The Edwardian Era (1901-1914): Formal Wear of Edward VII

 “Comfort, gentlemen, is the main thing in male stylishness.”

              – Henri Duvot[1]


“In terms of dress, Edward VII was one of those pivotal figures so crucial to the history of men’s fashion in the way they orient, regulate, and accelerate change when the world shifts from one era to another. They adopt and lend their prestige to sartorial changes, endowing them with the legitimacy needed to enter a stylish man’s wardrobe.”

                                                                                                                                                        – Farid Chenoune[2]   If the Victorian Era is known for an overriding sense of stiffness and formality, best symbolized by four-inch-high celluloid collars and breastplate-like shirtfronts, we can think of the Edwardian Era as beginning its equal and opposite reaction (to be completed by Edward VII’s grandson, the Duke of Windsor, in the thirties). This is an overgeneralization of course—after all, the trend of decreasing embellishment and increasing comfort in men’s formal wear began as early as the abandonment of elaborate court dress for country frock coats and breeches in the eighteenth century. Still, it’s a helpful overgeneralization, because Edward VII’s fashion choices in the early twentieth century resulted in effects similar to those sparked by Beau Brummell’s wardrobe in the eighteenth. The Edwardian Era is officially regarded as the years of Edward VII’s reign up to the start of World War I (1901-1914)—though note that Edward died in 1910. However, the true Edwardian Era—as far as fashion is concerned, anyway—was much longer-lived. As Farid Chenoune describes, “The Prince of Wales was already sixty in 1901 when he succeeded Queen Victoria and became Edward VII. But long before he had already become king of another realm—that of male stylishness.”[3] The young Prince of Wales’ debonair charm and associated “whiff of scandal” made him—and his sartorial selections—contagious, both to the press and to other fashionable men of the time. And so, despite the undoubtedly exaggerated legends surrounding the Prince and his clothes, we must examine the effects (both rumored and confirmed) his innovative style had on modern men’s fashion.

1. The Prince of Wales: Man, Legend, Fashion Icon

[caption id="attachment_129" align="alignleft" width="308"] Young Prince of Wales[/caption] ‘Edwardian society modelled itself to suit the King’s personal demands. Everything was larger than lifesize. There was an avalanche of balls and dinners and country house parties. More money was spent on clothes, more food was consumed, more horses were raced, more infidelities were committed, more birds were shot, more yachts were commissioned, more late hours were kept, than ever before.’ – Virginia Cowles[4]     The Prince of Wales served as fashion icon for aristocrats and socialites from quite a young age. He was increasingly followed and quoted; his styles were increasingly photographed on the sly and mimicked by multiple European tailors. Allegedly, he couldn’t even attend his favorite spa in Marienbad without groups of tailors gathering to take photographs of and notes on his clothing.[5] Tailors and ready-to-wear shops used his likeness as advertising: one could see paintings of the Prince in shop windows (bedecked in that particular shop’s signature style, of course). In addition, there were illustrations of his fashionable figure in newspaper ads for suspenders; one could even find his face on cigar boxes! Havana Cigars advertised: “‘Prince of Wales, now King of Havana Cigars.’”[6] Edward VII (while still the Prince of Wales) serves as a legendary, almost mythological influence on male style. Farid Chenoune discusses just a few of the rumors surrounding the then-Prince[7]: Countless fashions were ascribed to Edward when he was Prince of Wales, as there are countless stories and rumors about his sense of style. It was said that the prince detested the sight of a poorly-knotted tie, that he hated the embroidered vests worn by Americans, that he inspired the short coats and low-necked vests fashionable in the 1890s. Stylish men in London and Paris were apparently imitating the prince when they held their canes head down. He was even said to have insisted on using the bones of French sheep to scrape and properly maintain the leather surface of his shoes. How many of these stories are true, how many based on some grain of truth, how many outright fantasy or misattribution? Honestly, it’s hard to say—and in some sense, it doesn’t matter. Edward VII’s larger-than-life persona was built on stories like these, and it’s stories like these that shape the larger story of men’s fashion.

