Sunday 8 January 2012

Women of 1912: a generation of new consumers

The women of 1912 had been born and raised during the Victorian era, yet soon the watershed conflict of the Great War would forever alter their lives. In less obvious ways though, the world their mothers had inhabited was already changing, taking small but significant cultural steps towards the modern. In terms of their domestic lives, experiences, clothes and daily routines, our counterparts of a century ago were living through a period of exciting transformation.

                                                                           A 1913 corset
In 1912, around one in eight women was in domestic service of some sort, from the lowest form of skivvy cleaning out the fireplaces to the impoverished genteel roles of nanny or nurse maid, living in the homes of wealthy families. Eighty percent of people lived in towns, with the increasing development of public transport- in the form of the underground, trains and omnibuses- making transport more possible. For respectable women though, this was still a minefield to be negotiated and many still hesitated before using these unchaperoned. For the more daring, the advent of the bicycle meant considerably more freedom, even if it raised a few eyebrows. Female equality had already been a topic of hot debate whilst many of the women of 1912 were in their infancy; in that year, though, many activists began to use more militant tactics in order to protest about their inability to vote. Society was still polarised between the privileged minority and the mass of working class, yet increasingly a more leisured middle class with some disposable income was emerging, looking to ape the lives of the upper classes. "The Queen" magazine ran a regular column, allowing them to follow the escapades and society events of the "upper 10,000."

                                                 Queen Alexandra, widow of Edward VII

The first Ideal Home exhibition had taken place at Olympia in 1908, aimed specifically at the middle-class housewife with a little money to spare. It featured a range of full-scale homes designed to attract first time buyers. At the time, 90 percent of homes were rented and over the next few years, a huge drive towards home ownership and the expansion of the suburbs and establishment of the airy, healthy and accessible garden cities, aimed to reduce this number. The 1910 exhibition featured a "dream home" of eight rooms, which cost £600 to build. By 1912, it had become a five-bedroom, eleven roomed ideal, costing £1100, which was considered well within modest means. Lifestyle magazines suggested layouts and furnishings peopled by ideal families, in the style of the country "hunting, shooting, fishing" set. In the rapidly expanding suburbs, the mock "Jacobethan" style was most popular: everyone wanted to own their little castle and plot of land, with its flushing toilet, spacious bedrooms and sanitised kitchen. In newly built avenues named "Belle Vista" and "The Beeches," the commuter was king.

Inside these homes, things were changing too. As recently as 1900, electricity and indoor plumbing had been beyond the reach of the majority; by 1914, most London homes had a gas cooker fitted. From 1912, after the BCGA- a compressed Gas company- was founded to reduce labour and reach female customers, door to door salemen and accessible salesrooms displayed the latest cookers, vacuum cleaners and electric irons. The increasing use of tinned and packaged foods also made life easier for the Edwardian woman, no longer needing to spend hours slaving away in the kitchen. Many popular brands were launched, such as Birds and Frys and Cadbury; the first Heinz factory opened in London in 1905. Soon the familiar "catsup" bottle was gracing many tea tables. By 1914, Britain was the largest importer of tinned and dried foods. In her 1909 "Book of the Home," Mrs Humphreys gave the young ambitious hosuewife advice on how to copy expensive styles cheaply and a range of new women's magazines included tips for recipies and household care, as well as patterns to replicate the latest fashions. Shopping increasingly became a leisure activity, with department stores offering a safe haven for unchaperoned women to spend time and perhaps pick up a few bargains. Selfridges, founded in 1909, attracted female customers with its in store library, quiet room and restaurants: the experience was key: such shops provided an equivalent of the male club, where women would conduct social occasions and even receive post. With increased leisure time, women needed somewhere to spend it. Alternatively, shopping could be done from the comfort of one's own home using one of the many thick, detailed catalogues issued by companies such as Heal's or The Army and Navy stores.

Inside the kitchen at the White House, 1910

An explosion of beauty products; lotions, perfumes, creams and soaps; showed the emphasis this era put on the emulation of physical ideals. Many relatively cheap new products brought a touch of luxury within reach, with garden-style scents like violet, sweet pea, lily-of-the-valley and rose, with exotic Art Nouveau labels. Yardley's April Violets can still be purchased in modern chemists. These were the last days of the corset, with the ideal figure being elongated, with low hips and bosom, dictated by the S-shaped underwear of the American Gibson girl. The pigeon-chest and large blowsy hair were instantly recognisable and adopted by many leading ladies, especially the scandalous Evelyn Nesbit, notorious for the 1906 New York murder of her lover by her husband. In the late Victorian era, fashions had been set by the appearances of royal mistresses such as Lily Langtry and Alice Keppel, as well as the denizens of the stage like the hugely popular Marie Lloyd, Ellen Terry and Lily Elsie. Elsie was one of the most photographed women of her era; she launched the career of designer Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon, Titanic survivor,) by appearing in her hats.

