Women’s clothing styles at the turn of the 20th century

The James E. Merrill House Museum has on display many items of clothing which reflect the Victorian era (1837-1901) and the Edwardian era (1901-1910), the reigns of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, respectively. These items were donated by citizens eager to help furnish the house after it was restored in 2005.

The Edwardian age was known for excesses, elegance, and strict social rules modeled by the wealthy. Clothing styles were viewed as an expression of a woman’s place in society; the type of fabrics and layers of clothing were symbols of wealth. Women wore long dresses or tailored suit dresses over layers of petticoats. They also had to endure the tightly laced corsets which were stiff and restricted their movement and emphasized the small waist of a woman. Skirts were fitted at the waistline and flared at the hemline. High-necked dresses covered the upper chest and neck for daywear and, along with hats, protected women from the sun.

For evening attire, women wore the Bertha, which had a low shoulder neckline, exposed the shoulders, and was trimmed with lace. Clothing which exposed the neckline was restricted to the upper and middle class. Makeup was rarely worn, and Victorian women had very pale skin, occasionally with a smidge of rouge on the cheeks.

Sleeves increased in size during 1894. The leg-o-mutton sleeves were puffed up and out at the shoulder and narrowed at the wrist, much resembling a leg of a lamb. Skirts fit over the hips and flared out into a bell shape at the hem. Detachable collars and cuffs would enable a woman to change the look of her garment for a bit of variety. The wealthy women owned more garments, which were made of finer fabrics and used more material.

Hats presented a respectable appearance, and for the ladies, hats were dramatically large. To go bareheaded was simply not proper. Later, hats were designed to match their outfits. The wide-brimmed hats were covered with silk flowers, ribbons, and bird feathers. For driving, women tied long, sheer veils over silk motoring hats.

Women’s daytime shoes from the 1870s to the 20th century were laced up boots with high heels and pointed toes, while low-cut pumps were worn in the evening.

We welcome you to take a look at these fashions we have on display in the Merrill House. 

Nancy Gandy
Merrill House Museum Coordinator