Article by Jayne Shrimpton, first published in Family Tree Magazine as Followers of Fashion.
Knowing what people looked like at a given point in time helps us to form a picture of that era. The way in which past generations dressed also reflected their lifestyles and the world they inhabited. So discovering how ancestors recorded on the 1911 census appeared then offers today’s researchers both a useful visual reference point and a fascinating glimpse into life nearly a century ago.
Towards the end of the Edwardian era, in 1908, there began a radical transformation of women’s fashions - an abandonment of exaggerated curves and fussy decoration in favour of a more natural, streamlined shape and subtler detailing. The new style, characterised by a high waistline, a slender body and straight skirts ending around ankle level, was well established by 1911 and is now regarded as symbolising the start of ‘modern’ fashion. The revolutionary silhouette, which effectively liberated the female body, was largely the creation of the pioneering Parisian couturier, Paul Poiret.
The most extreme styles were still reserved for a privileged minority - those with the resources and leisure time. Until WWI, when etiquette began to relax, the social élite continued to dress ‘correctly’ for different occasions and women might change their clothing five or six times a day. Tailored jackets or ‘pelisse’ coats and narrow ‘hobble’ skirts, complemented by enormous hats crowned with sweeping ostrich and osprey plumes, provided sleek costumes for shopping or visiting. For tea parties, garden parties, race meetings and other events, graceful, high-waisted afternoon frocks, secured with silk sashes and draped asymmetrically or layered, tunic-style, were worn with long gloves. The ultimate extravagance was lavish evening attire for the theatre, balls, soirées and dinner parties - trained, embroidered and fringed gowns in vibrant silk, tulle and chiffon, worn with stoles, fur-trimmed cloaks and feathered turbans and bandeaux, exotic creations deriving from Poiret’s classical and oriental-inspired designs.
The busy working woman in 1911 needed respectable but practical clothing for everyday wear and better garments for weekends - a modified version of high fashion. The smart tailor-made outfit was the mainstay of the female wardrobe and comprised an ankle-length skirt and long, matching jacket. Active women adapted the restricting ‘hobble’ shape and wore their skirts at least the width of a stride, extra fullness created by gores and pleats. Different blouses offered variety, either plain, or with neat tucks, round necklines or collars, including a masculine-style shirt and tie version, popular with younger women; dressier blouses featured a higher neckline, lace collars or panels, or were layered over a chemisette. More formal one-piece dresses, of different fabrics and colours to suit the season or occasion, emphasised the fashionable high waistline. Hair was drawn up above a parting into wide, full waves or soft curls above the temples. Heads were covered outdoors and even ordinary hats were broad-brimmed and decorated with flowers and ribbons. Gloves, ‘modern’ handbags on long cords and one-inch heeled buttoned boots or shoes ornamented with bows or buckles were standard accessories. The suffragettes, who were becoming more active at this time, adopted smart, stylish but conventional clothing, presenting a ‘safe’ public image, which aimed to discourage adverse criticism and add integrity to their cause.
In 1911, women’s clothing was not yet mass-produced and relatively little was available ready-made, mainly small articles like underwear and accessories. Garments requiring an accurate fit were usually made-to-measure. Wealthy ladies travelled to Paris visiting couturiers like Worth, Paquin, Doucet or Poiret, or patronised London fashion houses such as Redfern, or Lucile, whose tall, slender mannequins demonstrated their latest ‘models’ to clients in luxurious showrooms. These and other exalted designer-dressmakers, called Court dressmakers, dressed the upper classes, while large stores offered well-heeled customers bespoke garments made in their own workrooms. Some department stores were providing improved facilities for a wider public, like Selfridges (established 1909), which encouraged customers to browse freely, and opened the first bargain basement in a British store. At the bottom end of the market, the trade in secondhand clothes flourished. Many women used small dressmaking establishments or individual dressmakers who made clothes to order, or otherwise made their own and their families’ garments at home. Following fashion dictated from above was challenging for the average woman, but interest in fashion was growing. The latest trends were reported in quality ladies’ magazines such as The Queen and circulated through popular magazines like Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal and Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, both of which supplied patterns for home dressmaking. Regular newspapers like The Illustrated London News were also now publishing illustrated fashion articles, as well as advertisements, reaching a wider audience.
Women, especially amongst the upper and middle classes, were becoming more physically active and enjoyed outdoor activities including walking, cycling, motoring, horse-riding, tennis, croquet and golf. Energetic sports demanded special garments and these were evolving rapidly. Lady motorists wore stylish weather-proof coats, chiffon motor veils, oilskin motor hoods, and goggles. For golf, in 1909, a knitted sports coat was introduced, a long, loose cardigan, often belted, and this was increasingly worn for casual wear. For tennis either a white shirt-blouse and white panelled skirt, or a simple white dress were usual, their hemlines about two inches off the ground. In horse-riding, women were beginning to sit astride, after centuries of riding side-saddle, and the new posture required either divided skirts (wide culottes) or breeches and a long coat. Cycling was very popular and for this women wore a skirt with an inverted centre-back pleat, or knickerbockers or divided skirts.
