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Edwardian Fashion Week

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Lucile Fashion Parade
Lucile Fashion Parade

Today’s fashionistas can access the catwalks of New York, Paris, London, and Milan Fashion Week with the click of a button or tap of an app–and they can mark their purchases just as easily. Though Edwardian women didn’t have YouTube or apps, they too had fashion shows, and just as today’s fashion industry is divided into two seasons, so it was in the 1900s.

Paris has always been the center of the fashion industry, and couturiers used the fashionable races at Auteuil and Longchamps in the spring and in the autumn to unveil their latest designs. Mannequins (models), carefully attired in whatever daring trend the designers hoped to press upon ladies, would casually stroll about the racecourse, stopping at suitable intervals for perusal. Sometimes the wild designs backfired, as was the case with the mannequins dressed in trousers around 1913! This was followed on a more restrained scale by English designers (Redfern, famous for the tailor made, made its mark at Cowes). Lucile is credited with the creation of the “mannequin parade,” and this became a staple in not only dressmakers’ establishments, but upscale department stores. Sipping tea in the fashion department, while a parade of girls strolled by in the latest designs became de rigueur for middle- and upper-class women, and they needed only point at what they wished to buy.

The cult of the model was decades away, but Lucile once again paved the way when she hired statuesque young women and gave them romantic names like Gamela and Hebe, and took them with her on fashion tours of the US.

As Blanche McManus points out in The American Woman Abroad:

The mannequins play one of the most important rôles in these Palaces of Modes. They are the live “dummies” on whom are displayed the costumes. All day long they must promenade the salons of the establishments where they are employed, revolving slowly before the eyes of a critical battery of customers, that the effect of the gown may be better judged on a living figure than it may on a thing of wires and papier-maché.

Frequently there is a stage upon which the mannequins play their parts, parts which call for quite as much endurance as the most tragic roles of the real stage. Endurance, tact and skill in their highest forms are all called for, and upon the ability of the mannequin to impress the buyer with the graces of a particular gown depends the sale quite as much, in many instances, as upon the skill of the designer or the insinuations of the salesman or woman. The physical and mental strain is unceasing. From nine in the morning often until nine at night the mannequin must be on her feet, changing from one costume to another at the caprice of the most erratic of clients. Her position and advancement depend upon her ability to clinch sales. All her natural and artificial charms are brought to bear. The mannequins are selected for their svelt figures and for their beauty of face as well as of form. They wear a tight-fitting, black sheath garment, over which the gowns are shown.

A mannequin in a swell establishment is paid something like thirty dollars a month, perhaps a little more if her reputation as a seller is particularly good. Another service which she renders is posing in public places in the new creations of her employer that a new fashion may be well launched in the eyes of the public. She may be seen at Longchamps on the day of the Grand Prix, at Armenonville, at the Pré Catelan, indeed wherever fashion congregates. On the occasion of the Grand Prix she is generally out in full force, parading in the paddock as in the tribunes, or strolling in the enclosure reserved for high society. She will perhaps be dressed in the most bizarre of creations and be followed greedily by all eyes, but she glides along, seemingly unconscious of the throng or the part she is playing, though she divides the honours with the horses and the jockeys. All feminine Paris studies the mannequins on parade at Longchamps greedily and on the verdict does a new style catch on or fail. Betting on the success of a new style is as exciting as the “Pari-Mutuel” at the Grand Prix.

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Tango Teas and Tangocitis

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Marquis and Miss Gladys Clayton demonstrating the tango at The Savoy, 1913
Marquis and Miss Gladys Clayton demonstrating the tango at The Savoy, 1913

London society of 1913-1914 was tango mad. The dance made its way across the Channel from Paris, where it had become a vogue after its introduction by Argentinian dancers in 1910, and was adopted with even more alacrity than the cake-walk or the animal dances. As expected, the even greater physical contact of bodies and its “exotic” antecedents in the lower-class districts of Buenos Aires, precipitated even more denouncement from the moral leaders of the day and from royalty (the Kaiser banned the tango after learning his daughter-in-law, Kronprinzessin Cecilie was taking lessons).

Hostesses struggled with banning the dances from their ballrooms and from their debutante daughters, with an anonymous peeress declaring the Times: “I am one of the many matrons upon whom devolves the task of guiding a girl through the mazes of a London season, and I am face to face with a state of affairs in most, but not all, of the ballrooms calling for the immediate attention of those in like case. My grandmother has often told me of the shock she experienced on first beholding the polka, but I wonder what she would have said had she been asked to introduce a well-brought-up girl to the scandalous travesties of dancing which are, for the first time in my recollection, bringing more young men to parties than are needed…I…ask hostesses to let one know what houses to avoid by indicating in some way on their invitation cards whether the ‘Turkey Trot,’ the ‘Boston’ (the beginner of the evil,) and the ‘Tango’ will be permitted.”

