The Hourglass Factory
Edwardian Fashion and The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
2015/01/12  |  By:   |  Features  |  

When we think of Victorian clothing, strong images come to mind: bustles and crinolines, frills and fuss. By contrast the Edwardian era seems positively strait-laced. But there’s much more to Edwardian fashion than Downton Abbey dresses and suffragette-sashes. Clothing changed at an astonishing rate in the years building up to the First World War, which perhaps says something about just how quickly society was changing at that time.

At the start of the century the Victorian craze for pinched waists was still in vogue, but this soon gave way to a rise in health awareness. Women began to put the ability to breathe before the stereotype of beauty. A corset that was thought to help on this front was the ‘S-bend’, a design that pushed the chest forward and the hips back in order to supposedly ease pressure on the lungs. Of course it still made the waist look tiny.

But there were other styles out there trying to steer waists towards a more natural shape. In the early days of the century French fashion designer Paul Poiret became inspired by the loose, layered designs of the East. Then in 1910 the Ballet Russes performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade at the Paris Opera House, and Poiret was captivated by the outrageous exotic costumes. Although his crazier creations were worn only by the most daring fashionistas, he helped to boost the profile of Middle Eastern style – from harem pants to turbans.

In addition to getting rid of corsets, women were also turning to more masculine fashions. A Punch cartoon in 1911 poking fun at this shows how much unease there must have been under the surface about it. The idea of female trousers had been around for a while though. In the 1880s the Rational Dress Society was created to promote comfortable clothing for cycling and sport. The first women’s trousers were named ‘bloomers’ after the American suffrage campaigner Amelia Bloomer. The Rational Dress Society didn’t last long, but 1910s photographs show suffragettes regularly wearing masculine shirts and ties, albeit with skirts.

But for a woman to wear trousers in day-to-day life such as Frankie does in The Hourglass Factory would have been rare to the point of scandal. While cross-dressing music hall acts Vesta Tilley and Ella Shields sent men up on stage, Tilley at least felt the need to play up her feminine side in real life in order to distance herself from the stage persona.

Then there was the tail end of Victorian taxidermy. Fashion-taxidermy had reached its gruesome peak in the 1880s, according to Alison Gernsheim, author of Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey. Hats featuring ‘whole owls or other birds, or bright winged beetles’ made their appearance on various heads. ‘On some,’ she says, ‘are to be seen tiny cubs of bears, or baby squirrels playing hide and seek among the wings and bows.’

There must have still been some legacy of this lurking about, for Gernsheim’s book also features a 1911 photograph of a Women’s Freedom League member in a hat with seagulls glued to it, and a 1913 picture of Girl Guide Chief Miss Baden-Powell, in a fur dangling with all manner of paws and tails.

Fashion moved fast in the Edwardian era. With shifts in society, greater awareness of women’s rights, and exotic styles filtering through from Paris, clothing was a chance to express who you were; which team you sided with. In The Hourglass Factory this translates into three very different women: Ebony Diamond who favours old-school Victorian tailoring, Frankie with her suits and slick neckerchiefs, and Milly the Poiret-draped snake dancer. All are feminists in their way, because the ability to make a choice in the way you dress yourself is one step on the route to freedom.

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester in OUT NOW.