In 1911, undergarments still provided support but were becoming simpler and more comfortable under sporting and aesthetic influences. To shape the fashionable line from c1908, there developed a style of corset which began lower down, under the bust, and extended over the hips. Only lightly-boned, the new, longer corset did not constrict or exaggerate but produced a smooth line while allowing considerably more freedom of movement. In America, where the tango dance craze arrived in 1911, elastic dance and sports corsets were also introduced. The newly-exposed bust now inspired early forms of brassiere - the flimsy bust bodice or bust shaper. With the narrowing of skirts, layers of frilled petticoats were replaced with one simple petticoat. Knee-length knickers were made increasingly with a closed crotch, preferable for wear with knickerbockers and divided skirts.
Everyday male fashions
Men’s clothing was essentially static from c1900 until after WW1. The three-piece lounge suit was standard wear for work, at weekends, and for special occasions amongst the lower and middling classes. In 1911, all suit pieces usually matched and were generally slim-fitting. Single or double-breasted jackets had two flapped hip pockets, ticket and breast pockets and were worn to thigh-length. Open jackets exposed the waistcoat and the looped watch chain was a common sight. Trousers were typically narrow and sometimes featured turn-ups and centre creases; being rather short, they revealed the wearer’s laced leather boots, or shoes, still a recent innovation but becoming more common. Men’s shirts were heavily-starched but neckwear had already attained today’s arrangement - a turned-down shirt collar and a long, knotted tie. The clean-cut, modern image was enhanced by a growing preference for less facial hair: men sometimes wore a small moustache but the trend amongst younger men was to go clean shaven. Hair was short and heads were covered in public, the cloth cap being usual amongst working men. Smarter options were the stiff bowler hat or the new felt Homburg hat, popularised by Edward VII.
Men’s tailoring and occasion wear
The upper classes had not condescended to wearing ‘off-the-peg’ clothing by 1911 and preferred suits individually made by bespoke tailors. They generally presented a more traditional image, favouring conservative frock coats and top hats for weddings and other social events, and either the frock coat or sloping morning coat for professional and business wear. Formal evening occasions demanded full evening dress - a tail coat, white waistcoat and white neck tie. For the masses, a wide range of reasonably-priced, ready-made lounge suits were available and lightweight summer suits were sometimes teamed with straw boaters. Striped or brightly-coloured flannel blazers, worn with flannel trousers, were popular for casual town or country dress, but waistcoats were worn, whatever the weather, and no respectable man appeared publicly in shirt sleeves. However, manual workers, including builders, miners and farm labourers, habitually worked without jackets and waistcoats, replacing the tie with a neck handkerchief or scarf. Some workmen wore knitted jerseys and these were also commonly worn for outdoor activities like cycling and boating. Men enjoyed various sports in 1911, and for most rural pursuits from shooting to golf, wore knickerbockers with the pleated, belted ‘Norfolk’ jacket. Organised team sports like football, rugby and cricket were well-established and players were provided with the club’s official kit.
Babies and children
Babies in 1911 still wore several layers, including flannel petticoats for warmth and often a ‘binder’ or ‘roller’, a strip of flannel or stout cotton wound around the midriff to flatten the navel and support the lower back and stomach. White or cream baby gowns could be plain or elaborate, according to occasion and circumstances. Bibs were used and sometimes bore a woven or embroidered slogan like ‘Our Pet’ or ‘Don’t talk too loud’! Traditionally, male infants wore petticoats until around the age of four, although this practice was declining. Young boys progressed to woollen knickerbocker suits - miniature lounge jackets or ‘Norfolk’ jackets worn with a starched white Eton collar, or tunics with a sailor collar, teamed with gathered knickerbockers or, more commonly, open shorts. Shorts often showed the knee by 1911, and were accompanied by black woollen stockings or shorter socks. Following a growing recognition that little boys needed comfortable play clothes, some were beginning to wear stretchy knitted jerseys with shorts, a ‘progressive’ style that became increasingly popular. For girls, from 1908, the Liberty Bodice, a soft, knitted-cotton, front-buttoning bodice, offered respite from rigid corsets, while Chilprufe (registered in 1911) represented a new era in comfortable children’s underwear. Loose smock dresses were worn by young girls for school and play, often with protective pinafores, and more tailored, belted garments for best. Schoolwear was gradually acquiring a more uniform look for older girls at this time with shirts and ties worn with jackets and calf-length skirts, or with gymslips, which were introduced for gymnastics but were now becoming more widely accepted for regular schoolwear.
Jayne Shrimpton - professional dress historian and picture specialist: consultant, writer and lecturer www.photosintime.co.uk. Author of Family Photographs and How to Date Them (Countryside Books, 2008) and Getting the most out of Family Pictures (Society of Genealogists, 2010 forthcoming).