These more conservative ladies could not stop the craze, particularly when many ultra-fashionable hostesses–including the Duchesses of Marlborough and Manchester, the Countess of Essex, Mrs. George Keppel, and Mrs. Hwfa Williams–gladly established themselves as the “chief tango hostesses” in high society.

Soon, the tango moved out of ballrooms and into London’s top restaurants and hotels with the establishment of “tango teas.” These, according to Ethel Lucy Urlin in Dancing, Ancient and Modern, were “held more often than not in large hotels…A fixed charge is made for admission including tea, and a couple of young professionals engaged, who usually start the dances, a full programme of One-step and Two-steps being those most frequently desired, with a “Tango” or other dance of that nature interspersed to break the monotony.”

Princes’, the Hotel Cecil, the Savoy, and the Trocadero were the places for high society to watch and gossip as popular professional dancers like Maurice and Florence Walton, or Marquis and Gladys Clayton, displayed their nimble dance moves between the elegant tables. Traditional theatres like Queen’s Theatre in Shaftsbury Avenue and even the Opera House at Covent Garden cleared away their stalls to set up tables and chairs for tango teas, where the audience sipped tea and nibbled cucumber sandwiches and cake, which were included in the half-a-crown ticket. During these theater-based tango teas, the hired dancers tangoed, and their exhibition was followed by a dress parade of the latest modes.

Marquis and Miss Clayton demonstrating the tango at Queen's Theatre, 1913
The new craze of 1913, the tango dance given a novel spin with the tango tea at the Queen’s Theatre, London where the theatre stalls were removed and replaced by tables and chairs for afternoon tea. Pictured are Senor Marquis and Mlle. Clayton, giving a tango dance, with music provided by the band situated on stage (out of sight) and afterwards, a dress parade given of the latest fashions.

The tango effectively killed the true hobble skirt of 1911-1912, and even the modification–a cleverly concealed slit–was declared an interference. Harem pants, introduced by Paul Poiret, were worn only by the most daring of women, so shrewd couturiers and dressmakers a bevy of more acceptable “tango” attire, like tango hats, tango stockings, tango waists, and tango shoes.

In 1914, the desire to tango, turkey trot, Boston, etc brought society to the nightclub (or supper club). The daring and raffish Lady Diana Manners had been sneaking away to nightclubs as early as 1912, most notably The Cave of the Golden Calf off Regent Street, but now that many restaurants were often closed after the later theatre hours, there was no place to dine or see and be seen after about 11 PM.

These nightclubs–the Lotus, the Four Hundred, Murray’s, among others–could be open as long as the proprietor pleased, and were also exclusive, being run along the lines of a traditional club, with dues and a capped membership.

The Four Hundred club in Old Bond Street
The Four Hundred club in Old Bond Street – The Sketch, February 4, 1914

As was wont, new crazes and fads provided much humor to the wits of the day, and the following poem appeared in an American magazine (the tango had also swept American society at this time):

tangocitis poem
tangocitis poem – B & O Magazine, 1913

Further Reading

Edwardian Popular Music by Ronald Pearsall
The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances by Mark Knowles
Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead
1913: An End and a Beginning by Virginia Cowles

Lucile by Lady Duff Gordon

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“I loosed upon a startled London, a London of flannel underclothes, woollen stockings and voluminous petticoats, a cascade of chiffons, of draperies as lovely as those of Ancient Greece and drapes skirts which opened to reveal slender legs…I showed the world that a woman’s leg can be a thing of beauty, instead of a ‘limb’ (in the parlance of those days), which was only spoken of in the privacy of the fitting-room.” ~ Lady Duff Gordon

Model wearing a fur shawl over a chiffon dress and headband in the shape of a laurel crown.

Close-up shot of Lucile ensemble, 1912

Walking ensemble of fur-trimmed jacket with belt

Ensemble of cross-over fastened coat with fur collar and cuffs

Model posing as a caryatid wearing embroidered tunic

Model in fur coat and hat over a high-waisted dress

Tea Gowns

Model holding a parasol wearing a polka-dot cross-over dress

Model Dolores carrying a parasol and posing in a Directoire

Bright purple evening gown from Lucile’s Winter 1911 collection.

Courtesy of Ye Olde Fashion Tumblr via the Victoria & Albert Museum