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What to wear in 1910


Clothing is an important part of everyday life.  We take the ease with which we dress in the 21st century for granted.  A hundred years ago, clothing was much more complicated.  


We imagine the biggest difference being in women’s clothing.  We all picture long skirts and big—huge—hats, and we’ve heard about corsets.  In addition, almost all women had long hair and wore it up. “Dressed” was the term for hair not hanging down a woman’s back. Movies showing women with long hair pulled up in front but down to mid-back reflect the predominant style at the time the movie was made, not the early 20th century.  Styles certainly changed in the 1920s, but in 1910, it was the updo, often in a Gibson girl style.  In a classic Gibson girl, the hair was smoothly gathered in a donut shape, with the center of the donut featuring a bun or a knot of hair, centered on top. From thre, some women pulled bangs or wings out of the donut shape. Everyone tried this hairdo. Surely it was difficult for people with fine or exceptionally curly hair. Older women may have twisted their hair up in different ways and younger women were starting to experiment, but the Gibson girl appears to have been quite common, from the many pictures I’ve studied.  It was also a good platform for a hat. 


The hats are incredible.  They are large and are topped with feathers and flowers and ribbons.  You can imagine what a big deal it was to get a new hat and why there were so many millinery shops.  Making the hats was a thriving business.  Women rarely went outside without a hat, kept in place with a hat pin, several inches of sturdy metal with a sharp point.  Women would keep their hats on inside when visiting or shopping because of the difficulty of removing them, unless they were staying for a considerable period.  Women wealthy enough to have a varied wardrobe would have hats to match.  Gloves and parasols fell into  the same category.


Women with a less varied wardrobe would have simpler hats or perhaps only one, but the hat was still required. In summer, women, like men, often went for straw hats, although they were more decorated for women.  And larger, of course.  


Underclothes were as complicated as hairdos. In 1910, most women were still wearing corsets, although “breast supports” and “brassieres” had been designed and were sold, apparently in small quantities. Women wore chemises, a kind of long “slip” or sleeveless gown, a corset, a corset cover, “drawers,” petticoats—in the plural—and stockings.  “Drawers” or underpants, look to us like a short, split skirt, with a drawstring waist.  The corset itself, the most defining part of the proper look, involved stays and laces.  The stays were, by 1910, usually metal strips that fit into slits or pockets in the garment. The corset supported, and somewhat flattened, breasts; constricted the tummy (and lungs); and stopped just below the waist.  The idea was to enforce an “S-shape” that emphasized a good bosom, a tiny waist, and a shapely backside.  An ample bosom was helpful, although cleavage was not the goal. For women not naturally endowed with the bosom of fashion, there were corset covers that involved layers of ruffles.  The ruffles were turned inward so that the outer part of the corset cover was smooth under a dress or shirt waist.


Often a corset included garters, front and back, to keep stockings up.  Most stockings came to at least mid-thigh and, although, they had elastic in the tops in some cases, the elastic available in 1910 was not sufficient to do away with the need for garters.  


It was a standard complaint that corsets were unhealthy, that they distorted what we would call good posture, and that they were often so tight as to constrict healthy breathing.  That did not seem to dissuade most women from wearing what was considered “decent.”  The thought of wearing a comfortable bra and slip must have seemed far too decadent to be considered.


Petticoats were needed to give volume to skirts, although, by 1910, women were wearing fewer as skirts got a bit slimmer.  The petticoat, featuring layers of ruffles, simply tied around the waist. The most extreme styles of 1910, adopted by very few women, featured skirts so slim as to be called “hobble” skirts.  Obviously, petticoats were not needed. 


At home, women often wore a “housedress,” as the name implies.  It was an actual one-piece dress, worn over the undergarments described above.  However, out of the house, most women wore a skirt and a shirtwaist.  The word “shirtwaist” has gotten shortened to “shirt,” in our day.  “Blouse” was a word in 1910 that implied a shirtwaist that wasn’t tucked in, but “bloused” at the waist.  In 1910, women referred to “waists” as the shortened form.  Waists were rarely a plain, smooth, fabric, buttoned down the front, perhaps open a ways down the front, as we wear them now.  As individual as hats, waists came with ruffles, pleats, insets of one type or another, high collars and long sleeves for the most part.  Short sleeved, meaning elbow-length, waists don’t seem to have been too common.  

The long skirt and the white shirtwaist were almost a uniform for women who worked outside the home—not that that was many women.  For those who did not have “gainful positions,” the costume for shopping and visiting was the long skirt, the more fanciful shirtwaist, and a matching jacket.  (And a matching hat and gloves.)  (See the section on St. Louis Women for a discussion of working women.)


Menswear looked a bit more like it does today, but it also involved more layers of clothing than we would consider comfortable.  The shape of men’s coats and cut of trousers changed with “fashion.”  In 1910, men were wearing the sack suit, consisting of a rather long, square-cut coat, pants neither too tight nor too baggy, often with cuffs, and, of course, a waistcoat. We now call a waistcoat a vest. It was an absolute necessity for any but the coarsest working situations.


