Clothes and class
'In the Edwardian age clothes
denoted status as plainly as any military uniform', notes Robert
Roberts in The Classic Slum. Hats, for example, were
very important -'for men with any claim at all to standing the
bowler hat, or "billy pot", was compulsory wear. Only
the lower types wore caps' - and to go out without a hat meant
being seen as 'either "low", wretchedly poor, just
plain eccentric or even faintly obscene'. Working-class women
would not go out without putting on a shawl.
Buying clothes was a struggle for working-class families: Seebohm
Rowntree's 1901 study of York, Poverty: A Study of Town Life,
estimated that at least 26s a year would be needed to clothe
an adult, with 22s a year being needed for a child. However,
a review of the cost of clothing for the working classes, published
as a parliamentary paper in 1905, concluded that over the past
25 years the cost of articles of clothing 'most largely purchased
by the working classes' had fallen by 15%, but that, despite
this, working-class expenditure on clothing overall had 'undoubtedly
increased with the increase in their general prosperity'. It
quoted one tailor who claimed that 'people prefer an article
which will not last as long as formerly, preferring variety'.
Fashion and feminism
Clothes, and changes of clothes, occupied a significant
part of the day of the Edwardian lady of leisure - walking dresses,
carriage clothes, tea gowns, evening gowns, to name but a few.
Writing in the 1930s, Lady Duff Gordon observed that 'very few
women now bother to change their dresses five or six times a
day, yet every Edwardian with any claims to being well dressed
did so as a matter of course'.
Huge hats, trimmed with feathers, fruit, flowers, buckles,
even whole birds, became increasingly elaborate after 1901
- flagships of conspicuous consumption. Queen Alexandra helped
to limit the threat to rare birds by announcing, in 1906,
that she would no longer wear wild birds' feathers. Male fashion,
on the other hand, was much less ostentatious and changed
only slightly before the First World War.
Corsets, made of silk, satin, brocade or coutil (a sort of
twill) and often highly decorated, were generally worn despite
the discomfort and possible danger they entailed. The Lady
Cyclist campaigned against the corset, claiming that 'Fainting,
hysteria, indigestion, anorexia, lassitude, diminished vitality
and a host of other sufferings arise from interference with
the circulation of the blood and the prevention of the full
play of the breathing organs'.