Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What We Learned from Our Edwardian Picnic



Video: striding in the Edwardian gown. I was moving much too fast for fashion.


Now how could that picnic last Saturday be described any better than this? My friend Polly wrote, "It was one of those days that you would just like to bottle and open up when you need a good dose of bliss!"

Yes, and a lesson, too, in the art of grace when stepping on uneven ground, when wilting under 2:00 p.m. sunlight on a cloudless June day in Kentucky, about the perils of pavement, and how deportment, that old, old word, and sensible clothing can keep one cool, comfortable, and in a blissy place.

Remember, to see the photos below full size, please click on them.

How The Lesson Actually Started Before the Picnic, or Yes, You Do Need A Maid to Dress

Morning dawns, and with it two small boys ready for fun and -- action. Daddy needs sleep. But the scones aren't made, nor the deviled eggs, either, the table linens aren't packed, and I am not dressed. What to do? Have the twins help cook, of course, and beg for Daddy's help afterwards. So we baked and cooked: the boys cracked eggs and stirred flour, and tried to check the oven (not!) and we made a grand mess, and cleaned it up, since the twins like dustpans and brushes, bless them.

Photo: the boys helping Mama to bake. I had to provide them with their own flour and bowls and spoons because each boy wanted to experiment on his own.

That left me an hour to get ready, and I would have made it, except that I got stuck halfway in and halfway out of my dress.

As John Ridd might have said in Lorna Doone, "it happened in this wise".

The Order of Putting on the Ensemble

Edwardian ensembles consisted of layers, some meant mostly for fashion, some quite sensible.

Photo: this newspaper article, titled "Garden Party Frocks of Lace and Embroidery" is a must-read. Published in the Odgen Standard in summer 1909, it tells us all about what should be worn, and how it should look! For example, petticoats should be "raglike", made of batiste and soft, thin materials, and the dresses "limp". Hips should not be in evidence. Plus, there is much, much more detail. What a treasure!
  • Ordinarily, the first layer consisted of the chemise and drawers, or, alternatively, a set of "combinations" consisting of a camisole and drawers in one. By this time drawers were not especially baggy, because skirts were becoming fitted at the hip and narrow skirts were making an entrance. (Have a look at period dressmaking manuals with drafts between say, 1906 and 1914 and at fashion articles and you will see this shift.)
  • After this you put on your hose and shoes or boots. (Your corset, being longish and stiff at this period, prevented bending at the waist.)
  • Secondly, on would go the corset, which at this date was still the straight-fronted corset that set women leaning forward, supposedly for health.
  • Over that, the corset cover, often, to protect the corset from perspiration, or to add warmth, depending on the season, and to keep dye from a non-colorfast dress fabric. Very sensible. We wear camisoles today similar reasons (excepting the dye bit), but why aren't cotton ones popular in the United States? The microfiber ones look terrific but do not breathe, with predictable results.
  • Then the petticoat. At this date, depending on the line of your dress, it could be much like our modern straight slip, only long...no flounces, made of silk, and fitting closely over the waist and hips to remove bulk. If your dress skirt had a little flare, it might still include a flounce atop the basic slip, and that flounce could be highly decorated.
  • Then your dress, or slip plus dress.
  • Then your hat, gloves, jewelry, and any outerwear.
I wore normal underthings, excepting the corset cover and petticoat. So far I had gotten through the petticoat.

About Petticoats: Which One for Which Dress? A Digression

Since my dress has a skirt with a small train and just a little bit of flare, and since it has some weight to it, I chose an actual period flounced petticoat in very light batiste. The petticoat's bottom has a small frill, and some 10" up a flounce is attached. You can see the lovely insertion lace and tucking and the whitework lace banding that covers the seam between petticoat proper and the flounce.

In the photo I have set it atop the dress so you can see that it is a proper length, about an inch above the bottom of the skirt, so that the petticoat will not show below the skirt hem. Those of you who recall years before, say, 1990, when many skirts were unlined and slips were still normal, will remember the embarrassment of an associate whispering to you "your slip is showing" and your stealthy movements to adjust it back into invisibility.

Photo: The period petticoat I wore. In the photo, it's placed atop the dress so you can see the lines and length.

Had my skirt been of seersucker, or some other light fabric, I might have chosen a plain petticoat sans flounce, if I did not want too much pouf. This was the case for my friend Polly, whose seersucker skirt lost its drape and became stiff when worn with a flounced one. She wore a period plain muslin petticoat, with scalloped hem.

Photo: Polly under the rose arbor. Note how streamlined her skirt is. Had she worn a flounced petticoat, it would have fluffed out too much at the hem.

I might have worn a princess slip, flounced or unflounced as the dress line above demanded, instead of the corset cover and petticoat combination and had I owned one, I would have. It might have prevented what I describe below. Do read the "Garden Party Frocks" article for superb details!

Back to Getting Stuck

I had tied the strings on the petticoat, and the strings on the back-closing corset cover (a 1909 pattern made in batiste from Frances Grimble's Edwardian Modiste). All behind my back and four strings total.

Then I stepped into the dress, and started closing the snaps and hooks and eyes, working from the bottom up. As you may have read, there are many, many of them, 3/4" apart, all the way up.

With great effort and perhaps five minutes (an eternity to make your arms ache) I managed to complete all the closures. Any higher a neckline and I'd have needed help. Then the sad discovery that the petticoat was too loose on the waist. Oh, no. After lifting the skirt and trying to retie it, I untied the corset cover strings by mistake, then lost a string somehow in all that fabric. Now both undergarments were loose.

