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Fashion

Corsets, petticoats, trousers galore! Peel aside the layers that separate us from our Edwardian counterparts.

The Tea Gown

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an elegant tea party The ritual of taking tea in the “afternoon” (really, early evening, around four to five o’clock) conjures images of polite, white-gloved ladies gossiping over cups of steaming Oolong or Darjeeling. The ritual was established in the 1840s by the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who, finding herself famished between dinner and supper, “ordered a small meal of bread, butter, and other niceties, such as cakes, tarts, and biscuits, to be brought secretly to her boudoir. When she was exposed she was not ridiculed, as she had feared, but her habit caught on and the concept of a small meal, of niceties and perhaps tea, became popular and eventually known as ‘afternoon tea’.” As the century progressed, and cosmopolitan, aristocratic circles began to pattern itself after the Prince of Wales, the ritual of the afternoon tea began to be associated with more erotic elements, in the guise of the tea gown.

Alternately known as a “tea gown”, “robe d’interieur”, or as fashionable Edwardian society christened it, “teagie”, this article of clothing was, above all things, an indoor dress–as its name implies. A natural cousin to the dressing gown and the peignoir, both of which existed prior to the Edwardian era, the tea gown developed in the 1870s, when both day and evening dresses were tightly fitted. Enabling the Edwardian lady a chance to relax from the bustles and corsets of the day in the company of her associates, it was inevitable that the garment’s relative ease of fastening would prove itself the natural to the setting of seduction. Afternoon tea then morphed into what the French called “le fif-o’-clock” or “four to five”: the accepted time when a lady could entertain her lover with the tacit understanding of her husband. Said spouse would not enter the drawing room at that hour (and in fact, was most likely meeting his own lover), and with the collusion of discreet servants, the lady would announce herself “at home” to no one but her gentleman caller.

The gown itself, despite its naughty connotations, soon became a necessary part of a lady’s wardrobe, fashion writers of the day declaring that “no season’s outfit is considered complete without an assortment of tea gowns, and upon this costume designed and intended on for the most informal wear is expended more time and forethought and planning, that it may be perfect to the most minute detail, than is often given to a velvet reception gown or a satin ball dress.” Because of the gown’s marriage of both comfort and style, the costume moved also into the evening, a dinner tea gown, this version lower at the décolletage and made more elaborately, with somewhat the effect of a fitted gown with a loose cape of lace or chiffon worn over it. The train was longer and the sleeves shorter, and this gown is so made as to be suitable for an informal home dinner of not more than six persons, and was not meant to be worn outside one’s own house.

Of the afternoon tea gown, it was generally made with a transparent yoke of lace or chiffon, collarless and preferably slightly V-shaped. Soft silks and satins and penne and chiffon velvets were principally used for the afternoon tea gown, but chiffon, chiffon clothes, marquisette and lace were to be seen. By 1908, the tea gown was made in two parts, but instead of having waist and skirt separate, this part of the dress was all in one, while over it was slipped a loose coat or tunic of lace or chiffon transparent so as to leave visible the natural waistline. “The under part of the dress was composed of the skirt, which is generally elaborately flounced and trimmed, and a bodice made of the same material as the dress, but absolutely plain with ribbon or satin shoulder straps to keep the dress in place. The lace coats are apt to be the most effective if allowed to fall almost to the hem of the gown itself, the delicate shade of the silk or chiffon showing through the work of the lace with charming effect. A few of the tunics are of lace dyed the color of the chiffon or silk.”

A less romantic view was taken of this gown by French fashion writer, Baroness d’Orchamps, who suggested the tea-gown be worn for “messy chores or for visits to the kitchen.” Used for this sort of task, the gown would be made in wool, flannel, or broadcloth. But of course, this line of advice was ignored by the fashionable. The tea gown was suited to be an indoor garment, “born of fantasy,” and an original creation that was intended to express the wearer’s intimate tastes, while at the same time flattering to her beauty.

Further Reading:
The Book of Afternoon Tea by Lesley Mackley

Vesta Cases

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1907 Vesta Case As I browsed the antiques section of ebay, I stumbled upon a number of listings for small, rectangular silver items called “vesta cases”. This unknown item, apparently quite popular in Victorian/Edwardian eras, made me curious and I immediately went on a hunt for more information.

These pocket-sized cases for carrying matches took their name from ‘Vesta’, the deity that presided over the domestic focus (hearth) in Ancient Rome. A ‘match’ was the modern representation of Vesta’s symbolic flame and was known as a ‘vesta’ up until the twentieth century when ‘match’ and ‘matchbox holder’ became the favored term. Though they came into use in the 1830s, the explosion of popularity for smoking–with both sexes–found them produced extensively between 1890 and 1920.

