The first decade of the 20th century, also known as La Belle Epoque (the beautiful age), was a time of great excitement. The 1900 World’s Fair held in Paris was an exhibition of the latest styles and inventions. Meanwhile, the first skyscrapers were being erected, motor cars were already on the roads (only the rich could afford a car; the bicycle was a popular means of transport for the rest of the population).

In the world of art, Pablo Picasso painted the first cubist painting. In these days, cinema was still a novelty, but Hollywood emerged as the movie world capital and the first of its movie stars came to the scene.

Then the political upheaval that caused the trouble in the Balkans took place, which led to the horror of World War 1 and the trench warfare. During this time, women had gained a tremendous amount of independence, due to the efforts of the suffragettes and because they had done men’s jobs during the war.

Though most women helped on the home front, some joined the army. At the time, it was not thought appropriate for women to join the fighting in the trenches. They provided useful army labour, instead.

Subsequently, the follow-up changes in lifestyle had a massive effect on the clothes people wore. For example, during the Edwardian era, there were new strict rules on dressing and etiquette which resulted in people spending much of their day changing outfits. There were garments for morning, afternoon and evening as well as outfits specially made for activities such as walking or cycling.

Below is a picture of Camille Clifford, noted as the first “Gibson Girl”. In the early 1900s she won $2000 in a magazine contest sponsored by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson to find a living version of his Gibson Girl drawings: his ideal woman.


The fragile appearance presented to the world by the Edwardian ladies was not all it seemed. Delicate and elegant floaty dresses hid some heavily boned corsets and layers of elaborate undergarments. These were necessary to force women’s bodies into the fashionable shape of the time, the S-bend.

Corsets had stiff bones to flatten the stomach and create the shape, this forced out the behind and pushed out the bust, therefore configuring the body into an S-bend, because it followed the curves of a letter “S”. Underneath the corset, usually there is a vest-like garment of fine linen or muslin, called a chemise.

Chiffon and lace were particularly popular amongst women between the years 1900 and 1908. The look of the time required pastel colours, a tightly corseted waist, full shelf-like bosom and large hips.

During the day, the body was covered from neck to toe. Boned lace collars forced the head up as a long, swanlike neck was a beauty standard of the time. Bodices were loose, pouched and decorated with frills with rows of pin tucks. The overall effect was known as the pigeon chest.

However, for one short period in the day, before dressing for dinner, they could relax in a tea gown, usually made of loose flowing garment which did not restrict their movement.

In the evening, necklines were low to show off bosom, however the sight of a lady’s ankle was strongly frowned upon, and therefore skirts were long and very full at the back with a train.

Pale shades such as rose pink, pearl grey, soft mauve and eau de nil (a watery blue-green shade) gradually replaced the dark colours worn by the Victorians. Ball gowns were elaborately trimmed and covered with beads and sequins. Dull, stiff fabrics gave way to sheer materials. Women wore layers of frilly petticoats, these were popularly known as le froufrou, due to the rustling and swishing noise they made.

However, during the 19th century, objections began to be raised against the fashion for women to be so tightly corseted. Some people believed tight corsets were unhealthy. Others simply felt they were not attractive.

In the U.S, Amelia Bloomer (1818-94), was a women’s rights and temperance advocate. She had promoted practical dress for women since the mid-19th century, a separated skirt called bloomers were named after her.

While in, Great Britain, the Rational Dress Society (founded in 1881) also promoted comfortable styles of dress, its members wore unboned stays instead of corsets and baggy Turkish trousers instead of skirts.

The Pre-Raphaelites (a group of painters) also challenged the norm by dressing their models in flowing, medieval-styled garments.

One of the most influential designers of this new look was French couturier Paul Poiret (1879-1944).  After a four-year apprenticeship with couturier Jacques Doucet, and a short time spent at the House of Worth (founded in 1858). Paul opened his own business in 1903.

Determined to free women from the S-bend, in 1906 he introduced a simple, high waisted dress, similar to the ones worn in the French Directoire period (18th century).

The elaborate and restrictive fashion was replaced by simpler more practical garments.

Almost instantly however, Poiret began to opt for more restrictive garments. He designed a long, slim skirt that narrowed at the ankle so that it was only possible to walk by taking tiny steps. Shockingly, the fashion caught on and by 1911, it was known as the hobble skirt because the wearer literally hobbled along.

