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Society

Summer at the Beach

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west-pier-brighton With summer came the great exodus from the sweltering weather of London. The railways had opened England’s coastal resorts to the middle classes in the Victorian era, and the tramways and motorbuses opened them to the working classes, enabling them to take part in the popular concept of the “week-end.” Accordingly, the upper classes frequently moved on to Trouville-Deauville or Biarritz–both in France–for their summer getaway.

The seaside resort had its roots in the mid-18th century as an extension of the older health regime of the spa where physicians believed the sea to have prophylactic powers at the August spring tides. The first sea-bathing resorts began in North Yorkshire and spread quickly to south-eastern England, the most fashionable being Margate, Brighton and Weymouth. With the royal patronage of the Prince Regent upon Brighton, the seaside resort became the fastest-growing kind of British town by the first half of the 19th century, and by the 1900s, every English and Welsh coastline was studded with resorts of different sizes, and every possible market could find a congenial holiday home in one or other of well over 100 substantial coastal resorts, the largest of which had well over 50,000 year-round residents.

bathing machine Ensconced in a boarding house, or perhaps a sea-side villa, the intrepid holidayers would venture to the coastlines for the morning dip. Children were handled by nannies attired in straw boaters and stiff white pique dresses, who pushed perambulators in which the babies were almost hidden behind the bathing dresses, towels, wooden spades (for iron ones were forbidden because they could cause injury) for their elder siblings. Despite the relative modesty of bathing costumes, it was considered an article of clothing improper for a mixed crowd and until 1901, both sexes were confined to segregated bathing machines (roofed and walled wooden carts that rolled into the sea) to retain a measure of propriety.

bathing-suit As the only activity for women involved jumping through the waves while holding onto a rope attached to an off-shore buoy, their bathing costume was quite unsuited for real swimming. Made of serge or preshrunk mohair in black, red or navy, it consisted of a knee-length skirt, a pair of bloomers and a tunic, or a combination type with skirt. The costume was then accessorized by long black stockings, lace-up bathing slippers, and fancy caps. The style of costume changed little between the years 1880 and 1907, cap sleeves being the only new concession to fashion. It was Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman, who heralded the transformation of the bathing costume’s silhouette.

Her performance as an “underwater ballerina” was a version of synchronized swimming involving diving into glass tanks and looking graceful. Since her costumeannette kellerman was tailored to suit her movement, she was arrested for indecent exposure because her swimsuit showed arms, legs and the neck. Though Kellerman later changed the suit to have long arms and legs and a collar, it kept the close fit of her first costume. After this event, bathing wear started to shrink, first uncovering the arms and then the legs up to mid-thigh. Collars receded from around the neck down to around the top of the bosom. The development of new fabrics allowed for new varieties of more comfortable and practical swim wear. Until 1860, it was customary for men to swim nude, and after this was banned in 1860, masculine bathing costume followed the lines of womens, consisting of shirt and shorts, made of dark-colored serge. As with women, men’s costume changed by the late 1900s, when a few daring men were seen swimming topless!

Sunday heralded the end of the weekend. Bathing on the Sabbath was frowned upon and after morning services, visitors thronged the promenades, attired in their Sunday whites to enjoy the sun, regimental bands, minstrel players and delicious treats sold by vendors. As the dusk fell, servants or hotel staff, or perhaps just the family, busily packed their belongings for the return to London on Monday. Sated and full of sea air, the weekend getaway to the beach was open to nearly all classes and walks of life. For the unforunates who were unable to afford the cost of the trip, charitable organizations brought the beach to them, one well-known London-based charity importing sand to the East End to give the children a taste of the delights of a sea-side resort.

The Twin Bed

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Victorian interior design was characterized by three words: gaudy, ornate and formidable. Following fashion, private and public rooms were stuffed with objets d’art, bric-a-brac, heavy velvet drapery, tables, chairs, paneled walls, Oriental rugs, potted plants, gilded reproductions of Louis XVI furniture—intricately carved, fragile sofas and chairs—Chinese ivory figures, German porcelain vases, ormolu clocks, and miniatures lined the fireplace mantle, the mantle itself shaded by heavy, ornamental fire-shades, and all was overlooked by wall to wall portraits and priceless paintings, richly framed in gold. Rooms in the same house could run the gamut from the “Louis” style so popular with Americans, to the Moorish and Oriental decor transported West by fashionable drapers like Liberty & Co.

Everything and every room were subject to the new tastes in fashion, with housewives frequently gutting their boudoirs, parlors and drawing rooms to redecorate–nothing was sacrosanct when it came to fashion. But one change did come, a change that rocked the foundations of society and sent clergymen flocking to their pulpits to condemn the new development: the twin bedstead.

