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The Fashion of the 1900s: A Time of Elegance and Change

CEO Tinh Phung
Fashionable Londoners in front of Harrods, 1909. The fashion scene of the 1900s in the Western world was a continuation of the elegant lines of the late 1890s. This era was characterized by tall, stiff...

Fashionable Londoners in front of Harrods, 1909 Fashionable Londoners in front of Harrods, 1909.

The fashion scene of the 1900s in the Western world was a continuation of the elegant lines of the late 1890s. This era was characterized by tall, stiff collars, broad hats, and full "Gibson Girl" hairstyles for women. The late decade saw the introduction of a new columnar silhouette that signaled the imminent abandonment of the corset.

Women's Fashion

General Overview

Young women adopted the tall collars and narrow neckties worn by men Young women adopted the tall collars and narrow neckties worn by men.

The decline of the bustle allowed sleeves to increase in size, bringing back the hourglass shape that was popular in the 1830s. The early 20th-century silhouette showcased a confident woman with a full low chest and curvy hips. The introduction of the "health corset" removed the pressure from the abdomen, creating an S-curve silhouette. The silhouette slimmed and elongated significantly after 1897. Blouses and dresses became fuller in front, accentuating the narrow waist. High boned collars provided support to the necklines.

Skirts reached the floor, sometimes with a train, even for day dresses. However, fashion houses in Paris started to showcase a new silhouette with a thicker waist, flatter bust, and narrower hips. By the end of the decade, skirts cleared the floor and approached the ankle. The overall silhouette became narrower and straighter, setting a trend for the years leading up to the Great War.

In early 1910, a survey of wealthy high school senior students in New York City found that each spent an average of $556 annually on clothing (equivalent to $17,462 in 2017). These young women had a great passion for fashion.

Sportswear and Tailored Fashions

Women dressed in sportswear and tailored suits Women dressed in sportswear and tailored suits.

As women moved away from the Victorian era and embraced a more active lifestyle during the Edwardian era, the fashion trend known as the "New Woman" emerged. This new trend encouraged women to wear simpler and more streamlined clothing that accommodated their active lives. The suffrage movement played a significant role in promoting this fashion movement. Women who identified with the "New Woman" were venturing outside the domestic sphere, pursuing higher education, office jobs, and participating in active outdoor sports. However, the societal idea of "proper" feminine attire hindered the progress of more practical sportswear.

Tailored suits became popular for women working in white-collar jobs. These suits, without frills, allowed women to appear more masculine and blend into the male-dominated environment. The average college girl wore a skirt that was usually shorter than the prevailing fashion, paired with a shirtwaist. The shirtwaist was akin to today's jeans and T-shirt, representing a more casual and practical style.

Unfussy, tailored clothes were worn for outdoor activities and traveling. The shirtwaist, a costume with a tailored bodice or waist, gained popularity as informal daywear and became the uniform of working women. Tailor-mades, ankle-length skirts paired with matching jackets, were favored by fashionable ladies, who often wore them with fox furs and huge hats. Headgear styles such as motoring veils for driving and sailor hats for sports like tennis and bicycling were also prevalent.

Rise of Haute Couture

Paul Poiret's new silhouette of 1908 was a radical departure Paul Poiret's new silhouette of 1908 was a radical departure.

The 1900s marked the full flowering of Parisian haute couture as the leading authority on styles and silhouettes for women of all classes. Fashion designers sent models or mannequins to the Longchamp races, showcasing the latest styles. Fashion photographs highlighted the creators of individual gowns. In 1908, fashion houses like Callot Soeurs, Vionnet, and most notably, Paul Poiret, introduced a new silhouette. These styles were named after earlier fashion eras such as Merveilleuse, Directoire, and Empire. The clothing featured form-fitting gowns with high or undefined waists and ankle-length skirts, requiring a different corset that emphasized a "straight line" figure. The new look was described as "straighter and straighter...less bust, less hips, and more waist...how slim, how graceful, how elegant!"

Hats

Broad-brimmed hat with stuffed blue bird, ca 1908 Broad-brimmed hat with stuffed blue bird, ca 1908.

Huge, broad-brimmed hats adorned with feathers, ribbons, and artificial flowers were the fashion in the mid-decade. Hairstyles featured masses of wavy hair swept up to the top of the head, sometimes with the help of hairpieces known as "rats." Large hats were also worn with evening wear. Towards the end of the decade, hats had smaller drooping brims that shaded the face and deep crowns, creating an overall top-heavy effect.

Footwear

Shoes for women were narrow and often emphasized. They had a pointed toe and a medium-height heel. Buttoned, patent leather, and laced models were readily available. Different styles of shoes were suitable for various occasions, including oxfords for tailored outfits, strap slippers for festive events, and boots for colder weather. Boots made of seal skin were the most common choice for those in higher social classes. Moroccan leather boots, although uncomfortable, were also worn. World War I led to a shift in footwear design due to trade sanctions, resulting in the incorporation of fabric toppings.

Men's Fashion

Hugo Reisinger wears a dark suit with a white waistcoat and dotted necktie Hugo Reisinger wears a dark suit with a white waistcoat and dotted necktie.

The 1900s saw the continuation of the long, lean, and athletic silhouette that was popular in the 1890s. Hair was generally worn short, and beards were less pointed, while moustaches often sported curls.

Coats, Waistcoats, and Trousers

The sack coat or lounge coat replaced the frock coat for most informal and semi-formal occasions. Three-piece suits consisting of a sack coat, waistcoat, and trousers became popular, with various combinations of matching and contrasting colors. Trousers were shorter and often featured cuffs, with a creased front and back. Waistcoats were fastened high on the chest, usually single-breasted. The blazer, a navy blue or brightly colored flannel coat with brass buttons, became popular for sports and casual activities. The Norfolk jacket remained fashionable for shooting and outdoor pursuits, commonly paired with breeches or knickerbockers. The cutaway morning coat was still worn for formal day occasions, often accompanied by striped trousers. Evening wear included a dark tail coat and trousers, while the less formal dinner jacket or tuxedo became popular for dining at home or in men's clubs.

Shirts and Neckties

Formal dress shirts featured turned over or pressed "wings" collars. These collars were tall and stiff. Stiff-fronted shirts were decorated with studs and buttoned up the back. Striped shirts were popular for informal occasions. The standard necktie was a narrow four-in-hand. Ascot ties were worn with formal day dress, while white bow ties accompanied evening dress.

Accessories

Top hats remained a requirement for upper-class formal wear, while soft felt Homburgs or stiff bowler hats were worn with lounge or sack suits. Straw boaters were popular for casual occasions. Men's shoes were mostly over the ankle, with lace-up boots being the most common choice for everyday wear. Formal occasions called for boots with white uppers and buttons on the side. Oxford shoes were introduced during the Edwardian era as a basic lace-up option.

The fashion of the 1900s showcased elegance and change. It brought about new silhouettes, practical sportswear, and the dominance of Parisian haute couture. The fashion choices for both men and women reflected the societal shifts and changing roles of the era.

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