Anyone who has ever worn formalwear knows how constricting the clothes can be, but we have nothing on the Edwardians. From top to toe, the Edwardian lady was pinched, squeezed, and squashed in order to create a fashionable silhouette. During my research for my debut novel, A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, set in the Edwardian era, I couldn’t help but flinch whenever I read about two dangerous items of apparel: the hat and the corset.
No Edwardian female would step foot outside without wearing a hat. The more sumptuous the creation, the better. Some were even 24 inches in diameter. But fancy hats were tricky to secure and unlike their Victorian forbears who tied their bonnets on with a ribbon under the chin, the Edwardian hat required a hatpin, a lethal looking device that secured the elaborate hat onto the equally elaborate hairdo. The pins, often 16 inches long, were so sharp on the nibs (ends) that many cities, such as Paris and Chicago, made exposed pin ends illegal in order to put a stop to bystander injuries (apparently you could poke someone’s eye out if you turned around too quickly). Decorative point protectors became available and were often shaped like acorns. Women wore their hats indoors when visiting or dining-out, as it was too difficult to unpin them. During the evening, women wore feathers, combs, or ribbons in their hair. I bet these simpler ornaments were a relief!
But perhaps the birds suffered most in the Edwardian notions trade. Feathers were all the rage for hat decoration, and masses of birds were slaughtered for their plumage. The Society for the Protection of Birds lobbied for an end to the sorry business. In 1908 the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Bill was put forward and made law in 1921.
The job of the corset (formerly called stays) was to mold the wearer into whatever shape current fashion decreed. The early Edwardian silhouette was the wasp waist (think Gibson Girl), and women achieved the tiniest version of this figure by pulling the laces of their corsets as tightly as they could. The restricting nature of corsets required the woman to perch instead of sit and prevented her bending over, but the tight lacing damaged the wearer’s health. In 1906, Women’s Life magazine exhorted women to stop tight lacing their corsets: “It is a great mistake to think it is ever necessary to tight-lace. It is always undesirable and always inartistic. More ruined digestions, more red noses, more weak hearts, more agonies of pain… have been caused by this than anything.”
After 1907 the wasp waist fell out of fashion and the new silhouette was long and slender, requiring a corset that ended on the thighs instead of the hips. The Edwardian S-bend corset was touted as being a health corset because it put less pressure on the stomach. However, it forced the torso forward and made the hips poke out in back, and so women had backache caused by this strange posture. Women would often use a walking stick to counteract this tipped-forward stance. The S-bend was going out of style around 1908 and corsets became shorter and somewhat easier to wear.
I have no idea how women managed to wear these items every day. My wedding dress included a corset and I couldn’t eat very much or sit very comfortably, and I was exhausted by the end of the evening. Hats off to Edwardian women…err, maybe not! Hatpins, you know.
Sharon Biggs Waller is the author of A Mad, Wicked Folly, an Edwardian-era novel about a young artist finding her own way during the time of militant suffragettes (Viking/Penguin, Winter 2014). You can find her at www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller.