Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Corseted Nymph: Edwardian Fashion at the Dawn of Modernity

It all started with this blouse. It bears a passing resemblance to Edwardian styles and that sent me on a whimsical photo shoot, as I tried to look my very most feminine amidst the flowers. 

The Edwardian period was such an odd time to be a woman, when mankind was on the cusp of Modernism and all the changes that technology would bring, but womankind was still seen as Nature's crowning, decorative perfection, even as she was artificially corseted nearly to death.

Shoes: Ecco: Shirt: Jessica Simpson; Bracelet: boutique; Sunglasses: Aldo; Right-hand ring: Effy; Skirt, coral ring, earrings, and necklace: vintage
I'm in an odd predicament, size-wise: I'm not really plus sized (whatever that stupid term means), but I'm not quite "regular" sized either. Some smaller, plus sized clothes fit me nicely, so I ordered this Jessica Simpson shirt in a 1X. It is way too big for me, but it's so pretty that I kept it anyway, figuring I'd find a way to make it work. On this day, I tried tucking it in. It worked and, unexpectedly, created a line to my figure that called to mind the silhouettes of the Gibson Girls, the Edwardian "it" girls (young women, really, but people have been calling women girls forever).

I have something called Lordosis, which simply means that the arch of my lower back is more pronounced than in should be. The horror of this condition is that it made my back more susceptible to the injury I sustained from child rapes and led to my chronic pain disability.

The unexpected "positive" of it is that my body shape resembles the one that Edwardian women sought, and artificially created with torturous corsets.

The arch of the lower back was exaggerated, thus thrusting the chest forward and the bottom back, creating what is known as the S-Curve.

I think it made them look a little bit like pigeons, with their puffed fronts.

But, as my chest grows bigger with the passing years, and my back remains over-arched, hey, presto, I've got the look -- sort-of, anyway. No wonder my back hurts all the time!

At its best, it could be really very pretty and extremely feminine, even if it did render breathing -- and moving -- quite difficult.

It was this exaggerated, pretty femininity that I was after for these photos. Beau laughed at my poses, saying, "Charlotte, you don't have to pretend to be very feminine. You are very feminine." So I gather I succeeded in my Edwardian allusions.

Of course, being all in black in this era, I would have been assumed to be in mourning for the death of a loved one.

By all accounts, Queen Victoria loved her husband very much, a rare thing for royalty at the time, and, when he died, she went into a very long period of formal mourning, wearing black at all times. This created a national trend for mourning clothing and jewelry.

I thus chose to add black, Murano beads to add to the mourning effect of my outfit. They're also just really pretty beads.

But I was more interested in looking Edwardian in general than focussing on mourning. I first became aware of Edwardian fashion in the 1980s when I watched the visually beautiful movie, A Room with a View, starring a very young Helena Bonham Carter playing Miss Honeychurch. (And do read the E.M. Forster book upon which the movie was based.) I loved all the frill and fluff and immediately tried to copy it in my own, teenage way. One day, my friend and I went to the art gallery and agreed before hand to look as much like Miss Honeychurch as possible. I don't know how well we succeeded, but we certainly felt elegant and feminine.

I certainly had and have the hair for it! I'm not the first to notice this fact.

I mean, really, fashion-wise, was I born in the wrong era or was I born in the wrong era?

It was probably chiefly the hair that caused my grandmother's friends to exclaim that I looked like a Gibson Girl when I was in my teens.

But I think my face was not so very far off either, when I was young anyway. It had and has a softness to it that is no longer in vogue.

Mary Pickford
That hair and that face were everywhere in popular culture.

I think I would have fit right in -- aesthetically.

But not temperamentally!

Like the high-spirited Miss Honeychurch, I would have rankled against the restrictions of propriety placed upon women at the time.

It was, I think, an odd and difficult time to be a woman.

There was a huge degree of aesthetic and behavioural artifice that the "proper" woman was expected to adopt, always with the illusion that it was all natural. (When one thinks of all the plastic surgery women endure today to achieve "perfect beauty," one does wonder if it is any better now, but that's a topic for another post.)

The feminine ideal at the time rendered literal and figurative freedom of movement virtually impossible, and relegated women to the role of mere decoration, pleasing to the eye but quite powerless.

We were to be demure and fragile ...

... all frills and lace and daintiness ...

... from front ...

... to back ...

... from top ...

... right down to our dainty little toes in their dainty little slippers.

All this was expected even as the seeds of Modernism were being planted in Western society.

One would think that this new era of technology, "new money," and new methods of production, which were slowly rendering class differences somewhat obsolete, would have also begun to render gender roles less rigid too. Indeed, women were now fighting in earnest to get the vote and would achieve it within their lifetimes. There was some talk of the "new woman," the woman who worked in offices and thus was able to achieve a level of independence heretofore unknown. But this first wave of feminism was in its infancy and would not reach fruition for at least 60 years, when the second wave of feminism hit the streets.

Interestingly, both suffragettes and "new women" were frequently dismissed as ugly and unfeminine, just as strong and/or feminist women are today. It is a curious thing that the worst possible insult against a woman, and against the relevance of her opinions and ideas, was and is a disparaging comment about her appearance, thus reinforcing the notion that our primary role is not to think but to be decorative and pleasing to the male eye.

Gladys Cooper
It was also at this time that women were thought of as closer to nature than men were. Women were like beautiful flowers, not logical office workers and voters.

The juxtaposition of the corseted, confined woman with a simultaneous association of women with unfettered nature might at first seem an odd contradiction.

But, as I write this, I wonder if this association with nature was a subtle way of disassociating women from the advances and rewards of industrialization. If women were of nature, naturally they were not meant to partake of the rough, masculine world of commerce and technology.

Evelyn Nesbit
Could it even be that, as men felt increasingly alienated by the new modes of production and commerce, they felt that soft, natural, beautiful women were a kind of refuge from this new world?

After a hard day of commerce, how nice to come home to one's soft, pretty pet, sweet and dear and loving. I have read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian literature and this is indeed how men often described the perfect woman.

I doubt many men consciously made these choices about how to view women, but I do think that it's possible that they did so unconsciously. It's a very pretty lie to believe, a comfortable lie -- for men anyway.

At any rate, this vision of women as near nymphs, more of nature than of civilization ...


... coexisted with the corseted woman and all her artifice.

Certainly, neither image fostered women's power in the "real" world of men.

Mary Pickford
The natural, desirable woman was innocent of that world. And she was virginal. Most definitely, she was virginal.

If she had any "power," it was merely the power that her beauty had over men, a power of which she had to feign complete innocence. To know that men sexually desired her would render her a slut or whore, using and abusing men for her own, personal gain.

Because woman were seen as simultaneously sexually powerful and fragile and weak, and far more emotional than rational, it was imperative that she be controlled by stronger, sounder minds: men. She was to be kept within the confines of the home, lest her nature get the better of her and lead her to foolish and dangerous choices.

Her supposed "natural" femininity was vastly and artificially exaggerated in most every way. 

As with today's fake breasts, the Edwardian woman's natural curves were exaggerated past the point of sanity and health ...

... even as she was sometimes perceived more as faerie or nymph than woman.

The ideally beautiful woman reminded one of the wood nymph, likely to be startled upon being discovered in a garden ...

Marie Doro
... wary of the world of men ...

... bashful and shy ...

Theda Bara
... her fluttering, delicate white fingers to her face ...

... half hidden ...

... a flower amongst flowers ...

... the prettiest flower of all ...

... lovely to behold, lovely to touch ...

... but certainly not of the real world.

Mary Pickford
Woman was the flower of nature, and to nature she would return ...

... if given the chance.

(I'm sharing this with Patti on Not Dead Yet.)


  1. Loove that purple bracelet! Now that's off my chest, this is another interesting take on the female role. We have come a long way and yet not. I like the soft fluttery top on you. The softness offsets the black. Interesting comparison with the Gibson girls...I think I agree. But wouldn't you have hated the politics!
    Xo Jazzy Jack

    1. I would have loathed the politics! I would have been a suffragette, for sure! I've got a piece about women in the 60s folk music scene coming up. Hope you like that one too.

      Glad you like the bracelet. I don't often wear it because it's too big and twists round my wrist, but it's very pretty. (The store caters to a lot of drag queens for whom the bracelet would be just the right size.)

  2. Hi Charlotte, I recently discovered your blog. An interesting if a tad long-winded tidbit of trivia -- one of your black and white photos is of the actress Gladys Cooper -- she might be remembered as Henry Higgin's (Rex Harrison) mother in the 1964 movie My Fair Lady -- and she is also remembered as the mother of Bette Davis in the 1942 movie Now Voyager -- and Bette Davis' character name was Charlotte. I hope you are experiencing some relief from your pain and wish you the very best.