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Fashion during the First Decade of the Twentieth Century


June 12, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

1908 Standard1908The twentieth century marked changes in fashion. Having researched Victorian fashion for years, I could have rattled off detail after detail about that period. But, with ESCAPING YESTERDAY, I was writing in a new period—the Edwardian Era—and clothing was very different. Bicycling, coquet and tennis began to interest women in the 1890s and they demanded clothing they could play in. During that same decade, women began working outside the home more, largely due to the economic depression of 1893 and the need for young women to venture out on their own rather than relying on their families. “Bachelor Girls” became common place, especially in larger cities, and more practical fashion followed. With work came new-found independence, political expression, and changes in how women viewed themselves and how society viewed women. As men and women blended in work, play, and interaction, morality changed, bringing an end to all those “suggested” curves formed by the exaggerated bustles and crinolines and corsets and puffs. Society was about to see the real female shape!

1900 ca untitledBy 1900, the bustle and crinoline had been abandoned and the gored skirt became popular, flaring out from a small waist. Though corsets were still worn, they were redesigned to remove pressure from the abdomen and created an S-shaped curve. Bodices were tight as the decade began but the puffed “pigeon” look soon became popular and a loose poufy bodice emerged to enhance the narrow waists. The large sleeves that had exaggerated the hourglass shape in the nineties began to shrink in volume so that they were loosely puffed at the bottom or rounded only at the shoulder area. As the decade continued, skirts rose from floor-length to ankle-length and the start of the flare began lower, moving from the hip to the knee and hugging the body more tightly around curves. Waistlines were lower and often emphasized with wide sashes or waistbands. For working women, especially, the shirt-waist became popular—a white bodice modeled on the male shirt—worn with a gored skirt. Tailor-mades (mass-produced ankle-length skirts and matching jackets) were also worn. Sports-wear, designed for ease of movement, drove the trend of shorter skirt lengths. “Haute couture” emerged with designer-influenced dresses, often with higher waists, shorter skirts, and long tunic like jackets worn over new “straight line” corsets that abandoned the S-shape for a straight, less-curved silhouette.

1910 untitledThe undergarments that accommodated the fashion changes went through radical changes. Corsets came in never-ending variety. The S-bend corsets are the most-remembered, their longer (bust to hip) construction giving women a flat front and extended derrieres. There were also waist-corsets, some of which tucked in the waist only and hip-protectors, which sat below the waist to shape the hips. These lower corsets were worn with bust improvers—the forerunner of the bra. Camisoles and knickers were common as was the new “combination” or “teddy.” During the latter part of the decade, corsets came to look more like the girdles that would follow when elastic replaced boning. Petticoats narrowed and shortened to knee-length. Fabrics also changed, from basic cotton to nainsook, lawn, silk and satin as less became more.

1980 37 Women in bathing suits on Collaroy Beach, 1908,  photographed by Colin CairdIn leisure wear, bicycling costumes with woolen knickers and stockings emerged. Riding suits (for the new automobile passengers) were wool or serge skirts with a long jacket over a white shirtwaist. Bathing costumes were cotton or wool with knee-length drawers and a long belted sleeveless top, worn over stockings or with bare legs and rubber bathing shoes and, occasionally, turbans. As the decade went on, motoring and golf costumes became more suit-like as hemlines shortened to the ankle. Occasionally, motoring coats were duster-length, covering almost the entire skirt. Hats with veils and scarves were created to keep the dust away. Hats continued to me large and heavily trimmed until the end of the decade when size decreased and brims became popular (similar to caps). Shoes were narrow with a pointed toe and medium heel with exact style differing according to purpose.

1902 George_Washington_Carver,_ca__1902Men’s fashions also became less formal around the turn of the century. The frock coat gave way to a shorter, less fitted look in the sack coat or lounge coat. Three piece suits continued as business-wear, consisting of a sack coat, vest, and trousers. Often, either the vest or the trousers contrasted the ensemble. Formal wear continued to consist of the cutaway morning coat and striped trousers for day and a dark tail coat and trousers with a light vest for evening. Top hats were still worn for formal events with felt Homburgs or bowlers for more casual occasions. A dinner jacket might be worn for men’s club activities or less-formal dinners. Shirts had tall, stiff collars—winged collars on dress shirts. The dress shirt was white and occasionally buttoned in the back. A striped shirt might replace white for casual wear. The four in hand necktie was most common with either ascots or bow ties for formal events.

1901 87px-1901_Sartorial_Arts_Journal_Fashion_Plate_Men's_Golfing_ClothesWinter coats were knee or calf-length. Shoes were usually over the ankle boots; white uppers (or spats) might be added for formal occasions. Lace-up oxford shoes were also introduced during the Edwardian era. For rugged outdoor activities, the tweed Norfolk jacket was worn, with box pleats in front and back and a cloth belt. With matching knickerbockers and knee-length stockings, it was suitable for bicycling or golf. Bathing costumes were two-piece with knee-length cotton or wool drawers and a long top.

1900Early twentieth century children’s fashions included knee-length dresses for girls, often with hem trimmings such as lace or embroidery. Designs tended to imitate women’s fashions. Black shoes or button/lace boots and woolen stockings finished the outfits. Gloves might be worn for formal occasions. Bloomers and woolen jerseys were suitable for play—a radical shift—as were short sleeved dresses. Hair was worn long, often curled, with ribbons. For boys, trousers or knickerbockers were worns. Russian style blouses and sailor suits were popular. Boys who accompanied adults in automobiles wore a child-version of adult wear—dusters, goggles, and caps.

Perhaps the most well-known fashion trend of the early twentieth century was the “Gibson Girl” look. Charles Dana Gibson was an illustrator whose drawings were published in Life Magazine, Harper’s Weekly, Collier’s and Scribners, among others. His intent was to offer a composite of the ideal American woman, combining the best elements of the past, present, and future. She first appeared in the 1890s and was popular until World War I, representing both a physical and a cultural icon.

GG-Gibson_Girls_Magnifying_Glass_by_Charles_Dana_GibsonPhysically, Gibson’s drawings portrayed slender lines and a hint of fragility. With a shapely bust and hips, she was voluptuous without being vulgar. Her shape was further enhanced by the popular S-curve (swan-bill) corset. Her hair was piled atop her head, often in a pompadour style with a few dropping curls. She was tall, thin, self-assured and stylish. Gibson’s wife, Irene Langhorne, was thought to have been his original model though others later posed. The image caught on and was portrayed by numerous other illustrators and copied by actresses, advertising, merchandise, and women across America.

But it wasn’t the “look” alone that made the Gibson Girl so popular. Gibson set his subjects into illustrations that conveyed attitude and personality. She was always clad in the latest fashion, often shown in athletic situations. Illustrations depicted her as calm, intelligent, and confident. She might be shown in the workplace or attending college, suggestive of the New Woman who sought her way in the world independent of men. Yet, Gibson never showed his subjects campaigning for the vote. In short, she represented women who stretched the boundaries without threatening the balance of politics. She might be teasing, confident in her role as a woman, even dominant (see illustration of Gibson Girls examining comical little men under a magnifying glass). When men were not reduced to simpletons by her beauty and confidence, they appeared adoring. The Gibson Girl was most often depicted as single and carefree but when shown in relationship illustrations, she appeared happy (if allowed to maintain her independence) as a wife and devoted as a mother. She both stretched cultural boundaries and represented admired ideals.


Next week, I’ll take a look at turn-of-the-century inventions. It was fun including a few of them in the new book but there were so many more I had to leave out. I’ll share them with you instead. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.


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