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Social History

The Russian Influence on Edwardian Society


The art and style of about 1908-1914 matched the frenetic pace towards the modernism the First World War brought to fruition. This period–characterized by the Ballet Russes (under the design of Léon Bakst), Paul Poiret, and art movements like Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism–can be neglected, sandwiched as it is between the better-known lush floral curves of Art Nouveau and the stark geometric lines of Art Deco. But the brief, startling impact of Russian and “Oriental” design on the Edwardians was like a pupa bursting free from its larvae to become a dazzling butterfly. Almost overnight, ladies exchanged their large, feathered hats for lame turbans, and the smartest houses cleared away their clutter for clean lines, sensual drapery, and exotic furnishings.

Couturier Paul Poiret spread his empire to encompass perfumes, textiles, and home furnishings, and Martine, a school of decorative art, studio, and store founded in 1911, was a revolutionary idea. Not only were the students and craftswomen drawn from the working classes, but these girls were sent out to Paris to capture the sights in their untrained eyes and hands, thus producing “natural” designs that fit perfectly with the current trend of avant garde art. At first Martine only produced textiles and wallpapers, but “it soon expanded to create carpets, lighting, hand-painted glassware and ceramics, and other items for interiors…Furniture and interior-decorating services were introduced under the direction of Guy-Pierre Fauconnet.”

Atelier Martine - Paul Poiret Table
Atelier Martine – Paul Poiret Table – via 1st
Vaisselle de Paul Poiret - Atelier Martine Faïence de Choisy-le-Roi
Vaisselle de Paul Poiret – Atelier Martine Faïence de Choisy-le-Roi / via Pinterest
Pair of low armchairs - Martine
Pair of low armchairs – Martine | via

During its heyday between 1909 and 1929, the Ballet Russes set the trends for music, fashion, design, and dance. Serge Diaghilev, the company’s founder and impresario, gathered the best dancers, choreographers, and designers under his wing, most of whom achieved lasting fame long after his death. Léon Bakst was the art director for the Ballet Russes, and his collaboration with Diaghilev produced starting sets and costumes that appealed to everyone in society, not simply the elite, and rebelled against realism. Nicholas Roerich, another Russian artist, had a particular interest in Russia’s past, which served him well when designing the sets for the Ballet Russes epic historical pieces like Prince Igor.

Costume design by Léon Bakst for principal female dancer in The Firebird, 1910 | via Wikipedia
Costume design by Léon Bakst for principal female dancer in The Firebird, 1910
Costumes for two Maidens and an Elder from The Rite of Spring, 1913
Nicholas Roerich, Russian, 1874–1947, Costumes for two Maidens and an Elder from The Rite of Spring, 1913, wool, leather, metal belts and necklace, napped cotton, wood, and fur, V&A, London © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Ballet Russes Oriental 1913 Costume Design Leon Bakst.
Ballet Russes Oriental 1913 Costume Design Leon Bakst.
Set Design for Scheherazade - Leon Bakst, 1910
Set Design for Scheherazade – Leon Bakst, 1910 | via Wikipaintings
Léon Bakst, Costume Design for Hullo, Tango, 1914
Léon Bakst, Costume Design for Hullo, Tango, 1914 | via Pinterest

To focus on music and dance, Igor Stravinsky’s composition “The Rite of Spring” caused a near riot when it debuted in 1913. For audiences weaned on the delicate strains of the waltz and the elegant ballets of Tchaikovsky, the deliberate dissonance and outrageous textures was taken as an assault on their ears. Add to this the unconventional, frenzied choreography of principal dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and this was a revolution! The video below is a 1987 recreation of Nijinsky and The Rite of Spring, as it possibly appeared to audiences in 1913.

