Thursday, November 05, 2009

The 1900s in fashion.

(Yes. Finally getting to that, only, uh, three months late? Right then.)

In the 1900s, the female silhouette looked like this:

This is known as the Edwardian era/look, the Gibson Girl look (so named for painter/illustrator/graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson, who painted a shitload of women in getups like this, and considered it his ideal), and the turn-of-the-century look, among other things. The posture was known as the "S shape", and the slant was mostly toward the super-feminine; lots of lace, silk flowers, and light, airy fabrics.

It looks super-feminine even now, and I suspect had a hand in defining what we consider feminine to this day. But that figure was accomplished by some wicked-evil corsets.

That's a corset for a grown woman. The waist is 22 inches/56 cm (everybody together now... OW). Check out the interior:

Those are steel bars in there. This was also the era when women really got a rep as being 'fragile' and 'the weaker sex'. It wasn't all romanticized nonsense to keep a good woman down; I daresay if a man had to wear one of those, he'd be fragile and the weaker sex, too. Whole books have been written about how these torture devices caused uterine prolapse, broken ribs, weakened and atrophied torso muscles, hideous pregnancy complications, and nerve damage from pressing on the spinal column.

But it sure looked good.

(Dress also has a 22 inch waist.) I daresay this wasn't the start of the 'torture for vanity', but it sure as hell didn't help.

One of the other interesting conventions of the era was the 'shirtwaist', or the separate shirt and skirt combo. This wasn't the first time they were worn, but it may be the first time they got super-fancy eveningwear treatment. This is the 'shirt' portion of an evening gown, which obviously would have been worn with an equally fancy skirt:

By our old buddy Worth, of course. This puppy laces up the back for an extra layer of corseting. Eesh.

This was also an era when women wore tea gowns; casual, loose-fitting dresses for swooning about the house. But when they went out, they had on a fanged corset and a fitted dress.

Day wear:


(That may also be day wear; these people didn't know how to do casual.)

And even wedding:

Everything was topped off with a glorious hat, of course.

With a hat pin to hold it on, stuck through your ten miles of hair in a fancy updo. Because the hair was part of the outfit, and the hair was almost always done in some variation of a fluffy chignon.

This look eventually lost popularity for several reasons: The sporting movement (especially bicycles) and leisure time began to really underline how awkward and ungainly this was for anything other than standing around and perhaps a slow walk. Designers themselves began coming up with things that looked flattering but didn't require the corsets (forerunners of that being Poiret and Fortuny). Women began realizing that corsets were literally killing them (often in childbirth). But the big reason? You ready for this? Most historians consider the death knell of the corset to be the rise in wages for servants; all those undergarments created a hell of a lot of laundry and no one wanted to do their own. Sad, yet it has a practical ring of truth to it.

So what's it mean to us today? Well. I'm convinced it defined femininity for a century. The boyish looks of the 1920s and the punk looks of the 1980s are considered oddities; even a century later, 'feminine' in the western world still means boobs and bust and small waist, and lace, and flowers, and silky, sheer fabrics. We still squeeze ourselves into killer undergarments (some of us more than others) to achieve the look, although thanks to modern textiles we don't have to use steel girders any more. And again due to this era, we don't shy away from them - very few of us think twice when putting on panty hose, or underwire bras, or high heels - it's just the way it is.

As for who can work this look, even now, believe it or not, just about everyone wears a variation of it sometimes. Skirt, frilly blouse, nice shoes? Don't we all do that? At least sometimes? (For dressing up in winter, this is my go-to; boots, long skirt, warm blouse. You can wear longies under it.) Depending on the shape of your face, the upswept 'do still works, too. Skip the corset, though. No one needs that torture.


Silhouette photo from "The Fashion Designer's Directory of Shape and Style" by Travers-Spencer and Zaman.

All clothing photos from Vintage Textile. (Some are still for sale.)


Anonymous said...

I think the dresses and material in this era are gorgous. Congrats on the move. You're a little closer to me now!


amy said...

I love that wedding dress. This is the sort of style I'd always draw when I was a kid. But to actually wear, I'm a flapper girl at heart. I can't remember the last time I wore pantyhose or even tights. I just don't wear skirts in the winter (although I love them in the warmer months). I keep meaning to get another pair of thermal underwear so I can wear the bottoms under skirts in winter, but I digress. I don't wear a bra. Heels? No. Way. I have a perfect silhouette for the flapper era. Actually, that was one of my most successful Halloween costumes in high school and college. Killer flapper dress, with long pearls. I think I even had the right haircut at the time. So when will you do flapper fashion, then? ;)

Louiz said...

