Friday, 9 March 2012

Historical Research - The Background

I think I may have decided to pin down my inspiration in the 1920s, give or take a few years either way - the 20s has always been one of my favourite decades.

That said, my research is covering a wider time span - from roughly 1910 to roughly 1950.  It should really be 1908, to 1947-48, really though.  1908 because that's when Paul Poiret introduced his 'directoire' look, which was what started to take fashion away from the frou-frou of the 'belle-epoque', and into more modern styles, and 1947-48 because, of course, that was when Dior unveiled his 'new look', which had a similar effect.   It's a long period, but not too long, and fortunately, I enjoy the fashion and social history...

I think the best way to look at things will be to address the issues that affected fashion in turn, rather than to try to do it year by year, but first, some background...

In the time running up to the period I want to look at, Britain (and half the world) was in flux - it was also a very different world from that in which we live today.
 There was no public health care, education was undergoing massive reforms (with the introduction of LEAs), life expectancy was not brilliant - a baby boy born in 1901 could expect to live to 45, and a girl to 49 - around 63% of people died before they were 60 (now it's 12%) - and the infant mortality rate was around 14% (now it's under 1%).

The British Empire was still in full bloom - although its days were numbered, and rebellions and uprisings were becoming more and more common, as subjects in the assorted countries decided they wanted independance, and freedom from their foreign rulers (the one often cited as the first being the Indian Mutiny / Indian Rebellion of 1857 (in reality, of course, it was far from the first) ).
Britain was the wealthiest country in the world, thanks to her overseas territories, and the trade expansions (the driver behind the empire - largely thanks to the East India Company) and the British Empire was the largest in the world.  By the early 20s, the British Empire was the largest empire the world had ever seen, covering nearly a quarter of the world's land mass, and around one fifth of the world's population.  It was said that 'the sun never set' on the British Empire, because it would always be daylight somewhere in the empire.

The Boer War had ended, with huge losses to the British, there had been a revolution (albeit a failed one) in Russia, and social unrest was spreading - industrial action and labour movements were taking hold all over Europe and the US.

It wasn't all bad though.   Unionisation was expanding rapidly in the industrialised towns (and gaining massive improvements in the conditions of ordinary people - paid holiday being just one example).  The crime rate was much lower than today.  Motor cars, aircraft, and cinema had arrived, although they were still novelties.

Women were pushing for freedom from the Victorian legal shackles that they were still largely in, and were beginning to fight to be treated as equals to men, rather than as children.  The Women's Social and Political Union, the suffragette organisation of Emmeline Pankhurst had been founded in 1903, because earlier campaigning for women's suffrage had failed for the entire previous century (Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her 'Vindication of the Rights of Woman' in 1792) .  In 1910, their campaigning was still peaceful, but that was about to change.

In art, changes were also happening - art nouveau and the arts and crafts movements were coming to their natural ends, to be supplanted by other artistic styles.

In fashion and clothing - there was corsetry - tighter and tighter lacing (girls started training at around 12 years), and 's-bend' corsetry that threw the wearer off balance.  It was designed to be healthier to wear, because it put less pressure on the stomach, due to a long rigid 'spoon' busk, but the unnatural posture it created (hips thrust far back) could cause spinal problems.  Women weren't unused to this type of health problem - there had been internal injuries caused by too-tight and ill fitting corsetry for decades (uterine prolapse being one of the scariest to contemplate - and it wasn't correctable - you just had to live with it).

The S-bend corset shape.

 A Gibson Girl

Other than that, there were layers and layers of petticoats, and skirts, and underwear.  It was not unusual for skirts of the well to do to contain 10 yards of fabric (and similar amounts in the petticoats). Women frequently suffered 'the vapours', but it probably had as much to do with over heating due to the layers, as tight corsetry.

Miss Carol McComas, an Edwardian actress, in the height of belle epoque fripperie, with oodles of lace trimmings.

A tea gown of c. 1900, dripping with beads, sequins, silver couched embroidery, turquoise stones, and lace.

