Fashion preoccupied many Edwardian women, especially when they had the money to follow it. But
their role models weren't actresses, models or singers. Alexandra, both as Princess of Wales and
Queen, was seen as the leader of Edwardian fashion with her beautiful clothes, high-piled hair
and distinctive multi-stranded pearl chokers.
An Edwardian lady married to a wealthy man would buy her finest dresses from Paris, the
mecca for fashionable women at the beginning of the twentieth century. Other fashionable
shops of the time were Harrods and, in 1909, the newly opened Selfridges store on Oxford Street.
It wouldn't be unusual for someone like Lady Olliff-Cooper to need to change her clothes
five or six times a day. And very few of these dresses would be what today we'd call practical.
Not only did each meal carry its own dress code, but if she needed to receive a visitor, pay
a call or go riding, she'd have to change both her clothes and often her hairstyle as well.
The ideal female shape in Edwardian eyes was no Kate Moss. The famous London models were all
over six feet tall and very curvaceous. But women in the Edwardian times had something that is
not often used now to help them achieve such a figure - the corset.
A new design of corset introduced in 1900 was intended to be more "natural" and "healthy"
than Victorian ones that exerted great pressure on the waist and diaphragm.
It produced an S-shaped figure by forcing the bust forward and the bottom out. But in
bigger women the effect was rather more a "kangaroo stance" with an overhanging "balcony bust"
which could end up a foot ahead of the rest of the body!
To add to the difficulty, the corsets and the dresses and high-necked blouses that Edwardian
women wore only did up at the back, meaning the wearer needed help in getting dressed - from her
In Manor House, Lady Olliff-Cooper and Miss Anson, used to 21st century freedom of movement, find that tight laced corsets, which are supposed to be as tight
as possible on formal occasions, restrict both their breathing and their appetite.
Perhaps corsets were acceptable to those who bore the pain to be attractive. But the female
servants downstairs are obliged to wear corsets as well, even though they don't share the
same fashion worries. The corsets often make it painful to bend down to clean grates or scrub
Working long days with next to no time off, the maids don't get the chance to dress up.
Even if they did, they'd have nothing to wear - a maid is given three sets of working
clothes, which in Edwardian times they would be expected to pay for themselves. These were
print dresses for the mornings for doing the dirty work, a black dress and a white cap and
apron for afternoons, and her own clothes for outdoors and church on Sundays.
Our maids are allowed only one bath in a tin bath in their room each week and this is
filled by carrying up jugs of hot water, and then carrying down jugs of dirty water.
Nevertheless, according to House Rules, they are expected to be "clean, neat and presentable
at all times" so should wash their "face, feet and underarms each morning before dressing."
Becky, Jessica, Erika are forbidden to wear make-up, jewellery or silk stockings.
To achieve the necessary fullness that was fashionable at the time, a lady's maid would wind her
mistress's hair around balls of padding, inelegantly called "rats". These elaborate styles provided
the ideal platform for the elegant picture hats that are so redolent an image of the Edwardian period.
These were huge, often anchored by vicious-looking hat pins with jewelled or enamelled ends; decorated
with lavish trimmings such as osprey or ostrich feathers. They could cost as much as 50 guineas
(around $4,000 at today's prices).
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