Edwardian fashion refers to the clothing that was in style between the late 1890s and 1914 or the beginning of the Great War (World War I). Also called La Belle Epoque (the Beautiful Era), and the Gilded Age, this was a time when women's fashions took on a new opulence and extravagance, inspired by the hedonistic lifestyle of Britain's King Edward VII.
The design trends of the Edwardian era revolved around the S curve when corsets created an S-shaped female silhouette, a change from the Victorian hourglass figure.
The S bend corset forced the hips back and bust forward. The ideal female figure was a mature woman with a pigeon shaped monobosom.
Hallmarks of Edwardian Style
- An elegant, mature look pervaded women's fashion
- The S-shaped silhouette prevailed
- Lace and ruffles returned to women's garments
- Tailored suits remained popular
- Bloused bodice added a puff over the waistline
King Edward VII
After the death of the highly influential Queen Victoria in 1901, her son Edward rose to the throne. Edward VII had, until recently, the distinction of being the longest-serving Prince of Wales (59 years) and spent much of his attention on his lavish lifestyle. Edward is rumored to have had 55 love affairs, including romantic liaisons with famous actresses Lillie Langtry and Sarah Bernhardt.
The British royal family were the trendsetters of the day. British high society reigned as the cultural elite and Edward's extravagance ruled fashion and set the tone for behavior and fashion. Middle-class women looked up to the elite for inspiration and hoped to emulate their 'betters.'
The Influence of the Industrial Revolution on Ladies' Fashion
By the late 1890s, the Industrial Revolution had created new technologies that changed the way people lived. The growth of factories spawned a large middle class as large corporations generated new wealth and an upwardly mobile middle class.
Sewing machines enabled the production of ready-made clothing and made it easier for women to sew their own clothes.
Increased literacy in the new middle class gave women access to information.
The inventions of the typewriter, telephone, and telegraph offered women increased employment opportunities when previously, women's jobs were restricted to domestic servitude or factory work.
Despite the fact that a large majority of working women labored long hours for low pay in dimly lit, poorly ventilated factories and mills, a new kind of woman was beginning to emerge. The new women of the early 1900s were educated and informed, with an interest in politics and social causes.
The opposing concepts of an educated middle-class woman who was active and outgoing contrasted with the urge toward luxury and hedonism to create the culture we call Edwardian.
Edwardian Fashion Icons
All fashion eras have their archetypes. Edwardian trendsetters included the Gibson Girl and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
The Gibson Girl was a fictitious, unnamed character portrayed in the illustrations of Charles Dana Gibson, who created what would become the feminine ideal for 20 years.
The Gibson Girl was shown as youthful and strong, fun-loving, yet sophisticated. She was tall and slender with a long neck, ample bust and hips, and a small waist. Her upswept bouffant hairdo was all the rage, and her aristocratic bearing inspired young women everywhere. The Gibson Girl was smart and independent, charming, and intelligent but was never shown to be political or interested in social causes.
The Gibson Girl became a merchandising bonanza. Her face and form were depicted on trays, prints, pillowcases, souvenirs, and ashtrays.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the eldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, was a high-profile society figure in the USA. Beautiful and outspoken, Alice rode in cars with men, smoked, and kept a pet snake. The song "Alice Blue Gown" referred to the popular shade called Alice Blue named after her eyes: light blue with a hint of gray.
Her father, the President of the United States once said, "Either I can run the country or tend to Alice but I can't possibly do both."
A New Century, New Fashion Trends in Skirts and Dresses
As the century changed, so changed clothing design trends. Gone was the bustle (a pad at the rear end) and heavy fabrics of the previous century. A new, lighthearted concept overtook women's fashions along with a sentiment of eternal summer with dresses made of lightweight fabrics for a more active lifestyle.
- The 2-piece dress came into vogue. Skirts hung tight at the hips and flared at the hem, creating a trumpet or lily-like shape.
- Skirts in 1901 had decorated hems with ruffles of fabric and lace.
- Some dresses and skirts featured trains.
- Tailored jackets, first introduced in 1880, increased in popularity, and by 1900, tailored suits became hugely popular.
- By 1904, skirts became fuller and less clingy.
- In 1905, skirts fell in soft folds that curved in, then flared out near the hemlines.
- From 1905 to 1907, waistlines rose.
- In 1910, the hobble skirt was introduced: a tight-fitting skirt that restricted a woman's stride.
- Lingerie dresses, or tea gowns made of soft fabrics, festooned with ruffles and lace were worn indoors.
Edwardian Blouses and Bodices
The blouses and bodices of the Edwardian period were embellished with pieces of lace and beadwork, and lines of ruffles.
- In the late 1890s, bodices were bloused at the front creating a pouched effect. Corsets gave women a monobosom—the corset did not divide the bust but rendered a pigeon-like look.
- By 1904, blousing spread to the sides of the bodice.
- Blouses, or bodices, featured high necks in light fabrics or lace.
- Evening wear bodices showed more skin with sweetheart, round, or square necklines.
- Early Edwardian sleeves fit tightly at the top of the arm, filled toward the lower end, and gathered into a tight cuff.
- 1900–1905 Edwardian fashion trended toward open end pagoda sleeves.
- By 1905, fullness at the wrist was gone, and sleeves were wide and full at the top.
- Sleeves stayed full at the top through 1909. They narrowed below the elbow and fit snuggly at the wrist in a style often called Leg of Mutton.
- In 1910, the kimono sleeve was open, loose, and comfortable.
Edwardian Shoes, Boots, and Hats
Shoes and Boots
The lace-up boots of the late 1800s continued on into Edwardian footwear.