When interior decorators made twin beds popular in the 1890’s, some commentators called them a social menace, while others saw them as therapy for an insomniac age. Many were outraged that the firms hired to furbish the homes of the fashionable had dared to breach the bedroom, and proposed to abolish the sacramental double bed and replace it with the new “twin beds” which manufacturers were beginning to introduce. Clergymen and family physicians were drawn into the rapidly bitter domestic controversy, many of the former predicting the breakdown of the holy bonds of marriage by the separation of husband and wife.

Gibson affection However, some physicians asserted that the old-fashioned double bed was unsanitary, and medical journals condemned them vociferously, one writer claiming that injury to one or the other of two people sleeping in this way was sure to result in time: “By the use of the twin bed a married couple could occupy the same room and sleep side by side without harm to either.” The younger generation couldn’t understand the fuss and quickly adopted the new bed, surmising that two steps across the carpeted floor needn’t be an obstacle to bliss.

The twin bed was so designed that when placed side by side, the effect was that of one wide bedstead, with separate spring mattress and bed clothing provided for each one. Many of them were made of costly woods, rich with carving, though a few simpler versions were provided in brass. So ubiquitous was the twin bed, it inspired a number of theatrical and literary farces, and the controversial piece of furniture was soon to be found in college dormitories across the nations. Because of the relative comfort of the bed, and its convenient size, social reformers soon pleaded for employers to grant their servants the use of twin beds; in one home, five servants were all obliged to sleep in one large room in the basement. By the use of single beds two members of the family who occupied separate rooms could be moved into in one, thus providing an extra room to be given up to the servants.

The twin bed found its place in the Code Era of Hollywood, where the Production Code of the 1930s required married couples to sleep in separate beds to uphold the moral codes of the time. Directors got around this with the “one foot” loophole: both stars had to be dressed, and one character had to keep one foot on the floor (check out the bedroom scene in the first Hepburn/Tracy vehicle, Woman of the Year). Ironically, even though people today consider separate beds to be old-fashioned, when physicians recently promoted the benefits of them, it caused just as much furor and controversy as the topic did in the 1890s!

The Dandy

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In a manner, the dandy was the male counterpart of the professional beauty: he had no other occupation than to devote himself to being clever, witty, well-dressed and amusing. Much like the Regency dandy, the Edwardian version flourished in an era where birth and breeding were no longer indicative of entrance into exclusive circles of society.

In England, King Edward set the standard by his attention to the finer details of dress. So acute were his sensibilities, he was not above rebuking a subject for not appearing up to date: as in the case of the Marquess of Salisbury, who, rushing to a Drawing Room and dressing without his valet, horrified the Prince of Wales by his haphazard attire (according to an account, Lord Salisbury ironically replied, “It was a dark morning, and I am afraid that at the moment my mind must have been occupied by some subject of less importance.”), or with the American-born Duchess of Marlborough, who was coldly rebuked by the king when she appeared at a supper wearing diamond combs in her hair instead of a tiara, like the Queen (to this, Consuelo quietly answered she had little time to change, having hurried home from a charity event). Under his aegis, it was very important to know exactly when to wear the right clothes, as any departure from the norm was regarded as a social gaffe.Joseph Chamberlain

As such, the 1880s and 1890s found dandyism once more of good repute. The English dandy oddly enough, was most likely found in the Houses of Parliament. With the exception of W.E. Gladstone, new standards of sartorial elegance were set, most notably by Lord Randolph Churchill and Joseph Chamberlain, whose image became synonymous with the ever-present monocle, silk hat and orchid boutonnière he wore. On stage, the plays of Shaw, Pinero and Wilde demanded super-fine, even fantastical costumes for the male characters, and the “fashionable novel,” which depicted the lives of the upper classes, made a triumphant return, and every one had its chorus of showy dandies. In 1889, the London weekly, Vanity Fair, debuted a new column, “The Fashion for Men” by “the Man in the Mall”, whose author wrote detailed recommendations for “stiff collars, velvet bands, true and false waistcoats, peg-top trousers, yellow gloves, gilded sticks, and violet boutonnières”.

