The Edwardian Lady
I’m taking a small break from the Regency era in my writing, and am currently in the process of ‘discovering’ the Edwardian era--a time often called the “Golden Age” or the "Golden Years" in British History. Technically, the reign of Edward VII ran from 1901 to 1910, but generally the years 1901 through 1914 (the year that England declared war on Germany) define the Edwardian period. English author John Betjeman wrote that, "The Edwardian era was the last age in which a rich man could afford to build himself a new and enormous country-house with a formal landscape garden, a lily pond, and clipped hedges." It's an age where the inequalities of rich and poor were most clearly delineated and the conventions of social class were still rigidly defined, perhaps more so than during the Regency era. The rich made grand displays of their wealth and leisure, hosting not weekend house parties at their country houses, but "Saturday to Monday" house parties.
Still, the Edwardian lady enjoyed many freedoms that were denied a Victorian lady, or a Regency miss. But first it's important to point out that, during the Edwardian age, the word 'lady' had a signficant meaning--the word wasn't used casually like we use it today. Instead it identified something more specific: not just the wife of a peer, but a woman of easy circumstances, one who would never accept paid employment, whose fathers, brothers, and husband were all landowners, possibly a member of Parliament or highly placed in the Law, Army or Church. She didn't have to have a title--many ladies were married to Misters, but they were easily identifiable and there were actually very few of them.
Many women who were not 'real ladies' actually had more money--daughters of wealthy merchants or industrialists, fashionable beauties, mistresses who set new fashions. Though they might be tolerated by the 'true ladies,' they would never gain true acceptance.
But what is intersting is that these ladies were liberated in many ways by such simple things as outdoor sports, bloomers, slang, smoking, the bicycle and the motorcar. Ladies could wear "knickerbockers" and ride a bike in the park with a gentleman with no chaperone. Once motorcars caught on, ladies would don long dustcoats or capes, protect their eyes with goggles, wear much smaller hats than the usual fashion with a veil to protect their faces, and go motoring. Many ladies owned their own cars.
Ladies also moved into more active participation in sports such as yachting, tennis and golf (along with cycling). Burberry and Harrod's supplied golf knickers, cycling knickers, cycling skirts, golf collars and cuffs. While these all seem awfully uncomfortable to the modern woman, they were considerably easier to wear than the ordinary fashionable dress of the day.
Cosmetics also came into fashion for the Edwardian lady. Before 1909, when Gordon Selfridge opened his new store in Oxford Street, most cosmetics were 'hidden away' in stores and ladies' salons, where women came in the back doors, heavily veiled, to inspect and purchase the wares. But at Selfridge's, face powders, lip salves, rouge, and eyebrow pencils were placed on open display, and customers were encouraged to browse and experiment. It wasn't long before other stores were following suit, and soon the purchase of cosmetics became routine and no longer hidden.
In these small ways, women were becoming more 'modern' even during a time where a woman still didn't necessarily marry for love but for connections, where it was near impossible to move from the ranks of the working class to that of lady or gentleman of leisure, where rules of courtship still remained. It's an age of elegance and repression for women, while also a time of great liberation.
And, of course, it's a very romanticized age. Anyone have a particular favorite movie or book set during the Edwardian era?
My own particular favorite is the movie SOMEWHERE IN TIME, with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve--one of the most romantic movies ever (even if a bit cheesy--that's part of its charm!).