The image of the lost golden age owes much to the rôle of the
society hostess. Her duty was to cultivate the concept of unashamed luxury,
splendour and display associated with high society. She achieved this by two
methods. Firstly she wore a different ensemble for every separate activity of
the day. Secondly she entertained in a style where no expense was spared. Each
activity complemented the other. The extravagant fashions demanded the existence
of a 'scene' and the 'scene' demanded ostentatious display making each a perfect
foil for the other.
The 'scene' varied with the months, but the typical society
hostess always had some fashionable place to visit and some 'occasion' at which
to be seen. Her social year began with a round of parties and balls that lasted
for the three month London Summer Season. The activities demanded a range of
ball gowns in white, silver, gold or pastel sugar almond tints, trimmed with
passementerie and narrow velvet ribbon.
Although evening dresses faithfully adhered to the line of
day gowns, they were more sumptuous with décolleté round or square necklines.
At night off-the shoulder gowns exposed their shoulders and highlighted lacy or
transparent flounced sleeves. Right - An Edwardian Evening Gown.
In August and September there were Cowes week, the Scotland
grouse season and the health resorts of Marienbad or Bath to visit. With such
contrasts in scenery a lady's trunks would be packed with a variety of
appropriate day dresses, walking gowns, tea gowns, evening gowns, sports
ensembles, suits, shawls, coats, capes, hair ornaments, and fur wraps, as well
as many other essential items.
Then in mid-September the country house season began. Many a
hostess found herself very busy until February, with perhaps only a short break
in London for the Christmas week. Finally time could be idled away in the warmer
climate of the South of France, at Cannes or Biarritz.
As this was a little too early for high society to accept
anything other than a pale complexion, the hot French sun was shielded by a
frilly little parasol. This item also served as a fashion accessory to a
matching ensemble. In the Edwardian era only working people who had no choice
but to work in the open air, displayed a tanned brown skin. A white complexion
was associated with gentility and leisure until Coco Chanel popularized tanning.
Then in the 1920s the rich sought to gain a tan to show they could afford the
leisure time to holiday in exotic climates.
Princess Marie Louise in the book My Memories of Six Reigns,
'London society was brilliant. I might even say glamorous...
.... balls, receptions and of course large dinner parties took place every
evening, and it was quite a usual occurrence to go to more than one ball the
same night...... There was no necessity to entertain outside one's own house, as
in those days the Dorchester House, Grosvenor House, Landsdowne House, Derby
House, Stafford House - all these beautiful residences were still inhabited by
The aim of every Edwardian hostess, whether in town or country, was to be
considered socially eminent. The most preferred occasion would have been a
weekend house-party, entertaining King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra.
weekend house-party demanded immense preparation, but a house-party that
included Royalty taxed the hostess to her limit. Sumptuous food and twelve
course dinners were essential and shooting parties meant that lavish outdoor
picnics were required.
An Edwardian Shooting Party Photo.
Houseguests needed suitable clothes for every occasion.
Details of the type of organisation demanded of the hostess, were revealed in
an article called 'Entertaining Their Majesties,' in a 1904 issue of The Lady's
'Once the visit is a settled thing, special and vast preparations have to be
made. Few outside the charmed circle realise the magnitude of these necessary
arrangements. Naturally much depends on the host and hostess..... the work of
preparation is magnified to a very considerable extent, for re-decoration and
re-upholstery must inevitably take place; also other rooms are depleted of
choice articles of furniture and much that is new is ordered for the occasion.'
Compared to the hostess's task of arranging a guest list
acceptable to both King and Queen, re-decoration of houses with up to one
hundred rooms was only a small problem. The society hostess consulted both
royals about their special desires that certain people should or should not be
guests. The hostess had to have the ability to assess changes in the amours of
her guests, and then discreetly arrange sleeping accommodation according to
currently desired proximities. The whole purpose of the house-party was
House parties were carefully arranged to be amusing. At Eaton Lodge, the home
of Lord and Lady Brooke, guests would arrive on a Friday evening to flower
filled rooms, a splendid menu and charming servants. During the day they might
ride in the park, shoot or hunt until teatime, when the ladies would swan about
in ultra feminine long sleeved tea gowns.
If the King and Queen were present they might not appear until lunchtime when
they would dine with the host and hostess. After lunch the Royals might plant a
commemoration tree and then join the house party for tea, before changing for
dinner. Then the King would lead in the hostess to the bedecked dining table.