- Better shoes and boots were made of sealskin and were thin, durable, and nearly waterproof. Expensive sealskin was thin, comfortable, and insulating for both hot and cold weather.
- Lesser-priced shoes and boots made of tooled Moroccan leather were stiff, hot, and heavy.
- Kid boots and shoes were lesser quality footwear that did not maintain their shape.
- The Great War created a leather shortage and saw the introduction of cloth-topped shoes and boots, functional footwear that appeared mostly in black.
Wide-brimmed hats were trimmed in feathers that often extended beyond the hat brim. By 1911, smaller hats still used a lot of feathers taken from the breeding plumage of wading birds created in factories called Plumassiers.
When the Audubon Society informed the public of the dire threat to the American bird population and the decline of wading birds due to the heavy demand for feathers, women responded in shock. Commerce in feathers ceased abruptly, leaving warehouses full of feathers. Some of these factories and warehouses caught fire and burned when unscrupulous businessmen sought to recoup losses through insurance.
Influential Edwardian Fashion Designer Paul Poiret
Ladies' Edwardian fashion was greatly influenced by the designer Paul Poiret, known as the creator of modern clothing shapes and designs. His clothing designs were inspired by art, including classicism, Orientalism, and Art Nouveau. Poiret's comfortable styles freed women from the constriction of corsets and relied on draping for a feminine effect.
In 1908, he introduced the straight tube sheath dress. Women abandoned the S corset for longer, straighter corsets. His styles based on traditional costumes of the Middle East became popular after the Ballet Russes performed Scheherazade in Paris in 1910. Fashion concepts included designs based on harem wear in bright colors with beaded embellishment. The lampshade tunic came into vogue toward the end of Edwardian times as did the Directoire style of 1912 (as pictured at the top of this article), which featured a high waist that accentuated a long, slim figure.
Turbans and jeweled slippers were a feature of Orientalism and a new exotic style of dress for Edwardian women.
But, the Great War (World War I) put an end to extravagant trends as the world turned to a war economy with shortages of fabric and leather, and the more austere fashions usually dictated by the privations of war.
We often think of the Edwardians as being stiff and formal. Not quite so—check out this hilarious video below.
For Further Reading
Edwardian Fashion by Daniel Milford-Cottam
Edwardian England A Guide to Everyday Life 1900 - 1914 by Evangeline Holland
Edwardian Fashion by Pauline Stephenson
The House of Worth: Portrait of An Archive 1890 - 1914 by Amy De La Haye and Victoria D. Mendes
Edwardian Fashions : A Snapshot in Time From Harper's Bazar 1906 by Kristina Seleshanko
Questions & Answers
Question: I am building an Edwardian period model railway. Could you please suggest colors for the clothing of these figures?
Answer: The colors used for Edwardian clothing will differ according to the season, the occasion, time of day, etc. Take a look at fashion plates of the period, concentrating on the types of clothing your figures are wearing. Are the figures at the station? Then you want to look at traveling clothes. If they are shown walking down another street, look for walking or afternoon clothes.
Question: Is the Belle Epoque also known as the Edwardian era?
Answer: The Edwardian era corresponds to the reign of England's King Edward VII that is from 1901 - 1910. La Belle Epoque refers to the time between 1871 - 1914. So the Edwardian era falls within La Belle Epoque, also called the Gilded Age. During that period the western world was filled with optimism. The western world was at peace and prosperity reigned. This period saw the invention and use of the telephone, electric lights, neon lights, early moving pictures, medical advances like the understanding of germs and how they worked. Great changes came to the art world as well as new innovative styles were introduced in music, dance, and in the fine and decorative arts.
Of course, the Gilded Age did not do much for the working poor. Labor was cheap, and workers toiled and lived in terrible conditions. Toward the end of the era, the social justice movement fought for the rights of workers, the right for women to vote, child labor laws, and compulsory education.
© 2010 Dolores Monet
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on January 14, 2019:
You can try several types of sources. Look at fashion histories or encylopedias that encompass a longer period of time, but zero in on your time period.
Contact a university or a museum who may have available resources or may be able to recommend some. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a huge collection and maintains an archive pertaining to historic fashion and textiles.
You may also want to just check around using a variety of key words. For instance, I found a book called "Life Below Stairs True Lives of Edwardian Servants" by Alison Maloney. Also "Pocket Guide to Edwardian England" by Evangeline Holland. You may also read more general books about the time period like "The Edwardians" by Paul Thompson. Many books about the period offer information on how working people lived and dressed.
When you say you have a school project, I am not sure what you mean. The information that you seek will differ depending on your level. Don't be afraid to ask your instructor for sources. You can also ask a librarian to help you. Good luck!
Ben on January 08, 2019:
Hello, I am trying to do a school project on British Clothing During from 1901-1910 of the Edwardian era. It is a lot of information that I need but I can't seem to find any specific information. If you could point me in the direction where I could find info on Lower Middle Class Men's British Edwardian Era clothing, that would be great. Thanks!
Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on January 30, 2018:
Hi Margaret - despite the idea that hemlines were cut in stone, women wore various lengths throughout the 20th century. Remember that older women often cling to the hemlines of youth. Why don't you Google image the time you think this photo represents and see what the ladies of the day are wearing. Look at the cut and style, sleeves, neckline, width of skirt, etc. Also check out hair and background. I have seen improperly dated photos in books! This sounds like a fun project.
Margaret on January 29, 2018:
Hello, I am trying to date an old family photo by the fashions/hairstyles to help me identify the people in it. One woman in the background is wearing a dress that is about at her ankles, not to the ground. Am I correct that this would date it about 1910 or so? Love this page!