The first “friction match” was invented by English chemist John Walker in 1827. He named the matches “congreves,” but the process was patented by Samuel Jones, who then sold them as “lucifers.” Early matches had a number of problems: the flame was unsteady, the odor produced was decidedly unpleasant, and they were reported to ignite explosively. However, these issues didn’t deter the popularity of smoking. Charles Sauria amended the odor by adding white phosphorus, and these new matches had to be kept in an airtight box.

Vesta cases were available in thousands of patterns and types. They could be plain and decorated square, oblong and round Pig Vestacases, or made of the myriad of novelty shapes created, most popular being vesta cases in the form of Mr. Punch, skulls, musical instruments, boots and shoes, ladies’ legs, brass pigs with hinged heads, etc. They were also made in every conceivable material including pressed brass, pressed tin, gunmetal, nickel silver, ivory,wood of varying types and ceramics. Although the majority were made of these inexpensive materials, some were made of precious metals or enameled. These precious metal cases would often be gilded to protect the metals from the sulfur head of the matches, which would otherwise tarnish them.

Some vesta cases even featured a strike side for lighting the match, and other versions could incorporate a small knife blade. They were carried predominantly by men in a waistcoat pocket or on a ‘double Albert’ chain, which held a pocket watch on one side and a vesta case on the other. When worn by women, they were usually held by a delicate chain or bracelet around their wrist to be discreetly slid in and out of a sleeve.

The decline of the vesta case came during WWI, when soldiers found the petrol lighter lasted longer and was easy to refill–most important when the difference between life and death in the trenches could hinge upon a number of seconds.

Fortuny’s “Delphos” Gown

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fortuny-dress

Ladies’ fashions had pretty much settled by the Edwardian era. The days when Charles Worth would wreak sensation and havoc upon the lives of his female clients had passed, and for the most part, the silhouettes of the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s flowed neatly with one another; only minor bumps like the brief fashion for leg-o-mutton sleeves, bloomers for cycling and trousers beneath riding skirts for the slow, but growing number of women who rode astride, caused consternation. But a schism formed around 1907, when the elegant, oh-so-feminine and decorous colors and shapes of the turn of the century shifted to a streamlined, athletic look. Women were straining at their tethers—suffragettes, more positions opened for them, exciting artistic developments, and a greater voice in their roles in society—and it was a given that clothing mirrored this movement. The mood also carried a whiff of youth, a whiff that while not fully blossomed until the 1920s, had its origins in the pre-War period and heralded one of the largest changes in society since the Industrial Revolution.

Into the fray came Mariano Fortuny and his Delphos gown of 1907, that “creation which clung to the form in long crinkled lines and shimmered like the skin of a snake”. Born in Granada, the ancient Moorish capital of Spain to a family of Spanish artists, Mariano—named after his painter father—was to be forever influenced by the faded, slightly oriental opulence of the land of his birth. His father died when Mariano was three, and his newly widowed mother took her young son to Paris, where she hosted a salon comprised of her husband’s associates and other artists who flocked to France’s capital in the closing decades of the 19th century. Mariano was encouraged by his mother to take up painting, and he showed considerable skill at an early age. However, his mother moved yet again, but this time to Venice. Ten years later, Mariano moved to the Palazzo Pesaro Orfei, a magnificent 13th century palace whose large, open spaces were an idea work place where he could give full rein to his talents. It eventually became the Palazzo Fortuny, “the house of the magician.”

Fortuny produced his legendary textiles in the early 1900s, and they were immediately touted as incredibly durable, with an almost mystical appearance, and became widely popular due to their inimitable beauty and versatility. He found inspiration in 15th century Florence, 17th century Venice, Persia, Asia, South America, Egypt, China and Greece, and he had a particular interest in the Arabic Empire during the era of its greatest expansion, when it extended from Morocco to India, passing through Persia and the Near East. Another source of inspiration was the German composer Wagner. Fortuny utilized the images garnered from the legends upon which Wagner’s operas were based for his paintings and engravings, and his own formulations of dyes and pigments based on the ancient techniques of the masters gave his materials the appearance of authentic antiquity.

Further inspired by Wagner, Fortuny went on to do much work in the theater, specifically related to lighting and set design. knossos-scarf This theater work led him, during the course of research, to his first serious contact with the art of costume. He began as a designer of costumes for several theatrical productions, but his first purely fashion garment was the Knossos scarf. The scarf, made of silk and rectangular in shape, was printed with geometric, asymmetrical patterns and motifs inspired by Cycladic art. They could be used in a number of ways, allowing great freedom of expression and movement to the human body. It was from these simple scarves, which showed him how to fuse form and fabric, that Fortuny developed his entire production of dresses.