Further Reading

Poiret (Metropolitan Museum of Art) by Harold Koda & Andrew Bolton
Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion by Mary E. Davis

Online Exhibitions

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909-1929: Twenty Years That Changed the World of Art – Harvard
Serge Diaghilev and His World: A Centennial Celebration of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 1909–1929 – Library of Congress
Diaghilev & The Ballet Russes – Victoria & Albert Museum

Charles Booth’s Inquiry of London


Between 1886 and 1902, Charles Booth, a successful businessman and social activist, worked on creating the first real study on the social life of London. Booth wished to discover how many people in London were living in poverty and to expose the problem as a real issue, instead of just an estimate by the politicians of the times, which they used to further their own personal agenda.


(Charles Booth, from

London of the 19th century was a strange mix of poverty and extravagant wealth. By reading Booth’s detailed notes as he walked the streets, you get to see the social divide expressed in the landscape of London City. Color coded maps break down the city into the rich playground, and the poor slums. Each color signified a different poverty level.

These were:

Black: Do not go there. You are likely to robbed and taken advantage of by the
extremely poor people who live there.

Dark Blue- The people who live here, live in poor housing, constantly have no
money and generally go without the basic necessities of life.

Light Blue- People who live in this area are poor but have a wage coming in;
about 18-21s a week.

Purple- The people who live here are a mix of the very poor, the moderately
poor, and the well off.

Pink- These people earn enough to live comfortably and do not usually have to
do without.

Red- The people who live in these areas are middle-class. Made up of shop
owners and merchants, they have money to spend on the luxuries of life.

Yellow- The people who live in these areas are upper class and lucky from


(Color coded map of London, from Wikicommons)

These maps show a living, breathing London, and the various notes taken by
Booth, adds to the emerging picture. There were the dirty, unsafe streets,
filled with vagabonds, thieves and prostitutes, while at the other end of town,
there were stately homes, restaurants, shops and well dressed men and women, with money to spend.

Occasionally the outward signs of poverty spilled into these areas in the form
of beggars, hoping to take away a small piece of the wealth around them, or in
houses of ill-repute, which serviced the young lords with wild oats to sow. To
create his map of London’s poverty, Charles Booth followed policemen around on their usual routes. These policemen were familiar with the characters on their beat, and pointed out the trouble areas, where various illegal activities took place. Booth took copious notes, and to read them is like stepping back into a time capsule, allowing you to walk the streets as they once were, and experience  the good and the bad.

Using excerpts from these notebooks, I hope to introduce you to a good area of London and then the bad side of town, to experience the social and economic differences of London of the 19th century from the words of those who actually experienced it as it was.

Wealthy Side

Tragel to Bridge Park
“…Practically all yellow, quite new. White, no signs of grey…modern type of
architecture, bricks, low window, green doors, ornamental brass knocker ect.”

The Poor Side
Old Street
“As to the changes in the neighborhood, Machel said that warehouses had
encroached upon dwellings to such an extent in the past ten years that the poor working class who used to live in the district had been driven elsewhere to Toltenham and Walthamstow. Some motel dwellings had been put up but the class that came to them was different to which had left…Of the working classes that remain there is a considerable mixture of criminals, principally pickpocket and housebreakers who worked in either the east of the city or west London. It is also a centre of the receiving of stolen goods. This and Clarkenwell adjoining may be called the `melting pot,’ of London. Practically all silver and jewels that are stolen come here for disposal and are either broken up and melted or dismantled….The housebreaker or ware-housebreaker is a higher class of man than a pickpocket. Pickpockets `do’ a little every day but a housebreaker is often a respectable citizen for a month or two while he makes his plans…”

If you are interested in finding out more about Charles Booth, or reading more
of his notebooks, the Charles Booth Online Archives can be found here:

Tuxedos and Tuxedo Park


Tuxedo Park, NYLong after the fame of the exclusive Gilded Age resort faded, the semi-formal suit (presently considered formal wear in America) which was lent its name remains. Prior to the 1880s, casual wear was rarely seen. For gentlemen, attire was dictated by the hour of day and destination. They looked to the English for evening dress, and despite the great difference in climate and temperament, Gilded Age gentlemen went stiffly to dinner in tails, waistcoat, and high collar. As high society looked to emulate their European betters, they began forming resorts–Newport was one, Bar Harbor, or Lakewood, New Jersey, were others, to name a few–where they could relax and play. Tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard had other plans in mind when he sought to establish another aristocratic resort.

