It could be said that Edwardian Britain belonged to another age, almost
another world. The truth is that time plays havoc with the mind's perception of
things past. If our view of the Edwardian age is a distorted one, in which we
believe that life was one festive round of parties, splendid banquets and
extravagant clothes, then it may be that archive film of the rich along with television
serials such as 'Edward VII', 'The Forsyte Saga', Upstairs Downstairs and
'Lillie' have played an important part in reinforcing the myth of 'the golden
On the other hand, these serials have awakened a new interest in the era.
An abundance of factual books recounting the social history of the Edwardian Era
exist and they are revealing and always fascinating.
All available literature is clear on one point, that the Edwardian Era cannot
be precisely isolated to the period of King Edward VII's short reign
(1901-1910). The term Edwardian may be taken to mean the period which
encompasses the mid 1890s to the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914. The
Titanic era is 1912.
London society in the Edwardian Era was dominated by the King. The legend
that surrounds the era is primarily due to the influence of Edward VII. He was a
man not only larger than life, but with an insatiable appetite for a wide
variety of indulgences from wine to women. A picture of him in ceremonial robes
is shown in the page heading.
As Prince of Wales, and later as King, Edward VII was a broadminded,
fun-loving man and he mixed, with some freedom, with men and women of all
classes. A privileged few gained access to his personal circle of friends known
as the 'Marlborough Set'. Wealth rather than birth was a passport to the society
People soon realised that the doors were open to anyone who could succeed in
winning the King's interest by ostentatious display. Even so his personal set
was fairly small made up from a selection of people from the main six hundred
London society families.
This did not prevent others from considering themselves to belonging to
society. Many autobiographies reveal that persons who were on the fringe of
society imitated and aspired to a way of life that only one seventeenth of the
population could really afford. A third of the population, in attempting to
emulate the really rich, was living above its means, because the image that
Edwardian Society wished to present was one intended to fulfil the King's
Ordinary people were beginning to question differences between society, but the
rich continued to live in the style they knew best. Left -
This is a picture of a public meeting in
central London at the turn of the century.
It is this image of apparent splendour, extravagance and excess that lingers
on, and which prompted J. B. Priestley to describe the era as:-
' the lost golden age...... all the more radiant because it is on the other
side of the huge black pit of war.'
In reality, the lost golden age belonged only to Edwardian High
where wealth, birth and manners were the prime qualifications for commanding
respect and obedience from others. High Society resembled a club, not a caste,
and the image was reinforced by a laborious set of rules and formalities which
served to emphasise the distance between those in Society and those not in
In 'A Woman of No Importance' , Oscar Wilde wrote 'Moderation is a fatal
thing, Lady Hunstanton. Nothing succeeds like excess.' This statement
highlighted the conspicuous consumption of Edwardian society hostesses. These
ladies were an almost different breed from ordinary women. Their like was never
seen again after the First World War, not even in the ostentatious 1980s. See Oscar Wilde quotations
Love affairs were perhaps the only real excitement the rich experienced,
fettered as they were with time-consuming rigid formality and an elaborate code
of etiquette. The sexual intrigue that inevitably occurred added impetus to an
otherwise dull, but leisurely life. High Society to guard its prestige, invented
a peculiar social code where husbands and wives took lovers. The majority of
husbands and wives were prepared to ignore extra-marital affairs so
long as an outward appearance of domestic bliss existed, and the wife had served
her duty and provided several heirs.
This attitude had prevailed since the Prince of Wales started to have affairs
with not only noble ladies, but also actresses, and firm rules intended as guide
lines, had been made known to his circle of acquaintances.
The rules existed to ensure that the tenor of family life was not spoiled by
sexual exploits, and any indiscretions which gave rise to public gossip were
punished by social death or 'cutting'. Swiftly and efficiently names could be
removed from guest lists, so that those who deviated from the expected behaviour
and were publicly indiscreet soon found themselves almost socially extinct.
Surprisingly, unmarried girls of the Edwardian period were never considered
'fair game', but if they offended against the rules, they too could find their
names struck off the guest lists and their chances of a good marriage ruined.
The chief business of the upper class girl was to dine and dance until she
married, eventually to become a society hostess. Even when safely engaged, she
would not be allowed to drive alone in a carriage with her fiancé, and she was
expected to remain innocent and virginal. Once married of course, she could be
eyed thoughtfully, by both single and married men.
A girl signalled that she was ready for marriage and the social round by
projecting her 'body image'. She achieved this by using a series of signs and
symbols, the first of which was putting up her hair:-
Brushing the hair, a young woman's crowning
From an advert in the Lady's Realm for 'Tatcho' a hair tonic.
'Loose, uncut hair is seen both as a symbol of virginity and a symbol of
promiscuity..... The girl in Edwardian England who put up her hair to signify
that she had reached maturity was symbolically offering her virginity in the
marriage market.' and
'Girls often looked forward to the privilege of lengthening their skirts and
doing up their hair with much the same ardour as older women now seek to
preserve the external signs of adolescence.'
Young girls came out during the London Summer Season which lasted from May to
August. As early as February some would have received invitations for their
presentation to the King and Queen at the first Court. In any one season
approximately one hundred girls would be received at Court, with thirty or forty
debutantes being presented at any one time.
'Coming Out' and 'being presented' were landmarks in a young girl's life, -
an official recognition of adulthood by parents and society in general. Despite
having just left the schoolroom, debutantes were expected to look and behave
with the dignity of the hostesses they would soon become.
Lady Tweedsmuir who married in 1907 remembered the occasion for its effect on
'I went to court balls after being presented at Court and I saw Queen
Alexandra in a gold dress with wonderful jewels. I suffered all the usual
misgivings of a debutante, fearing that my train would catch on something, or
that I should stumble and fall ignominiously at Their Majesties feet; but all
was well, and my train was flung over my arm by a court official as I walked
backwards into the supper room feeling relieved and elated.'
Throughout the season the debutantes danced the nights away and spent the
days shopping for clothes, attending garden parties and calling on
acquaintances. They did their best to enjoy themselves, their life being one of
leisure rather than freedom.
Within months many were married and found
themselves playing the role of society hostess. Half-educated girls with some
political power, they were entertained by society and entertained in return.
If hostesses had style they might be lucky enough to entertain the King and
Queen, but they would have to be wealthy too, because it was estimated that even
a country ball was less expensive to hold than 'a shooting luncheon' for the
King. The society family of only moderate means could not afford such affairs
and many a 'country' family found itself unable to socialise in the way it
wished. The price was literally too high for the family to pay.
Caviare, truffles, snipe, partridge, oysters, quail, ptarmigan (white
grouse), pressed beef, ham, tongue, chicken, galantines, lobster, melons,
peaches, nectarines and specially imported jams and biscuits could always be
acquired in the hope of pleasing him. His desires set the tone of extravagance
associated with the era. A typical society dinner menu for twenty persons cost
approximately £60. That was much more than the annual income of a maid.
Conspicuous consumption by the rich was seen as normal and even desirable.
That consumption varied from extensive menus, to newly decorated interiors,
costly travel abroad, and sartorial art at its most complex. Rich ladies were
dressed elaborately and with great variety which was costly. Society hostesses
wore different clothes for every occasion. The ultimate consumption was that the
art of dressing was so complex that they could not even dress properly without
the help of a ladies maid. They epitomised the mood of Edwardian high society.
If you want to really capture the essence of the mood of Edwardian high
society then watch the excellent thought provoking film 'The Shooting Party'. It
really does capture the lost golden age and highlights the social structure of
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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. For books used on
Edwardians see the site page bibliography.
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