Vera Britten, at school in 1911, described her uniform thus: "...woollen combinations, black cashmere stockings, 'liberty' bodice, dark stockinette knickers, flannel petticoat and often, in addition, a long sleeved, high-necked, knitted woollen 'spencer'.
"At school, on the top of this conglomoration of drapery, we wore green flannel blouses in the winter and white flannel blouses in the summer, with long navy blue skirts..."
"For cricket and tennis matches, even in the baking summer of 1911, we still wore the flowing skirts and high-necked blouses..."

Hats had to be worn out of doors.  To go hatless was a sign of someone 'no better than she ought to be'.

For poorer women, things were different, but not easier.  The long skirts and the necessity for the hat were the same.   Contemporary writings and photographs show that all but the very, very poorest women wore corsets.  For most poorer women, they'd be homemade, and badly fitting.  They'd probably also be remodelled and repaired as many times as possible (there is an extant Victorian piece in the Symmington Collection that shows evidence of many repairs).

It was no different for their other clothes.  Working class women were found to be the worst off in the family.  "The men go to work and must be supplied, the children must be decent at school, but the mother has no need to appear in the light of day.  If very badly equipped, she can shop in the evening in the walk, and no one will notice under her jacket and rather long skirt what she is wearing on her feet.  Most of them have a hat, a jacket and a 'best' skirt to wear in the street..."  These women did not have fashion.  They were lucky if they had more than one set of clothing and bedding (it was not uncommon for them to have only one of everything, meaning, of course, that they didn't have the spare set necessary to allow one to be worn and one washed).

A working class woman in a Glasgow slum, c.1910.
(Glasgow City Archives)

Trousers were out of the question for the 'respectable' woman.  Dress reformers, proponents of 'aesthetic' dress, and especially female cyclists were in favour of outfits involving trousers, but they never really caught on, mainly because they scandalised the males of the population (and those females who did not see the need for ease of movement).  Amelia Bloomer is credited with the introduction of bifurcated garments for women - she wore a knee length or so skirt over trousers - although she herself dropped the idea.  In reality, the outfit that she 'designed' was merely a civilian form of outfits that were actually being worn (and accepted being worn) by European 'vivandieres' during the French 2nd Empire.

 Mrs Bloomer's outfit

A French Cantiniere

Times were changing, though.  By 1900 'eccentrics' were tolerated in trousers (or, to be more accurate, breeches).  The Rational Dress Society  argued for them, and Vicountess Harberton campaigned for them for more than twenty years - and was happy to be seen in public in them.

Vicountess Harberton

The trouser issue was also different for some working women.  'Pit girls' in Wigan regularly wore full men's dress - rough trousers and shirts - for their own safety.  They were scorned at, derided, and denounced for being indecent, but they continued to dress in the way they thought best for their daily activities.

Wigan Pit Brow Girls

Hair for all women was LONG.  Women seldom cut their hair (there are examples of women having their hair cut to sell it, if it was good, or because they were ill, because the hair was thought to sap the strength of an invalid, but these are not the norm).  In the book, 'Anne of Green Gables', based by LM Montgomery on her Victorian / Edwardian childhood on Prince Edward Island, Anne is made fun of when she has to have her hair cut as the result of a failed dye experiment (her hair turned green).
Poorer women coiled their hair up in to tight buns to keep it out of the way - wealthier women had elaborate draped hair styles, often with extra padded rolls hidden under the hair to create the huge effect.  In consequence, fashionable hats were large.  Big brims, and oversized crowns were the fashionable look around 1910.

Hopefully, that covers the background enough to give the general idea.  If anybody reading this has any questions, or thinks I've missed something, feel free to leave a comment, or e-mail me.

Statistics taken from 'RESEARCH PAPER 99/111, 21 DECEMBER 1999, A Century of Change: Trends in UK Statistics Since 1900'.
Quotes from 'Through the Looking Glass: A History of Dress from 1860 to the Present Day'

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