Where places like the aforementioned Newport, or Bar Harbor, sprang up around sleepy New England villages, and were easily accessed by the non-rich, Tuxedo Park was to be ultra-exclusive, man-made, and entirely unique. Through a combination of poker winnings and legitimate purchasing, Lorillard pieced together five thousand acres of land in the Ramapo Mountains region of Orange County, New York. At the urging of his lover, socialite-turned-actress Cora Brown Potter, he then turned the tract of land over to architect Bruce Price (the father of Emily Post) to design and build a gated community which would consist of luxurious cottages, private roads, a clubhouse, a private police station, and landscaping to mimic a rustic setting. Lorillard imported Italian and Slovak immigrants to build Tuxedo Park, and he rather thoughtlessly, but true to the period, named the shanties in which they lived “Fifth Avenue,” “Broadway,” and “Wall Street;” the workers mess hall was “Delmonico’s.”

Tuxedo Park opened in 1886, and members of the Four Hundred rushed to snap up land. However, those families who were not allotted ramapo falls tuxedoparcels on which to erect a cottage had to undergo a formal test before being allowed to buy land and build a home: first they contracted to buy land, at which point they were examined by the Tuxedo Association for admission to the club. If a prospective homeowner was denied admission to the club, their contract to buy property was simply voided. Nonresident members were permitted to stay in Tuxedo, but only for limited periods, and family members stayed in apartments on the top floors of the clubhouse, bachelors resided in a separate building, and families with children were housed in a separate building nicknamed “the baby kennels.” As Tuxedo Park was focused around the clubhouse, it was ruled with an iron fist by George Griswold, who created a set of rules and enforced them in a socially ruthless manner.

Laura Claridge describes the opening day on May 30, 1886 in Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners:

[T]hree special trains, loaded with seven hundred guests, arrived from New York City. Green-and-gold buses and wagons, branding the scene with the club’s colors, lined up at the station to transport the visitors to the park. For latecomers, there were the Tuxedo taxicabs–single-horse covered carts, locally called “jiggers”–to pick up the slack.

tuxedoThough Tuxedo Park was built as a sporting resort, its proximity to New York naturally incorporated a stay into the year-round social season–some families preferring to go there after the Newport season, instead of the Berkshires, and some even made Tuxedo their permanent residence. The year Tuxedo Park opened sparked not only the birth of the country club and modern American resort, but an item of clothing which was to change the way men dressed for formal events to this day.

There are two accounts about the origins of the tuxedo. In one account, Pierre Lorillard’s son Griswold turned up in a tail-less evening jacket at Tuxedo Park’s annual Autumn Ball and apparently, the jacket became “known as the tuxedo when a fellow asked another at the Autumn Ball, ‘Why does that man’s jacket not have coattails on it?‘ The other answered, ‘He is from Tuxedo Park.’ The first gentleman misinterpreted and told all of his friends that he saw a man wearing a jacket without coattails called a tuxedo, not from Tuxedo.”

The other account gives the provenance of the tuxedo to fellow Tuxedo Park resident James Brown Potter, who brought a Homburg jacket made at Henry Poole & Co. home from a trip to England in 1886. When Potter and his friends wore this coat to a dinner party at Delmonico’s, it created a sensation and was dubbed a “tuxedo.” Whomever originated the tuxedo, its adoption over the tailcoat was considered daring until the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor)–an ardent lover of all things American–made it acceptable for semi-formal evening dress. Though tie and tails prevailed for most, the younger generation preferred the tuxedo for its slightly informal aspect and its modernity.