The Rise and Fall of the Edwardian Era: A Fashion History Lesson

Edwardian clothing

Edwardian fashions - a demonstration of class discrimination


The Edwardian era is often called the “last gasp” of the Victorian age. After everything that that period threw at us—from corsets to crinolines, bustles and panniers—most people probably didn’t think fashion would get any stranger or more ridiculous. And yet, in 1901 and 1902, we saw women wearing the most absurd creations possible. How did this moment come about? Let’s take a look at the rise and fall of the Edwardian era!

What Is the Edwardian Era?

The Edwardian era is the era (a period of time) that followed the Victorian era. It was named after King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901 to 1910 (and whose clothing styles were widely copied by the 'upper class'. During this period, fashion and culture were heavily influenced by the styles of the 1890s, when people had focused on sporting activities and the “rational dress” movement. The Edwardian era was a time of growth for the British Empire, which included colonies and territories around the world. It was a time of optimism and prosperity, with a rising middle class and a new interest in leisure activities. It was also a period of increasing globalization and immigration, with new ideas and cultures being brought to Britain.

Why Was Edwardian Fashion So Weird?

Edwardian fashion was so strange because it was largely based on the “rational dress” movement of the 1890s. This movement focused on women wearing clothing that allowed greater mobility and functionality than the bustles and petticoats of the Victorian era. To achieve this, many women wore clothing crafted out of heavy fabrics like linen and wool. They also wore clothing with minimal decorative elements that would not get in their way.

The problem was, they wore so much of it!

How Did Ladies Stay Decent in All That Fabric?

Edwardian women still had to be modest and covered up, even when wearing clothing that allowed more freedom of movement than the Victorian era. That meant bras were still not a thing at this point in time. Many women wore corset-like garments called “shrugs” that covered their shoulders and upper backs. Hair was worn up in elaborately styled coiffures that served as an adornment and kept hair out of the way. Gloves were worn in public to show refinement and propriety. Shoes were often made of heavy fabrics like linen or leather.

The Rise of Tailored Suiting for Women

In 1908, the Rational Dress Society was founded in London by a group of artists and feminists. The society’s members were concerned that women were spending too much money on impractical clothing that was actually hindering their health. The society wanted to promote healthier dress, and many female members started wearing blouses and trousers. Tailored garments that were modeled on men’s suiting were growing in popularity for both men and women. Suiting was seen as a practical, modern style that blended the “rational dress” ideals of the 1890s with more conventional feminine fashions.

Dressing the Upper Body: Corsets and Shrugs

Many Edwardian women wore corsets and/or stiff fabrics beneath their upper garments. This helped them achieve the desired fit and structure of Edwardian gowns, blouses, and other clothing. Corsets were often made of heavy fabrics, such as corded silk, and often had steel grommets and hooks that helped the wearer tighten the corset. Corset-like shrugs covered the shoulders and upper back and were worn beneath most Edwardian gowns and blouses. Some women also wore corset-like garments beneath their chemises and drawers. Corsets and corset-like garments could be very heavy, especially when made of corded silk. This made them uncomfortable to wear for many hours.

The upper body was where things got really wild. Corsets were already a thing, but at the end of the Victorian era, they became much more extreme. Women would wear steel-boned corsets that pushed their waists in as far as they could go. They were often so tight that ladies couldn’t breathe properly. It’s not surprising that fainting was a common occurrence at the time. But even when women weren’t actually fainting, they were wearing corsets that were so tight that they could only sit in certain positions.

Dressing the Lower Body: Skirts and more skirts!

Edwardian women wore many layers of skirts, petticoats, and sometimes crinolines. Women sometimes wore up to three layers of petticoats. Many women also wore crinolines underneath their gowns or crinoline-like undergarments called “padded drawers.” Crinolines and petticoats helped give dresses a fuller, more exaggerated shape.

Crinolines were large hoopskirts that were made of wood, cane, or steel and covered in fabric. They were often hung on top of a woman's normal petticoats. Crinolines made it easier to wear over-the-top, heavy gowns and were very popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Accessories During the Edwardian Era

Edwardian hats were often large, ornate, and made of heavy materials, such as straw or felt. Gloves were worn in public, and handbags were widely used. Belts were often worn, and decorative bows were common. Shoes could be made of leather, wood, or fabric, and many were ornately decorated. Many women also used corsets, crinolines, and other garments that limited their movement and function. This is one reason why Edwardian clothing is often considered more impractical than clothing of today.

One of the most common accessories during the Edwardian era was the parasol. It was mostly used to shield the wearer from the sun, but it could be used to cover one’s face from the elements as well. Parasols were often made out of silk, lace, or embroidery.

The End of an Era

The Edwardian era ended with World War I, which began in 1914 and lasted until 1918. After the war, women often eschewed the corsets, crinolines, and heavy fabrics of the Edwardian era for a more simplified and practical style. Toilette dresses, which were one-piece gowns, made their debut during the Edwardian era but gained popularity after the war. More designers were creating tailored suiting for women, which helped make the rise of pants for women more acceptable. As the Edwardian era came to a close, many wartime fashions were revived, including the trench coat, cloche hat, and hobble skirt. The 1920s also saw the introduction of shorter hemlines, shorter skirts, and less restrictive clothing for women.