The period between 1901-1910 is often called the Edwardian Era after Queen Victoria's successor, King Edward VII. Sophisticates and the French also refer to this time as La Belle Epoque, or "Beautiful Age," as there was a definite leaning toward classical aesthetics. It was an era of beautiful clothes and the peak of luxury living for a select few: the very rich and the very privileged through birth.
In retrospect we can see it is an era very separate from the 20th century despite belonging at its start. The attitudes and lifestyles of two decades were swept away by war and because the war was so huge in its impact, a new socialism and sense of personal identity was born. The masses started to reject the concept of privilege as the reason for a better life. Clothes worn after 1915 could probably be worn today in certain circumstances, but clothes before then are more in tune with the elaborate clothes of 1770 and would only be seen today at a costumed event or as bridal wear.
Paris was the absolute mecca of the fashion world, Picasso was in his blue and pink period, the Wright brothers were making aviation history, and San Francisco was devastated by an earthquake in 1906. Photography reached a heyday and the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery (1903) was released.
By 1900 tailored and tailor made suits were firmly established. Women entering a changing, more commercial workplace found it a useful all purpose outfit. Men objected to the tailor made female suit as they saw it representing a challenge to their authority. Women seemed to be making a clear statement that they deserved and wanted more independence in the future. The tailor made was called a costume or a suit and made of wool or serge. Middle and upper class women wore them with shirtwaist blouses. Looser, and less fitted versions of a simple suit had been available for informal wear since 1850. But the tailored suit as we know it was first introduced in the 1880s by the Houses of Redfern and Creed. Initially only the jacket was tailored and it was worn with a draped bustle skirt. Until 1910 the gored skirt also looked more tailored and matched the jacket style which followed the changing silhouette of the time. These gored skirts created an elongated trumpet bell shape. Modified versions were less extreme over the hips, simply flowing to more width at the hemline. Tailor mades were described as ideal for travelling by all in the know. Within a decade they became much more versatile with a distinction being made between the different type of cloth used. Lighter cloths were used in tailor made outfits suitable for weddings; heavier tweeds and rougher serge was used for everyday or country wear suits.
Traveling suits were also necessary since motor cars had come into vogue and those who could afford them purchased them and spent many a weekend day traveling about the countryside, both in the United States and abroad. Since these cars were usually open, they created dusty and dirty atmospheres as country roads were often unpaved. Along with the ladies' traveling suits, loose topcoats in leather were worn, or special motoring coats from Burberry or Aquascutum. These also acted as protection from the weather and cold. Oil blasts could be a problem so women also wore thick face veils with their hats and even goggles.
During this time it was still the norm to make dresses in two pieces. The bodice was heavily boned and was almost like a mini corset itself worn over the mandatory S-bend corset. A top bodice was usually mounted onto a lightly boned under bodice lining which fastened up with hooks and eyes very snugly. It acted as a stay garment giving extra stability, contour and directional shape beneath the delicate top fabric. By 1905 press fasteners were used in Britain to hold the bodice or blouse to a skirt, but America had dress fasteners as early as 1901. Very deep high lace fabric collars that reached right under the chin elongated the neck. They were often kept in place with wire covered in silk that was twisted into a series of hooks and eyes from one piece of wire. Little wire or boning supports covered with buttonhole silk were sometimes dispersed every few inches of the collar to maintain the rigid effect. High necks were usual by day, but by night exceptionally low sweetheart, square and round décolleté necklines allowed women to wear quantities of fine jewelry. No cleavage was visible as the bust was suppressed into a tight monobosom. Washable kid gloves were always worn with outdoor garments both in the winter and the summer. Fancy gloves were also made in suede and silk and covered with fine embroidery.
Early in the decade, with all the fussing about with the top portion of the female body people developed a preference for narrow feet, which was believed to be a sign of breeding and gentility. Both men and women regularly wore shoes that were a full size too small. Some women even opted to have their little toes removed to achieve narrower feet! Day shoes were typically boots. Evening shoes were more diverse, with the popular style for women a court shoe with a small, Louis heel. These were often embellished with embroidery or metallic thread and glass or jet beading on the toes, often the only part peeking out from a voluminous skirt. Evening boots were often made from soft kid or satin, with rows of beaded straps embellishing the shin. Many people, especially men, often had just one pair that lasted for several years.
The epitome of the hourglass, monobosomed, tiny waisted and footed gentile lady during this period was, of course, the Gibson Girl. This particular image was a cartoon character drawn by the American artist Charles Dana Gibson. For twenty years between 1890 and 1910 he satirized society with his image of 'The New Woman' who was competitive, sporty and emancipated as well as beautiful. Her clothes were fashionable in both America and Britain and set a fashion for the narrow, gored skirt worn with an embroidered blouse or 'shirtwaist'. Another Gibson look was a shirt collar worn with either a tie, a floppy artist bow, a tie neck cravat with stick pin bar brooch or a crosscut ruffled jabot. It is also said that King Edward had a penchant for mature, buxom women. This led to an even stronger societal preference for older, curvaceous versions of beauty, including a love of gray and white hair.
Young children and especially girls wore carbon copies of the adult clothing, except for length which could vary from 20 to 28 inches on children one to five years old. Sailor type waists were in vogue for girls up to 14 years but the wide collar over the shoulder was most prevalent.
Men wore one or three button cutaway frock coats, or the single or double breasted 'sack' which is a straight lined jacket; average width of the pants' leg was 22 inches at the bottom. It was a neat look, a dandified look, worn with a bowler hat and high collar with bow tie. Overcoats were generally worn short, at knee length. The cane was standard and the handles often outlasted the cane or umbrella itself; many were made from sterling silver and are highly sought after by collectors today.
Boys and younger men wore three piece suits for dress or evening, normally consisting of coat, vest and knee pants which were tight fitting and usually made with 'double knees'. These met the high stockings worn at the knee. In 1900 the gentleman wore a top hat with a frock coat, the homburg with less formal day wear, and the straw hat became the fancy of both men and women.
The years from 1900 to the outbreak of World War I were a time of extravagance and ostentation. The function of clothing was becoming more practical especially with the motorcar coming into vogue. The late years of the decade were geared towards making the 'world safe for democracy'. WWI changed not only fashion, it changed the entire world forever.