oscar_wilde1The most notorious dandy of this period was, of course, Oscar Wilde. His early years were spent in the standard clothing of a middle-class young man: tiny Bowler tipped rakishly over a brow, bright tweeds and comfortable trousers, waistcoat and jacket. By the end of his term at Oxford, he set himself on the path to becoming “Professor of Aesthetics” and dressed the part in knee breeches, a flowing tie, velvet coat, wide, turned-down collar, and a drooping lily. Laying siege to London society, he quickly conquered such notables as Henry Irving, Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry and Ellen Terry, among others, by writing them countless invitations to supper, flower arrangements and requests for photographs. These celebrities, and anyone with which they associated, were news, and by 1880, two years after Wilde came down from Oxford, he was a star. Moving from strength to strength in the ’80s, by the wit of his pen and sweat of his violet-scented brow, Wilde’s plays reached the stage, and to wild success. As he achieved both financial security and creative success, his style of dress changed from that of languid Aesthete to the florid Regency-era dandy. In the ’90s, fame, brought about by his plays, replaced the trivial notoriety of his earlier years, and his dress became coldly correct, Wilde expressing his individuality with a single detail: a green boutonnière, a bright red waistcoat, or a turquoise and diamond stud.

beerbohmCaricatures of Max Beerbohm show him attired in a high stiff collar, gloves, a carefully tilted silk hat, a cane, a boutonnière, an artfully bulging frock coat, and tapering trousers–the basic equipment for the ’90s dandy of the most correct school. A contemporary of Wilde’s, and half-brother to celebrated actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Max Beerbohm exemplified the Edwardian dandy. As befitting a proper dandy of this period, he was in much demand as a guest at the great dinner parties of Mayfair, where he was considered by many to be the greatest wit in town. His inspiration came directly from Brummell and D’Orsay, and as the era experienced a revival in the 1880s and 1890s, materializing in numerous plays, and reprinted memoirs and biographies,it was as “prophet” of the English Regency that his reputation was made.

Across the Channel, the French dandy was personified in many of le gratin‘s gentlemen, most notably Comte Robert de Montesquiou and Comte Boni de Castellane. Both gentlemen were members of France’s most elite aristocracy, and both had a reputation for decadence and bizarre ostentation. The favorite subject of Comte Robert de Montesquiou was himself, and his vanity prompted him to commission innumerable portraits of himself. To any criticism, he was indifferent, saying “It is better to be hated than to be unknown.” Descending from the count_robert_de_montesquiou1dukes of Gascony and the Merovingian kings, he was exceedingly proud of his royal connections and, sublimely self-assured, he held sway over a worshipful band of muses, literary ladies and young Symbolists. He selected his costume based upon his moods, and could turn up in sky-blue, or his famous almond-green outfit with a white velvet waistcoat. His collection of scarf pins was notorious; ranging in motif from an emerald butterfly to an onyx death’s head. On a finger, he wore a large signet ring with a crystal hollowed out to contain one human tear. Adding to this affectation was Comte Robert’s place of residence. Living on the top floor of his father’s hotel prive, his remote suite of rooms were reached by climbing a dark, twisting staircase and passing through a carpeted tunnel lined with tapestry. In this suite were fantastical rooms decorated by his various moods: a pink room, a gray room (for which he ransacked flower stalls daily for gray flowers), a room featuring a Russian sleigh and polar-bear rug, and a library housed in a glass conservatory.

Though his wife was extremely plain, Anna Gould had a dowry of fifteen million dollars. Bolstered by this, Boni de Castellane devoted himself to thecastellane art of dandyism, spending those millions lavishly on the construction of the Palais Rose, a pink marble palace in the Avenue du Bois fitted with a staircase as grand as that of the Opera, an immense ballroom and a private theatre with five hundred seats; maintaining two châteaux in the country, a villa at Deauville and a 1600-ton yacht; buying priceless works of art; and becoming the best dressed man in Europe. Despite his spendthrift behavior, Comte Boni was a person of polish and culture, who could converse on any subject. His only crime was to have been born in the wrong century, for he adored the court of eighteenth century Versailles, and did anything to recreate the bygone era. His reign came to an abrupt end, however, in 1906 when he arrived home to discover the electricity out. After eleven years of marriage, five children and the spending of $10 million of her dowry, Anna Gould had filed for divorce. She cut off his funds, threw him out of his houses and sent his clothes, his only remaining fortune, to him in care of his parents and shortly thereafter, married his cousin.

The outbreak of the Great War brought la belle epoque to an abrupt end, and with it, the dandy. Certainly gentlemen since have cared greatly for their appearance, but the art, the cultivation of it, and even the acceptance and admiration of it by both men and women, seems strictly the province of the long nineteenth century.

Further Reading:
The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm by Ellen Moers
Dandies and Desert Saints: Styles of Victorian Masculinity by James Eli Adams
Dandies by James Laver
Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes by Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell
Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II by Philip Mansel