2. Comfort, Gentlemen, is the Main Thing in Male Stylishness

[caption id="attachment_131" align="alignleft" width="318"] Edward VII sporting a frock coat.[/caption] Of all Edward VII’s sartorial inventions, both factual and mythological, probably his most lasting and revolutionary introduction to the world of men’s fashion was the concept of sportswear. Of course, “sportswear,” as the gear or kit typically worn by sportsmen for their activity of choice, wasn’t the Prince of Wales’ invention. Neither was he the first to coopt styles originally intended for sporting (e.g., the original equestrian-based frock coat) for town and even formal evening wear. What Edward VII is credited with, however, is creating sportswear as a separate class of clothing, bridging the gap between formal and informal styles.[8] This was and still is an incredibly important class of clothing. Especially during the early twentieth century, though, when the previous era’s daytime clothing (e.g., the frock coat) was relegated to only the most formal occasions, while styles previously considered suitable only for wear in one’s own home (e.g., the dinner or tuxedo jacket) became commonplace at all but these most formal occasions, sportswear provided a clear indication of semi-formal[9] casual attire. The king wanted clothes that were comfortable (he is also allegedly responsible for the style of leaving the bottom button of one’s waistcoat undone; presumably to improve his own comfort after a large meal!). Clothing designed for athletic pursuits—clothing that one could move in, that moved with the wearer, that wasn’t unbearably stiff—fit his requirements perfectly. Edward VII is allegedly responsible for popularizing the Norfolk Jacket (purportedly invented by the Duke of Norfolk for hunting), which was the progenitor of all modern sport coats and sports jackets. The original Norfolk Jacket was made of heavy tweed wool with two deep “bellows pockets” and a “storm collar” lapel that could be fastened across the neck for warmth.[10]

3. Shapely but Comfortable Trousers

In addition to inventing what would become the modern sport jacket, Edward VII popularized the use of trouser cuffs. This style was inspired by members of the Windsor Cricket Club who rolled up their trousers to protect trouser bottoms during play; it was imitated by sailors, tennis players, etc.[11] In coopting this trick, though, Edward VII ingeniously solved a problem with the era’s trousers which, no longer shaped to the leg by a tailored foot strap, tended not to have much shape at all. The trouser cuff, though, added weight to the bottom of one’s trousers, slightly pulling the trouser bottoms toward the ground and improving their hang.[12] Relatedly, Edward VII is often credited with the invention of the trouser crease, though this attribution is more likely apocryphal: “Some people claim that a traveling British gentleman invented it by accidentally leaving his pants between the mattress and box spring of his bed one night. Others claim that the Prince of Wales, caught in a sudden shower, gave his trousers for pressing to a little village tailor who returned them complete with crease.”[13] Whether or not he invented the trouser crease, Edward VII played a key role in popularizing the front crease that we see today. This crease also improved the hang and shape of trousers sans foot strap.

4. Edward VII’s Effect on Formal Establishment

[caption id="attachment_128" align="alignleft" width="429"] Edward VII - Balmoral, Scotland[/caption] Despite Edward VII’s popularity with tailors and all fashionable men of the period as style icon, it’s important to note that he did not originate much change as far as formal attire is concerned—though he did help to popularize the new dinner jacket/tuxedo jacket. Instead, many formal wear-oriented authors attribute the title of “first fashion icon” to Edward VII’s grandson, Edward VIII (previously the Prince of Wales; subsequently the Duke of Windsor[14]). I believe it’s important to note Edward VII’s influence, however, as formal and informal styles influence each other significantly. First, the Edwardian Era demonstrated the continuation of changes in fashion from daywear to ultra-formal; from home wear to semiformal. Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, the Tailor and Cutter collected data on the types of clothing worn by Londoners on the street: reporters observed more than twice as many morning coats as frock coats, and almost twice as many lounge suits (or sack suits[15])—the precursors of today’s business suits—to morning coats.[16] Notions of formality were changing rapidly, and many of Edward VII’s innovations or popularizations paved the way for this new daywear, as well as for the popularity of the dinner or tuxedo jacket as formal attire. The rise of lounge suits and sportswear also heralded an increase of ready-to-wear apparel, as these sorts of clothes didn’t require perfect measurements.[17] Second, the atmosphere that Edward VII created during his reign—the massive parties, the dancing and debauchery, the obsession with comfortable luxury—set the stage for the later Prince of Wales/Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor’s more formal sartorial contributions to modern fashion. Thus, Edward VII’s most important role in the history of formal wear might have been to allow the social and political “setup” that paved the way for his grandson’s formal wear revolutions. [1] From Conseils d’un home chic (1913); quoted in Farid Chenoune’s History of Men’s Fashion, 114. [2] 114. [3] Ibid., 113. [4] From Edward VII and His Circle, London 1956; quoted in Laver, 213. [5] Chenoune, 113. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid., 114. [8] Karlen, J. & C. Sulavik (1999). The Indispensable Guide to Classic Men’s Clothing. New York: Tatra. 108. [9] That is, “semiformal” in its current sense, not as a descriptor of black tie attire as opposed to full dress. [10] Karlen & Sulavik, 109. [11] Chenoune, 117. [12] Ibid. (Also, note that trouser cuffs are never used with black tie or white tie attire!) [13] Ibid., 118. [14] C.f., Flusser (2002), (1998), (1996) [15] Blackman, 12-13. [16] Chenoune, 122. [17] Ibid., 126.