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Women

The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

Edwardians Unbuttoned

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The new silhouette required a much slimmer parcel of undergarments than before, and it was in this period that underclothing took on the sensual connotations of the word “lingerie“. Ornate, overtly sexual and colorful underclothes began to shift away from the boudoirs of courtesans and into the bedchambers of respectable housewives and independent women. Whereas Victorian underclothing had been functional, the sole function of Edwardian underwear was to attract and tantalize men.

Along with the word lingerie used in place of undergarments, other terms changed to reflect the emphasis on seduction; the shift was first called a camisole and then simply known as a “slip” by this period, drawers turning into knickers and petticoats into “frillies“. This was the age of frou-frou, that exciting sound of chiffon and taffeta undergarments that whispered as a woman walked (though by the middle of the era, the sound of a swishing petticoat was deemed vulgar). For the wealthy lady, the proper layer of lingerie was important and the corsetier and couturier one purchased one’s lingerie from was a status symbol, its purchase acknowledging that the lady had a special someone for whom she flaunted her undergarments.

Lady dressingThe fashionable woman was poured into at least seven layers of underclothing before she even dressed for the hour! Since they changed clothing five to six times a day, with even more if one was on vacation or at a Saturday-to-Monday, it was imperative that underclothing was both attractive and sturdy. When the lady awoke, her first layer of undergarment were the combinations, a kind of pant and vest in one piece which gained popularity in the 1870s with the introduction of the “Princess style” dress and greatly reduced the bulk that would have accompanied a separate chemise and pantaloons. Generally made of wool or a mixture of wool and silk, they came in a number of styles: strapless for evening wear, or with a skirt in the back to hide the slit in the pants.

Edwardian corsetOver this was laced the corset. The late Victorian corset fitted over the bosom and hips with curved busks that compressed the stomach and supported the spine, while the S-bend corset of the early Edwardian era, called thus due to the peculiar arch of the back this corset produced,caused women to thrust their bosom forward and their hips backwards to give them the hourglass shape then popular. When skirts and bodices narrowed after 1908, the emphasis was now placed on an overall slimness, and corsets were designed to compress the waist and hips and no longer covered the bosom. They were also quite long, ending at mid-thigh, causing a slight difficulty in sitting and standing.

Next layer, the camisole. A kind of under-blouse that buttoned down the front, it gathered at the waist and was trimmed with lace around the neck and puffed sleeves. This was very fitted, with darts and seaming, and decorated with lace and trimming during the 1880-1908 period, and after, it was made quite plain,often with a square neckline. Over this, a pair of frilly knickers, which sometimes buttoned at the waist or tied with tapes. The last undergarment essential to a lady was the waist-petticoat, made of lawn or rustling silk. It was laid upon the floor in a circle and the lady stepped into the center, the maid lifting the petticoat up and tying it around the waist. Tightly-laced, secured and buttoned up, the ladyJaeger suit was then ready to be attired for whatever occasion of her day or night.

For men, the union suit, a long-time staple of both men (and women until the mid-19th century), was de rigueur. Made of a knitted material,they possessed a flap in the front and the back for necessary needs. The jock-strap was invented in 1874 by a Chicagoan named C.F. Bennett to provide protection when gentlemen rode bicycles. By the end of the 1910s, the union suit was split into upper and lower parts, inventing the undershirt and drawers for men. Soldiers in WWI were issued underwear somewhat similar to the modern-day boxer shorts and due to its popularity, they supplanted the union suit as the mode of men’s underwear.

100 Years: Alpha Kappa Alpha

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akaThe history of Greek letter societies in America begins on December 5, 1776, with the founding of The Phi Beta Kappa Society at the College of William and Mary. Its name deriving from the initials of a secret Greek motto, Philosophia Biou Kybernētēs = “Love of learning [is] the guide of life”, the fraternity was a forum for students to discuss topics not covered by their classical education. In addition to its secrecy and selection of a Greek name, it also introduced a code of high ideals, secret rituals and handclasps, membership badges, and oaths that characterized later Greek letter societies. As Phi Beta Kappa developed, it came to become a very influential association of faculty and select students across several colleges, with membership becoming more of an honor and less of a functioning society.

This uniquely North American institution soon flourished and soon, new or auxiliary chapters of existing fraternities were present on nearly all college and university campuses across America. At the same time, sororities (initially called fraternities until the word was used to define Gamma Phi Beta at Syracuse University in 1874) grew from the popular Greek movement, with Kappa Alpha Theta of DuPauw and Kappa Kappa Gamma (both 1870) formally recognized as being the first secret society for collegiate women based on the Greek secret societies for men.

ethel-lyleTaking note of this, America’s black educated elite followed suit, and Alpha Phi Alpha became the first intercollegiate Greek letter fraternity established for people of African descent when it chartered a chapter in 1906 at Cornell University. In Spring 1907, Ethel Hedgeman led the efforts to create a sisterhood at Howard University, inspired by the Greek experience of future-husband George Lyle, who was a charter member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity’s Beta chapter at Howard.

Hedgeman recruited any interested ladies and by autumn of that year, Hedgeman and eight other women began to draw plans for the organization. With Hedgeman serving as the temporary chairperson, the women wrote the sorority’s constitution, devised the motto and colors, and named the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. In early 1908, seven sophomore honor students expressed interest and were accepted without initiation; however, the first initiation was held in a wing of Miner Hall on Howard University on February 11, 1909.