For one thing, if you didn’t have a waistcoat with its pockets, you would have no place to carry your pocket watch. The two had developed together over several centuries and virtually every man who could afford a timepiece had a pocket watch in the watch pocket of his waistcoat.  In fact, the round, flat design of pocket watches came about so that they would fit well in a waistcoat pocket.  Wristwatches were around in 1910, but they were women’s wear, if that.  Many women wore a timepiece, if they needed one, as a pendant on a necklace. Most people thought that a wristwatch would take too much damage, including dirt.  This began to change in the late 1800s when military troops needed something more convenient than a pocket watch.  The first wristwatches for men were pocket watches secured by a strap and covered to prevent damage.  They were needed because of the increasingly precise nature of new war technology.  When men began returning from World War I with wristwatches, the devices’ reputation as “feminine” clearly was unsustainable, and men began rapidly to adopt the new fashion. (You can find this history in a number of places, and I have visited several. But I stumbled on the commercial web site , and particularly like that description.) 


Shirts were designed as garments to be worn between some kind of undershirt (depending on the weather) and the waistcoat.  Even a decade before, many shirts opened in the back, a secure closing not necessary because of the waistcoat.  That allowed the front to be solid, a bib effect, under the V-neck of the waistcoat. By 1910, both front and back-opening shirts were available.  Most of these shirts had a simple band at the neck and at the wrist; collars and cuffs were detachable and sold separately.  They were sometimes worn in contrasting color to the body of the shirt.  Some of the collars and cuffs were made of celluloid, which presumably made them even easier to clean. What we would recognize as a shirt, with attached collar and cuffs, solid in back and buttoned down the front, was called a negligee shirt.  (Yes, same name as a woman’s brief and frilly nightwear.)  In really hot weather, a man might remove his coat, leaving the waistcoat on, of course, and roll up the shirt sleeves.  This incredible casualness was more likely to be seen indoors, particularly in a relatively informal workplace.  My stories involve male news reporters, who would have definitely worked “in shirt sleeves” in a St. Louis summer. That would have been less likely for bankers, retailers, other businessmen.


Men, of course, also wore stockings.  As was the case with women’s stockings, the elastic in the top wasn’t always sufficient to the task, so some men were undoubtedly still using garters in 1910.  While women’s stocking came to mid thigh and connected to garters suspended from the corset (or a garter belt for the unconventional,) men’s stocking came to the top of the calf and connected to a small garter device that attached just below the knee.  


Men’s shoes were actually what we’d call boots, with a heel of at least an inch. Some were in the Oxford style, with lowers like we’d see today.  Others had an piece from the ankle up that resembled a spat, a cloth or leather piece that bridged the distance between the ankle and pant leg.  An actual separate pairs of spats was usually formal wear, worn along with the tuxedo and longer frock coat. Men’s shoes, like women’s, often buttoned instead of being laced, although laces were beginning to show up.  


And, speaking of buttons, there were lots of them.  Because: there were no zippers as we know them.  Everything fastened with drawstrings or buttons or the occasional lacing.  Check out for one version of this. It assigns the first useful zipper patent to 1917 and the first substantial decision to use zippers on men’s trousers to 1937.  


Hats were as common for men as for women, the only difference being the etiquette that men removed their hats indoors while women didn’t.  (Of course, that hasn’t changed according to many folks.)  You’ve seen the rounded derby or bowler hat, and those were popular. Other styles included the homburg, which had a slight crease in the crown.  (Here is an example of sources offering conflicting information.  Several websites tell me that “fedoras,” like a homburg but with a deeper crease, didn’t exist for men until 1924 when Britain’s Prince Edward adopted the style.  Before that, it was a woman’s style, featured in a 1888 play by Sarah Bernhardt, who played Princess Fedora in a play called “Fedora.”  The style was adopted by the women’s movement. So we have the origin of the word in 1888 and a nice story. However, a 1902 Sears catalog features a number of fedoras for men.  Part of the discrepancy might lie in the hat itself.  As I judge them, the 1902 men’s fedora has a crease straight down the middle of the crown.  The 1924 men’s fedora has what is called a “pinched-front, tear-drop shape,” in which the crease widens toward the back of the hat.  Nevertheless, the word fedora illustrates a problem writers have.  The story above is repeated several times in various sites.  But, at first, I went for authenticity with the Sears catalog.  Anyone who checks online would think I have it wrong.  So, now I use homburg instead of fedora, even though I like the word fedora better.) Men also wore a flat crown hat in straw, called either a “boater” or, more obviously, a “straw,” in the summer and for sporting venues.  


So, getting dressed in 1910 was much more of a chore than it is today.  On top of that, clothes got dirty more easily and were generally washed by hand.  For women, the problem was skirts that literally wiped up various kinds of grime from sidewalks and roads. For both men and women, another problem was environmental. St. Louis, like other large cities, ran on coal. The coal haze was ever present and meant dirtier hair, dirtier clothes, and most importantly, dirtier lungs.  See the section on environment for more.

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