What we lacked in chin, however, we usually made up in hair. Gobs and garlands of it... frizzed, looped, curled, puffed, braided.... piled into blowsy blonde or brunette mountains over wadded hor-rgrs called "rats." Starting thus, and proceeding in the order of their donning, I wore:
"A stout, ribbed cotton undershirt that rolled around the hips like a life preserver. Then, it still being winter in Vermont, under-drawers. And I mean underdrawers. No frivolous "scanties." Invincible garments that, at a pinch, could have served nicely for roofing.
"Black cotton stockings, likewise resembling corrugated iron in weight and texture. They came three pairs for a dollar. Three pairs lasted you six months. Then they had shrunk to fit your little sister. They were never known to wear out.
"But getting back to the boudoir, after the undershirt, underdrawers, stockings (already weighing at least five pounds) came a whale-boned corset, armored like a war tank, reaching from armpit nearly to the knee, to be laced until your tonsils cracked. I had a nineteen-inch waist. Where did I put my insides? You tell.
"Then, quickly, lest you be seen running around like a naked savage, more drawers. Cambric ones this time - big, balloony affairs, with enormous frilly flounces, and two sets of buttons so they wouldn't fall off.
"Shoes next - high, buttoned, scalloped tops. Corseted, you couldn't possibly bend to reach the buttons. You've wondered why Mother had a buttonhook with such yards of handle? That was why.
"Now, over the corset went a nice, long corset cover with, if necessary, many cold-starched ruffles to conceal nature's deficiency. Anything less than a busting size 38 was considered a deficiency. (Anything more? My gracious you're not tired already, are you? Why, we've hardly started. Now we come to the petticoats. And you might's well settle down and make yourself comfortable, for we're in for a good, long session.)
"First - it still being winter - the flannel or crocheted wool petticoat. Knee length. Embroidered scallops or crocheted in points. With a gathering string. And a tassel at the end of the gathering string. Next, the plain, white, cotton petticoat. Shin length. Ove this, another slightly fancier ruffled white petticoat, ankle length. Then the Best Petticoat of white cambric, incredibly flounced, ruffled, tucked, with miles of eyelet embroidery, valenciennes lace insertion and edging and baby ribbon run through beading.
"And now, at last, we can begin to get dressed!
"Over the undershirt and the corset and the ruffled corset cover, went a starched shirtwaist - balloon sleeves - neckband like a man's. Attached to the neckband, a three-inch starched man's linen collar. Wrapped round 'n' round this collar, completely covering it and anchored with a hard knot, went one and one-half yards of heavy,-satin ribbon, two inches wide. Holding the ribbon in front, a breast pin. Skewered doves or wreath or hearts of enameled forget-me-nots were most popular. Gold half-moons, supporting a pearl the size of a young boil were also considered nifty.
"Next, the skirt. And skirts were skirts in 1903, not mere sausage casings. Skirts were lined, and interlined .. stiffened with crinoline about the sweeping hem.. edged with brush braid.. entered through a placket and equipped with enless snaps, hooks, buttons, and other gadgets.
"Surmonting it all, secured to the scalp with ten ferocious inches of steel pin, there was a huge, almost crownless pancake of straw, backless but extending at least six inches beyond the nosiest nose. Balanced on the extreme front edge of this acre of hay, and, wobbling with every motion, was one chaste ornament .. a full-sized, stuffed bird with glass eyes... or arose the sizeof acauliflower .. or a generous mixture of both flora and fauna.
"At last the Gibson Girl was dressed! And this outfit was supposed to be the epitome of free, untrammeled costuming!" This description of the Edwardian young woman by Elsie Robinson, in / Wanted Out!, Farrar & Rinehart, 1934. (Thanks to Marian Posey Ploss, The Vintage Vanities for sharing it with us.)
Faced in 1989 with the individual pieces of this outfit, how would we date it? Dating a petticoat, or corset cover, for example, is a thankless task. The petticoats Elsie describes might have been worn decades earlier; and petticoats, drawers, and corset covers were worn into the early 1920's by many women (I have a 1919 catalogue showing a wool knit petticoat almost identical to the one she describes). However, when skirts became much trimmer, about 1910, petticoats followed suit; so one rule of thumb is that a petticoat cut so that it fits more closely to the body is likely from that date or later.
The waist (blouse) is an important Edwardian item. Realistically, a Victorian woman, however young and reckless, would have worn a more tailored costume than our spiffy, Edwardian, Elsie chose. The vast majority of the waists that we find, plain or decorated with lace and embroidery, black or white, silk or cotton, are Edwardian.
When we move into 1910-1915 the differences between Edwardian and Victorian clothing become pronounced. A bright young designer named Paul Poiret hit the fashion scene with slim, unstructured dresses designed to be worn by slender women ... with minimal underpinnings(!). It's important to note that Poiret's designed influenced fashion. Poiret was quite the media manipulator for his time; and most of us are familiar with the gorgeous fashion plates drawn by Bakst, Georges LePape, and Paul Iribe. However, just as few of us bedeck ourselves in the more extreme, but much photographed, versions of LaCroix, Gaultier, and Miyake; most women adapted the Poiret concept in stages.
The full flowing skirts evolved into slim and fairly straight ones; although they remained ankle length. Elaborate decoration of the bodice was still quite the fashion; and bosoms were definitely in. My Mandel Bros Spring and Summer catalogue describes a few of its dresses as having "The Gibson style bodice". Under these modern dresses could still be found the "S curve" corset; plus the petticoat, corset covers, and drawers of earlier days. Of course, there weren't so many petticoats, and they were cut in a straighter style over the hip (often, however, they flared into lacey cascades at the hem); but should a skirt peek above the ankle, a petticoat was safely in view. When people see the sheer lace or cotton batiste dresses and blouses from this period, they often ask "What on earth did they wear underneath?" The answer: Plenty!