The trend began to decline in popularity at the start of World War 1 as the skirt’s limited mobility did not suit the wartime atmosphere. Below is a fine example of a hobble skirt.


While the hobble skirt became popular, the suffragettes were campaigning for greater freedom for women. Particularly, they wanted the right for women to be allowed to vote. To bring awareness to their cause, suffragettes wore three main colours- green, purple and white which stood for hope, loyalty and purity.

The suffragette newspaper Votes for Women had a regular article called ‘Concerning Dress’ which focused on fashion. It also published a list of businesses that provided garments and accessories in the suffragette colours.


During the early years of the 20th century, theatre had a strong influence on fashion and so did dance attire. The exotic and oriental style sets were greatly admired and almost immediately, had an effect on the art, fashion and furnishings of the time.

Paul Poiret was one of the first designers to promote oriental styles and he also introduced vibrant colours and Eastern inspired shapes such as harem pants, turbans and tunic dresses with Magyar (batwing sleeves).

At the time, Poiret’s designs were deemed outrageous by many, but his ideas eventually filtered down into the mainstream. He was one of the first designers to think of expanding his business to include furnishings and accessories.


The fashionable Edwardian lady was not only concerned with the right dress to wear for every occasion, but also had to choose from a wide range of accessories. Slip-on court shoes were commonly worn during the day, sometimes jazzed up with either bows or buckles. Meanwhile, for eveningwear, beading and ornamentation were all the rage.

Louis heels were popular but as the decade wore on, a straighter shape known as a Cuban heel took over. During the war years, practical shoe styles such as brogues came into fashion.


For the first decade of the 20th Century, women wore their hair piled high on the head. Likewise for hats, the emphasis was on the height. Hats were often covered in the plumage of ostriches or gamebirds, such as pheasants, but the most desired were ‘osprey’ which were feathers taken from exotic species including the bird of paradise. Costly furs and rare plumage were adornments of status symbol back then.

Around 1908, the hats got wider and stopped getting taller. Such hats became known as Merry Widow hats, after the singer Lily Elsie wore a large hat designed by Lucile for her role in the operetta The Merry Widow (1907).

The exotic fashion scene dominated by Paris just before World War 1 led to a vogue for eastern-style turbans, set off by bands of pearls or gems and usually a huge jewel at the front. Often, the turban was worn with a single, ornamental feather, known as an aigrette.


During the 1910, the bust bodice or brassiere, began to be worn and a less exaggerated shape took over. This timeless piece was invented by Caresse Crosby (her real name was Mary Phelps Jacobs). She made the brassiere from two handkerchiefs and a piece of ribbon. She patented her design in the United States in 1914.


When French actress Sarah Bernhardt appeared in trousers in the late 1800’s, it was considered very shocking. Then, around 1910, the influences of Poiret and the Russian Ballet led some society ladies and intellectuals to adopt harem pants. After the war, a few forward-thinking women began to wear trousers, however this was extremely rare until the 20’s when French fashion designer Coco Chanel introduced beach pyjamas and yachting trousers for women.


By the time the war ended in 1918, a lot of things had changed. In Great Britain, white, property-owning women over the age of 30 were at last given the chance to vote, together with men over the age of 21. During the course of WW1, numerous ideas about how women should behave and look had gradually been put aside.

Women had tasted independence and were active more than ever. All the changes also experienced a knock-on effect of women’s fashion, women wanted to be free once and for all from the restrictions of tight skirts and rigid corsets. Although fashion went through an indecisive phase and a few designers tried to reintroduce pre-war fashion fad, but without success.

The shapeless barrel lines which had become popular around 1917 continued for a while, especially with coats. Skirts, which had shortened to below calf length during wartime, lengthened again. Then a more cylindrical shape emerged and continued into the following decade. Necklines were squared, V-shaped or collarless. The major emphasis was on the hips in the form of sashes and drapes.

In the daytime, subdued colours such as grey, fawn or black were worn, but in the evening vivid violets and fuchsias came out to play. Evening dresses featured sheer fabrics over satin or brocade, gold and silver lame were also popular.

Fringing and tassels were perfect dancewear, because they swayed when the wearer moved. Dancing had been a favourite pastime for much of the 1910s. A succession of strangely-named dances, in addition to tango, were the ‘bunny hug’ and the ‘turkey trot’, these kept dancers on their toes and even during the war years, the dance craze had remained strong and continued to be a major influence on fashion well into the roaring ‘20s.