Alpha Kappa Alpha grew at leaps and bounds at Howard, and featured a bevy of ritual and sponsored social events. The sorority did hit its first snag, however, in 1912, when twenty-two members were initiated and seven officers were elected. The twenty-two were dismayed at progress and wanted to reorganize the sorority, leading to a split into two factions. The new members wanted to establish a national organization, enlarge the scope of activities of the sorority, change its name and symbols, and be more politically oriented. When Nellie Quander, a graduate member, heard about changing the sorority name, she disagreed and gave the other women a deadline to stop the efforts to reorganize the sorority. However, the twenty-two declined and instead formed Delta Sigma Theta on January 13, 1913.

Quander later revised her opinion, and along with five other sorority members, led an initiative to incorporate Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority as a perpetual body on January 29, 1913.The organization was nationally incorporated in Washington, D.C., as a non-profit under the name Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated on January 30, 1913. During the same year the sorority began using Greek names for officers. After this, AKA continued to spread its wings with a second chapter at the University of Chicago in was chartered in fall 1913, with many others following soon after.

aka_seal In a time when women were marginalized, and women of color were even more so, the ladies of AKA possessed a bravery and courage in their active role in the voting concerns of the day and the support for black rights and education. In addition, Alpha Kappa Alpha helped to support members by providing scholarship funds for school and foreign studies.

After graduating from Howard, Ethel Hedgeman Lyle and the other founding members of AKA continued to be a guiding light to subsequent pledges and members, using their education and social standing to uplift and encourage the lives of black Americans, and uphold the sisterhood, amidst crushing racism and violence practiced against blacks. Today, the sorority boasts a membership of college-trained women around the world, with active members who comprise a diverse constituency, from educators to heads of state, politicians, lawyers, medical professionals, media personalities, and corporate managers, and many chapters, located in the United States, the Caribbean, Canada, Germany, Korea and Japan.

For more information:
Alpha Kappa Alpha (wikipedia)
Official Website
Centenary Celebration

The Mount: Home of Edith Wharton

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edith-wharton Without fail, after the sunshine and bustle of summer months spent in exclusive summer resorts dotting the New England coast, New York Society repaired to their country homes in Connecticut or more likely, the Berkshires, in autumn. Following this social calendar also, was the future chronicler of this tight-knit, wealthy circle, Edith Wharton. It is here Wharton built what she considered her “first real home.”

The Mount was to be a writer’s retreat and also a place for entertaining distinguished guests like Henry James, the Vanderbilts or her neighbors at Ventfort Hall, the George Morgans. Inspired by the 17th century seat of Lord Brownlow, Belton House, and classical Italian and French architecture, she used the principles detailed in her first book, The Decoration of Houses (1897), when she designed the house. Accordingly, she stressed that “good architectural expression included order, scale, and harmony.” On a plot ofthe-mount 113 acres, the house overlooked Laurel Lake, with spectacular views to the Berkshire Hills and beyond, its striking white stucco exterior set off by black shutters and rose from a foundation of coarse field stone. Three stories at its entry elevation, this main house is augmented by Georgian Revival gatehouse and stable, and a greenhouse, while the garden side was of two stories, with an opening onto the large, raised stone terrace overlooking the grounds.

A visitor to the house would enter from a courtyard, then ascend a flight of steps to the main floor where the principle spaces–library, drawing room, dining room and sitting room–would open onto a terrace which offered that spectacular view of the lake and the hills. From this terrace, a Palladian staircase led to a “lime walk” of linden trees, which connected the two formal gardens on the estate.

the-mount2The gardens were Wharton’s own labor of love, expressing the ideas of her 1904 release, Italian Villas and Their Gardens, envisioning her gardens as an elegant series of outdoor rooms. Designed and constructed between 1901 and 1907, they are the only surviving landscape elements she designed in the United States. After the “lime walk,” one was a walled Italian garden with walkways and a lion’s head fountain, given minimal plantings, so that it had “a charm independent of the seasons.”

Contrasting this was the flower garden filled to the brim with petunias, phlox, snapdragons, stocks, penstemons and hollyhocks, and featured a dolphin fountain and a latticework niche. To complete the landscaping was a rock garden, for which Wharton searched out native varieties of sweet ferns. To form a gradual transition from the formal plantings to the landscape beyond, clipped hedges and trees followed Wharton’s principle that “each step away from architecture was a nearer approach to nature.”

It was here Edith Wharton wrote several of her novels, including The House of Mirth, the first of many chronicles of the true nature of old New York, and entertained the cream of American literary society, including her close friend, the novelist Henry James. But this haven failed to completely soothe Wharton’sthe-mount3 restless spirit; acerbated by Teddy Wharton’s alcoholism and general dissipation, she sought refuge in Europe and by 1910, the Wharton’s had separated. After selling The Mount in 1911, they finally divorced in 1913 and Wharton remained primarily in Europe, where she continued to write, publishing such masterpieces as her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence and her final, incomplete manuscript, The Buccaneers, before passing away in 1937.

In the meantime, The Mount was passed from owner to owner, first a private residence, then a girls’ dormitory for the Foxhollow School, and the site of the theatre company Shakespeare & Company. It was finally purchased by Edith Wharton Restoration, which has restored much of the property to its original condition. Currently open from May to October for visitors and tours, The Mount unfortunately faces foreclosure after 106 years of existence. Despite this hovering dark cloud, the estate nonetheless retains the elegant, precise charm of Wharton’s imagination.

Further Reading:
The Mount: Edith Wharton’s Estate and Gardens
The Mount: Edith Wharton and the American Resistance
The Victory Garden: The Mount; Edith Wharton’s House & Gardens