Dresses and waists frequently had underbodices which fasten separately from the outer bodice, although they are rarely boned. Sometimes you'll encounter an extremely tight, ankle length skirt, with a long loose tunic or overbodice. This was known as the "hobble skirt;" and dates from about 1913 -14.
Suits were very popular, with long jackets below the hip, in single and double breasted styles. Full length coats were worn, summer and winter; and of course, the linen automobile duster, designed to be worn over everything, came into being.
One underwear item that caught on in a big way in this period is the combination, or all-in-one; a combination of corset cover and drawers, which helped cut down on bulk under the trimmer dresses. Nightgowns were much less bulky than their Victorian predecessors. Gone the long sleeves, collars, button plackets, and pleats; on with chemise shapes, with lace yokes and short sleeves.
In the United States ready-to-wear clothing was becoming commonplace. By 1916 women might buy as much as 1/3 of their wardrobes ready made; and it had been a fast growing source of clothes in this country since the first decade of the century. How-ever, home sewing and dressmakers still accounted for a large part of the clothing worn.
TEENS/WWI: 'Round about 1915 clothes began to change again, and quite dramatically (if you're getting your data straight from Paris, instead of the Woman's Home Companion, this change may show up earlier). Skirts rose above the ankles (don't get excited, they were still below mid-calf!) and were A-shaped; often with partial overskirts, side panels, or some other self-fabric ap-pendage. Tunics, suit jackets, and dresses are very loose and baggy; although there are usually belts or seams to indicate an approximation of the body underneath. Many times someone thinks that s/he 's found a maternity dress or suit jacket, only to have it turn out to be a perfectly normal garment from this era.
Beading began to appear as decoration on bodices and tunics in 1917-18. These beaded dresses were intended as "afternoon" dresses, and were not necessarily considered evening wear, al-though they might used for that purpose. The beaded georgette dress, modestly backed by a silk under garment, became popular in this period. Nearly all dresses had fairly complex under-bodices and skirts, with separate fastenings. For all that these dresses appear simple; getting into one requires time and attention! (I have a couple I wish had instruction sheets!) We often find sailor style collars, even on clothing that is made of silk or georgette. Common finds are georgette blouses, often very short waisted and decorated with embroidery; which were immensely popular in 1918 and 1919. Underwear remained essentially the same, although the corsets were looser, giving a more natural shape to the body, and finally fulfilling the intentions of the health advocates of 19 years earlier.
The middy blouse, worn with a simple skirt, was the Edwardian/teens version of our sweat suit. It was worn for very casual events: walks in the woods, along the beach, etc. Middies and bloomers adorned exercise classes and lady basket ball players.
Men's clothing during this time may be terribly disappointing to those who picture dandies in cut-a-ways or brocade vests. The reality is much less exciting. "Sack suits," with curved fronts, high lapels, and vests were standard at the turn of the century; but if you pop on a modern suit, dress shirt and tie, and some leather oxfords, you could appear in 1913 or 1919 and excite little comment. The shirt collar would be detachable, and shirts might be of linen or silk, as well as cotton. Shirt collars were high and stiff until WWI, when the "soft" collar became general. The snazzy dressers amongst you could put on some spats or a monocle, or even a full length fur coat for that look of substance. Certainly you'd have a selection of hats - bowler, soft felt fedora, derby, straw boater for summer casual, cloth cap for sports, possibly a topper. But, in the United States, men's clothing solidified early in the century into the uniform suit, shirt and tie, still worn 90 years later. (Some of the misconceptions about men's clothing in this period stem, from costume books; which are primarily English, and focus on the more extreme clo thing worn by wealthy dandies. This makes for more interesting reading, but not such good garment dating.)
A word about sources for this information. 100% of the illustrations, and most of the data is from periodicals, mail order catalogues, sewing pattern descriptions, sewing instructions, and illustrations contemporary to the period. For an overview of a period, or to enjoy the best and most beautiful designer clothes of the times, costume books are wonderful; but we're trying to date specific vintage garments, and for that they can be misleading. They tend to be based on high fashion, avant garde, and designer clothing of the periods; and most of the clothes we find are none of the above, so we need more down home references. (Are you wearing your Gaultier steel bustier, with cone shaped breasts, to the supermarket these days?) However, having warned my warning, here are some good books to read: The Guinness Guide to 20th Century Fashion, David Bond, 1988 reprint; History of Twentieth Century Fashion, Elizabeth Ewing, 1974 (still in print), Batsford; A Century of Style, Sandra Barwick, 1984 (may be out of print, but is delightful because it is about the women who led fashion); The Edwardians, Marion Sichel, Batsford Costume Reference series #7,1986 reprint; Costume in Detail, Nancy Sayer, 1975 reprint, Harrap & Co. (out of print, but find it, as it shows construction details of garments 1730 -1930); for accessory details, seek out the various volumes of the Batsford Costume Accessory Series, most are still in print. There are many more great references, but space prohibits listing them all. I've included these because I haven't mentioned them before, and this gives you new way s to spend your money! (Use the bookdealers on the Resource List to help you find these, and other, references.)
© Copyright 1989 - All Rights Reserved, Terry McCormick, Vintage Clothing Newsletter
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