Fashion History – 20th Century- 1900-1909

The start of the twentieth century was a liberating time, the dawn of a new decade, the death of an old era with the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901. This marked the start of the new Edwardian period which celebrated splendour and elaboration. 

As we enter these first ten years in women’s fashion, we see more accessibility of dress. In Victorian times the rigid class system was echoed in what women wore, but, with the introduction of media that is readily available to all haute couture could be copied by ‘make it at home’ sewing patterns and the rise of the department store and mail order catalogue. 

Mass marketing of styles of dress were moved up a notch with the introduction of the cinema/moving picture. Fashion could be influenced to the masses. Maybe not as much as the 21st Century but defiantly a precursor to fast-fashion.

Influences at the time had a real effect on what was worn. In the early 1900s there was a strong arts and crafts movement called Art Nouveau period which eventually ran into the Art Deco period. 

At the start of the 20th Century the women’s role was still primarily in the home, adaptations of style were a result of the more active life that women were leading compared to their Victorian ancestors. Within this period we see the advertising of the first maternity dresses and sanitary underwear (menstrual cape).


The French call this early era ‘La Belle Epoque‘ –beautiful clothes at the peak of luxury. 

The common style of this period was the ‘S’ shaped figure. Dresses were generally one piece sewn together at the waistline. The S shape refers to the unnatural shape that the body forms with the corseted body thrust forward and the hips pushed back, which produced this kangaroo type stance. The shape of the body was then complimented by the high boned collars, full pouched blouses and skirts that were flat in the front with a full back flowing to a trumpet shape. 

A great many layers were worn, which could have included: Chemise, Corset, Corset cover, drawers, flannel petticoat and then the dress. Soft fabrics were used with decorations such as tucking, pleating, lace, and embroidery. 

The Lingerie Dress

Lingerie Dresses were frilly cotton or white linen dresses with decoration similar to lady’s lingerie at the time. This was the first step into a more relaxed line, even though underneath was still constrained by a corset. 

The Tea Gown 

“When the tea-urn sings at five o’clock we can don these garments of poetic beauty” – The Cult of Chiffon 1902

The peak of elegance at this time was the ‘tea gown’ which symbolised a vanishing world of the elite. This dress was an individually styled gown for the wearer, often light and filly – women could feel more comfortable . This was the outfit that they would have dressed in before the very formal dinner dress. Debenhams introduced a range of tea gowns in their 1908 catalogue. This dress lingered through the first world war into the 1920s, but vanished with the introduction of the afternoon gown and cocktail dress.

Fastenings were predominantly through hook and eyes or hooks and bars. Frilly ruffles called Jabots were fastened at the front of the neck. 

The Bishops Sleeve was gathered into the armhole and full below the elbow with fabric puffed or pouched at the wrist. 

The Tailor Made & the New Woman look

The garment called the ‘Tailor Made’ which now we would just call the women’s suit was an important item of clothing in this period. Separate blouses (shirt waists) came in great variety. 

The blouse and skirt which was introduced was called the ‘New Woman’ style. This went hand in hand to women out in the workplace, often as typists. It was started in Britain for travelling and walking, it was then re-imagined for smart daytime events. The ‘New Woman’ was developed by the renowned Gibson Girl, also Lady Astor the first woman to sit in the House of Commons (1919).

Lady Lucile 

One of the most dynamic personalities of this period in the early twentieth century was Lucile Lady Duff Gordon. Who owned and ran a high society fashion house. At first specialising in elaborate ‘sexy’ underwear. She was also a passenger on the Titanic with her husband, Cosmo. One of the most notable things that she achieved was to bring the ‘catwalk’ to London. She would have her studios decorated to enhance the experience of fashion and invite specific customers to private views of her outfits. She is famed for giving her outfits different names such as ‘When Passion’s Thrall is o’er’ and ‘Do you love me’? She is most noted for introducing the ‘Merry Widow’ a larger than life hat that was used in the stage production of the same name. These hats were worn throughout the day and night, but, again they were outlived by impracticality. 

Evening dress 

An evening dress in this period followed the same style as the day dress, but with lower necklines, they were often sleeveless and made from soft light rich fabrics. 

The most popular hairstyle at this time (thought to have started in 1904) was called the Pompadour which had hair built up at the front and at the sides. 


Paris was again the fashion capital at the time, but the Brits were trying to start their own trends. One person who lead the was Queen Alexandra (Wife of Edward VII). A trend setter, choosing always to sport British. 

The House of Worth was a great influence around this time, a British Fashion House which was set up by Charles Fredrick Worth in 1858. Queen Victoria was at times dresses in clothes from this fashion house, even though she was probably unaware.