Interesting, and yeah the reasons for the style falling out of fashion sound about right

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic post - thank you for some great reading, I have shared this.

Barbara said...

Ooh, can't wait for the flappers. One of my grandma's was a flapper. And I would never wear a corset, I can barely tolerate my just-a-tiny-bit-tight jeans and the resultant muffintop.

How's the Goob? What's she up to in Pigsbird?

Alwen said...

I'll never forget going through a box of old family photos with my mom and realizing that one woman in a corset was definitely, definitely pregnant.

When I was pregnant, the skin on my abdomen was so sensitive, I didn't want anything squeezing it. I can't imagine lacing up a corset - no wonder some women just stayed at home.

TinkingBell said...

These were killer corsets, true - but think about Marie Antoinette - she was laced into a 13 inch waist - yep - 32.5cm - and because she could (and supposedly champagne saucer glasses are based on her boobs) everyone else tried to as well,

There's a reason women used to faint and have the vapours! I think it involves no oxygen!
BTW - when my mum married Dad - 22 inch waist, with a step in - 34-22-34 - all her clothes fitted me (5 inches taller) until I was almost 30 - and I never never wore corsetry other than a bra - then!.

Now I have no hope.

NeedleTart said...

Oddly enough, when I was (much) younger, I had a 28" waist (and I am 6 feet tall) and was in a play wherein I wore a corset. I found it fairly comfortable. Sort of like wearing a chair back at all times so you didn't have to use your stomach muscles to stand up straight. That said I wore the same corset
(after the birth of two children) and I could feel the pulse in my spine. Yeah, not so comfortable if you want that small waist.....

Alacaeriel said...

Well, my measurements are 36-25-36 and I wear a custom made corset in winter (those things are far too hot to wear in summer!) and it's quite comfortable. It supports my back, as Needletart said, but I also wear it on days when I simply don't want to wear a bra. I'm just 5' tall, though. The worst part of it is people constantly asking if I can breath!

Donna Lee said...

There is a local seamstress that will make custom fitted corsets. They are beautiful to look at but I can't imagine squeezing my body into one. I like breathing and not being able to take a full breath brings on an anxiety attack.

But, they still embody feminine sexiness to my eyes.

Emily said...

Back when I wore a girdle to hold up my stockings (pre-panty-hose era), my back went thru serious adjustment as I put it on in winter & took it off in summer.

Close to the turn of the 20th century, the corsets specifically forced the body into that "S" shape, making the butt stick out, I remember reading. Ouch. What an uncomfortable life, to be an upper class woman!

debsnm said...

I quit pantyhose and heels years ago. At some point I realized that life it too short for your feet to hurt, and I'm convinced that pantyhose were invented and promulgated by particularly sadistic men. Still wear a bra in public, though.

Roxie said...

And the Edwardian corset was supposed to be more healthful than the crinoline corset. Then there was the girdle, which, being rubber and not breathable, promoted skin fungus. Pantyhose are supposed to contribute to yeast infections. I guess we get to be beautiful only occasionally, for a few hours at a time. Oh well. It can't be fourth of July every night.

Terby said...

Nope. No frilly shirts. Tailored shirt, slacks, jacket. Really - could you imagine me in frills? Not only would it be overwhelming, it would be wrong.

At one point in my life, I had that tiny tiny waist. I still have that 10 inch bust/waist/hip difference, but the numbers are much larger. The clothes still don't fit right, either.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you know anything about pregnant women in this era? What sort of undergarments did they wear? I'm playing a 5 month pregnant woman for a show and I would appreciate any help. Thanks!

Sarah Elizabeth said...

I've never worn a turn-of-the-century corset but I have worn an 1860's one. While they don't have that weird S curve I will say that tight lacing can make you feel sick, give you indigestion,and make you feel miserable for HOURS after you take off the corset. Some will disagree with me and INSIST that a properly fitted corset is comfortable, more so than a bra. I beg to differ. Besides, try getting an itch or the hiccups in a corset.

Warriorprincess said...

I can't manage to find any pre-1920s dresses (and 20s look bad on me) not because of my waist but because of my bust...I'm 40-25-37 (because I'm only 18) and tightening a corset 3 inches can't be that bad, I've waist-belted 2 inches for 12 hours before and it was only slightly uncomfortable. But I don't want to corset up my beauties.