For their full effect, Knossos scarves needed to be worn as embellishments to a particular type of dress. This dress appeared around 1907 and was called the Delphos robe. Working closely with his wife, Henriette, their work combined the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement and Modernism. Henriette assisted Fortuny in the manufacture of his unusual dyes and pigments and also made up the garments. They devised unique printing and stenciling techniques for the exquisite silks and velvets. Delphos gowns were dyed individually in a wide range of unusual colors, and the delicate silk was processed on porcelain rollers to create fine, uneven pleats, one of his many innovations. The early Delphos gowns had short bat-wing sleeves, laced along their tops. Because of the elastic quality of the pleating, Fortuny weighted his dresses by sewing cords strung with hand-blown Venetian glass beads down the sides. To keep their pleats, the dresses were twisted like skeins of yarn and packed into a small cream-colored box.

fortuny-black-gownThe dress was a revolution for the tightly corseted women of 1907.

The tenets of both the Modern and the Aesthetic Movements aimed for the creation of a style freed from the restraints of convention. Followers of the Aesthetic Movement looked nostalgically to Classical Greek and medieval dress for their models. Dress, they felt, should be artistic, hygienic and functional, and not subject to the whims of fashion, which created a kind of clothing that imprisoned the body like a rigid shell. Though the soft, gentle colors favored by the Aesthetes predominated in Fortuny’s designs, in his hands they gained a special richness and brilliance. The silk was dipped several times, each application enriching the color which, due to the transparency of the dye, possessed an ambiguous and living quality that made it change according to light and movement. He never used the same design or identical color combination in any two pieces of fabric.

According to Emily Burbank’s Woman As Decoration,

“These Fortuny tea gowns slip over the head with no opening but the neck, with its silk shirring cord by means of which it can be made high or low, at will; they come in black gold and the tones of old Venetian dyes. One could use a dozen of them and be a picture each time, in any setting, though for the epicure they are at their best when chosen with relation to a special background. The black Fortunys are extraordinarily chic and look well when worn with long Oriental earrings and neck chains of links or beads which reach at least one strand of them half way to the knees.”

Parisian society welcomed Fortuny’s fashions with open arms. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust’s fictionalized peek into the intimate society of France’s gratin, or, upper crust, there are at least sixteen references to Fortuny or to his dresses.

“Of all the indoor and outdoor gowns that Mme de Guermantes wore, those which seemed most to respond to a definite intention, to be endowed with a special significance, were the garments made by Fortuny y Madrazo from old Venetian models. Is it their historical character, is it rather the fact that each one of them is unique that gives them so special a significance that the pose of the woman who is wearing one while she waits for you to appear or while she talks to you assumes an exceptional importance…?”

A particular velvet is described as:

“being of an intense blue which, as my gaze extended over it, was changed into malleable gold, by those same transmutations which, before the advancing gondolas, change into flaming metal the azure of the Grand Canal.”

Mrs. Conde Nast in Fortuny, 1917All Delphos gowns were produced in his studio. Each was made individually by hand, as were all the materials that went into them: the pleated and printed silk, the velvets, the cords used to gather them or unite the different parts, the linings which were of satin , silk, wool, the belts, the labels. Everything was made on the premises (only the tiny Venetian glass beads threaded onto silk cord at the neck and armholes were made elsewhere), including accessories. Since the dresses had no pockets and their wearers needed bags, Fortuny obliged his clients and constructed handbags from his own multicolored velvet in very simple designs.

In 1909 Fortuny opened his own salon on rue Marignan selling not only his pleated silk and velvet gowns, but also cushion covers, wall hangings, lampshades, etc. In 1912, he showed his textiles in the Spanish pavilion at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris. In the years preceding WWI, Fortuny moved from strength to strength, and his fashions retained preeminence well into the 1920s, whereas his pre-War contemporaries—Poiret, Doucet, Callot Soeurs—faltered and failed with the rise of designers like Gabrielle Chanel.

Today, Mariano Fortuny is remembered as a Renaissance man for his versatile mosaic of talents, but particularly for his mastery in his textiles and garments. Though the secret pleat-setting process used by Fortuny is little understood to this day, this website details the process of faking Fortuny’s famous pleats.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

Further Reading:
Fortuny by Anne-Marie Deschodt
Mariano Fortuny, His Life and Work by Guillermo De Osma