The table would overflow with engraved and cut glass, gold plated bone china and
epergnes dripping with hothouse exotic flowers and fruit. To call the rich idle
would be a fallacy. They worked hard to enjoy every pleasure available.
For country house visiting, clothes for every separate
occasion were a must. For a brief weekend stay a society lady would take at
least one huge domed trunk called a 'Noah's Ark', possibly more, plus hat boxes
and a heavy dressing case. These contained clothes enabling her to change up to
half a dozen times a day. A lady would never wear the same outfit twice during
one stay. A hostess had the advantage of having her clothes at hand.
Cynthia Asquith recalled the inconvenience of country house
visiting as a guest in her memoirs, Remember And Be Glad:-
'.... A large fraction of our time was spent in changing our
clothes, particularly in winter when you came down to breakfast ready for Church
in your "best dress" made probably of velvet.... .After Church you
went into tweeds. You always changed again before tea into a tea gown... however
small your allowance a different dinner dress for each night was considered
Thus a Friday to Monday party meant taking your "Sunday
Best", two tweed coats and skirts with appropriate shirts, three evening
frocks, three garments suitable for tea, your "best hat" - probably a
vast affair loaded with feathers, flowers fruit or corn - a variety of country
hats and caps, as likely as not a riding habit and a billy-cock hat, rows of
indoor and outdoor shoes, boots and gaiters, numberless accessories in the way
of petticoats, shawls, scarves, ornamental combs and wreaths, and a large bag in
which to carry your embroidery about the house. '
To already overflowing baggage, the hostess would remind
guests to add mourning clothes if the house party included members of Royalty.
The Lady's Realm which was really a magazine for those who looked to Court
Circles for inspiration on which to model their lives, advised hostesses that
guests should never go unprepared,
'... one is never sure when mourning may be demanded ... and
it is etiquette that when visiting where the King and Queen are present every
guest must appear in exactly the same degree of mourning or half mourning.'
Then, as now, mourning was a social symbol used to expose
private feelings. Only the bitter realism of the Great War made it repulsive for
most people's taste. But typical of the Edwardian era, it was considered
essential to observe the rules of society, and the wearing of mourning was taken
At Court after the death of Queen Victoria, society ladies
waited hopefully for the King and Queen to stop wearing mourning. Formality
decreed that ladies don only black, whilst Queen Alexandra continued to observe
mourning. She shocked everyone at her Coronation Ball in 1901 by appearing in a
light gown amid a sea of deep black. From that moment hostesses copied many of
the fashions she favoured.
It was Queen Alexandra who introduced the sugar almond and
sweet pea colours of the early 1900s, a welcome change from the garish aniline
dyed clothes of the 1890s. She was considered the great Royal fashion leader of
For some the formality of their social world became too much
of a strain. Using spare time and being the perfect hostess was a full time job.
To escape from the endless entertaining many patronized the Ladies' Automobile
Fashion history moment in time - A motoring outfit 1905.
One of the main purposes of the Club, whose meeting place was
at Claridge's Hotel, was to give the hostess a rest from the ceaseless routine of
grappling with cooks, butcher's orders, and the mathematics of the menu. The
club was for the female automobile aristocracy and it aimed to remain exclusive,
a large number of members being titled society hostesses seeking refuge from the
treadmill of ordering the dinner and the tedium of spending all their time
changing their clothes.
Other diversions for bored thinking women included campaigning
for the vote. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)
in 1903. The most famous campaigners of women's suffrage were Emmeline and
Christabel Pankhurst. Despite great political opposition and personal hardship
the campaigners called suffragettes fought on for women's rights until the
outbreak of World War 1 in 1914.
Women's energy and skill throughout the war years won them
such praise that in 1918 all women over 30 were given the vote with women over
21 able to become MP's. Socially elite Lady Nancy Astor (1879-1964) was elected to Parliament in
1919 and was the first women to take her seat at Westminster.
all women over 21 were given equity with male
voting rights and it was called the 'flapper vote'.
Above Right - Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst
Right - Socialite MP Lady Nancy Astor in Edwardian dress.
Footnote:-This page was partially based on content I
updated from a dissertation I first wrote in 1979. The
dissertation a Comparative Study Between the Rôles of the Edwardian Hostess
and the Edwardian Seamstress looked at the symbolism behind Edwardian dress
and the rôles of women in Edwardian society. In particular it examined the rôle
and high lifestyle of Edwardian society hostesses compared with the degrading
working conditions and impoverished lifestyle of the seamstresses that made
clothes for hostesses.
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