Polly was to arrive in five. Nothing for it but to start unhooking. This went more slowly, since hooks and eyes are meant to stay closed. Halfway down, and I reached a sticking point. Everything was tangled up. Perhaps a hook was stuck to some lace. You can't just yank because the lace will tear, or the fabric, or both.

Photo: the dress' back closure.

At this point Polly arrived, I slipped behind the front door to let her in, and in between a few fits of giggles we sorted things out. Because we were both in a hurry, pictures show that one hook is off mark so that the waistline shifts, and the corset cover somehow, despite having wide-set shoulder straps, was showing in the back neckline. In 1909, it'd have mattered. In our day, not an issue, at least for us.

So yes, having a ladies' maid or sister, or mother, or husband, or daughter, to help you get into your more complicated outfits was most useful. No wonder that typists and other business workers in the day made menswear-inspired skirt and front-buttoning blouses popular.

The Arts of Walking and Moving and Keeping the Skirt Clean

During the picnic most of us comment repeatedly about how slowly we were moving. In the morning the air was crisp, so we couldn't blame heat then. No, it was the long skirts.

Photo: The Delineator published an illustrated article on how to handle a long skirt gracefully in 1908. See Further Resources section below.

When we walked in our long skirts, and especially the three of us who wore skirts with trains, the extra fabric forced us to slow down some, aware as we were of the possibility of tripping or of falling into a dip or hole in the grass or a crack between bricks on a pathway. When you walk in a long skirt with some flare to it, the fabric moves forward with your legs, covering your feet. You cannot always see where you are going!

Lifting picnic baskets and linens to take them to and from our picnic site took longer, too...because one hand is partly encumbered because you must hold your train.

For grace, you might let your train trail behind you on clean grass, but I made the mistake -- once -- of letting it trail on pavement. Oh no! It draggled in oil from cars. For the rest of the day I was intermittently aware that the back of my dress was dirty. Sigh.

Cleaning that off will be a real challenge. Horse manure and mud would have been easier to clean off, truly. Rebecca and Polly discovered similar dirt on their trained skirts.

Photo: the dirt and oil on the train of my skirt, both underside and on top!

What a reminder of what it was like for women to have to clean their skirts and dresses after they wore them, and how time-consuming that could be! No wonder that fashions for wearing trained skirts on the street in the early Edwardian period (and at others) were derided. It looks disgusting and causes so much extra work. Read all about wash day and washing equipment in the Encyclopædia of Household Economy, published in 1903.

Handling the Heat

We all noticed something interesting: while we did become somewhat warm if we stood in the sunshine, those of us who wore the linen or seersucker outfits remained quite comfortable.

Linen and cotton breathe well, and the light colors, especially the white on my dress, reflect the sun.

Further, at least in my case, the petticoat underneath trapped air, keeping everything loose about me...no tight clothing to make one feel sticky and hot! The batiste camisole picked up any perspiration and wicked it away from me.

Finally, like people of old, we kept to the shade, moved slowly, and Paula, smart lady, brought a parasol.

While the late spring sun did become quite hot, we had our cool drinks, and all in all, were remarkably comfortable, while I noted that some other folks at the house that day looked somewhat wilted and bothered.

Further Resources


"Chapter Five: In the Laundry". In Encyclopædia of Household Economy. Holt, Emily. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1903. On Google Books.

Everyday fashions, 1909-1920, as pictured in Sears catalogs. Olian, JoAnne. Courier Dover Publications, 1995. (In contrast the the New York Times articles, see the wider-skirted fashions of Sears.)

Photo: a household laundry setup, 1906.

"Garden Party Frocks of Lace and Embroidery: Airy Fabrics Essential for Midsummer Wear - Raglike Petticoats Beneath Limp Frocks - The Follow Me Shoulder Knot - Plumed Hats and Embroidered Gloves". The Ogden Standard, May 29, 1909. In Library of Congress Chronicling America site. (Must read!)

"High-waisted skirt" section of "The Shoulder Scarf of Our Grandmothers Once More in Great Popular Demand for Evening Wear". NYT, January 10, 1909.

"Hints for the Home Dressmaker: Attractive Summer Clothes for the Middle Aged Woman." San Francisco Chronicle. June 27, 1909. (Features non-high-style clothes: note the lack of the high-fashion high-waisted skirt.)

"Of Summer Dress: The Things to Make at Home and the Things to Buy." The Sun, June 13, 1909.

"WHAT THE WELL-DRESSED WOMEN ARE WEARING; Appropriate Gowns For Travel -- Stripes and Checks Popular for the Summer Months -- Blouses to be Worn. Short Jackets Not Much in Favor This Season Because It Is Becoming to Few Figures." Rittenhouse, Anne. NYT, July 18, 1909. (Remember that this is a look at high fashion, whatever the text may say.)

"What to Do with a Long Skirt". On Vintage Connection site. (All about how to move and walk in a long skirt.)

2 comments:

Courtney's Musings said...

Thank you for detailing your adventure in Edwardian dressing. Sometimes I think I'm the only one who misses one hole lacing clothes or gets my buttons off by one.

Your boys are adorable helpers.

ZipZipInkspot said...

Dear Courtney,

You're not the only one! I have a particular issue with tags being flipped outside my tops. Oh well...

Enjoyed looking over your blog and will visit again. The photos of Scotland are terrific.

Very best,

Natalie in Kentucky