An edition of the Suffragette commemorating Emily Davison who threw herself under the King's horse at the Derby, 1913

                                                 Mary Pickford, popular Hollywood actress

Cheap, mass-produced magazines catered to a new found literacy. Since the 1880 education reforms, a new generation had remained in school longer and more profitably; while prices, time and accessibility might put books beyond the reach of many working class and employed women, stands selling aspirational magazines could be found on street corners and at stations. They could choose from titles such as "Home Fashions," "Fashions for all," or "Weldon's Ladies Journal," for 3d; while "Practical Fashions", featuring three patterns for a bodice and blouse cost only 1 1/2d. "Enquire Within" had a wider scope, containing "homely reading," "boudoir gossip," "social confidences," bargains and short stories. Of wider appeal still were the many magazines catering for specific contemporary interests, from "The Lady's Gazette" and "The Wheel of Fortune: the romance of luck is in real life" to "Idle Moments," "The Vegetarian," "The Epicure," "Temperance Advocate" and "Competitions: everybody's weekly." The demand for gossip and romance were liberally met with "Chic," "Tat," "Gossip," "The Cosy Corner" and "Forget me Not." Imported American magazines introduced new icons such as Mary Pickford, who had made her debut in 1909 and by 1912 had earned her epithet "America's Sweetheart" by appearing in over fifty films so far. The first Hollywood film had been produced in 1910 and publications like "Motion Picture Story" and "Photoplay," founded in 1911, made the faces of the first actresses famous world-wide.

                                                             An Edwardian family portrait

                                    The wasp-waist and pigeon-style chest of the Gibson girl style.

Fashions were changing rapidly. Exciting innovations from abroad were beginning to liberate female dress and introduce new body shapes and fabrics. The House of Poiret, established in 1903, offered the restrictive but very popular hobble skirt, which was banned by some employers as being too dangerous for work. In 1911, Poiret founded the Ecole Martine to afford working class girls with some artistic talent the opportunity to be trained. After visiting the Wiener Workstatte, an oriental influence blended in his work, along with the style and colours of the costumes designed for the Ballets Russes by Leon Bakst. Poiret also launched his own perfume line; his 1912 scents included "La Rose de Rosine" and "Fan Fan Le Tulip." Also in Paris, Russian-born Sonia Delaunay's clothing designs were driven by her theories on the simultenaiety of colour, whilst in Vienna, Emilie Floge's salon, established in 1904, prodcued loose clothing in bright blocks of colour, like the paintings of her lover Klimt. The Parisian Vionnet house was established in 1912, with its flattering bias-cut pret-a-porter clothing and Coco Chanel set up shop in 1913. While the Great War would set back the flourishing of many of these houses and the availability of leading fashions, it fuelled home industry, with many women adapting, dyeing and altering existing garments in order to refresh limited wardrobes.

Poiret fashions from 1908

A number of women were leading in their artistic fields in 1912. Garden designer Gertrude Jekyll had an existing reputation based on her articles and photographs before meeting architect Lutyens in 1889. Together, they designed almost 100 gardens between 1900 and 1914; Jekyll had become a household name through the publication of her books and features in popular magazines such as "Country Life." Artist Vanessa Bell, sister of the author-in-embryo Virginia Woolf, was at the vanguard of modern English art. A key figure in the two controversial Post-Impressionist Exhibitions of 1910 and 1912, her work was at its most experimental during this time. Influenced by Cezanne and Matisse in particular, her abstract, fine and applied art showed her to be one of the few female English artists working in the Post-Impressionist tradition before the war. Irish designer Eileen Gray, an ex Slade student, was influenced by Parisian and oriental styles in her creations; wishing to create contemporary items, an exhibition of 1913 gave her the break she needed. Famous for her minimal tables, chairs and carpets, she was commissioned to create three large pieces by Jacques Doucet, which brought her wide acclaim. Among the most famous names in the England of 1912 were popular novelist Elinor Glyn, for her mass market erotic fiction and the hostess and cook Rosa Lewis, trained by Escoffier, owner of the exclusive Cavendish hotel. Such women set the standard of fashion and behaviour, for an aspirational middle class to buy into.

                                                 Vanessa Bell, "Studland Beach," 1912.

                                                               Eileen Gray, 1920s

In 1912, images of travel were everywhere. Postcards, boardgames, magazines, cigarette cards and posters featured images of cars, ships and planes. The world was changing; perhaps one of the greatest and sudden changes of all was brought about by the innovation in transport; the remaining years before the Great War saw a struggle for dominance between the Victorian, Imperial world and the freedoms of the modern age.  For the middle-class Edwardian housewife with a little disposable income, the times offered unprecedented levels of consumer choice. However, the coming years would bring greater privations and trials as well as new opportunities for employment and equality.

                                                 Suffragettes protesting in Manchester, 1911


  1. I found this blog post while searching for information on life in Britain in 1912. This is fabulous. Thank you. If you could point me to any more resources, I'd appreciate it.