The Edwardian look saw male fashion at its most elegant
By Stephen Hoare
Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny with the little glass eye, the subject of a popular music hall song by Vesta Tilley presents an enduring image of the male peacock. Miss Tilley, a small but feisty female whose cross-dressing routines on the Edwardian stage depict a stereotypical toff, carries resonance with today’s woke transgender issues. With white tie and tails, a gardenia in the buttonhole, a monocle, and an opera hat, the Piccadilly Johnny was a recognisable type that haunted the stage doors of theatres like the Gaiety, soliciting introduction to glamorous starlets or chorus girls.
The Edwardian look, which roughly spans the period 1890 to 1920, saw male fashion at its most elegant. This is best embodied by the high lapelled, four button three-piece suit with high-waisted trousers and turn-ups. This would be worn with starched collar and cuffs and always a hat. At the height of Empire, tailoring workshops thrived on material spun in Yorkshire woollen mills while shirtmakers were well supplied with Lancashire or Egyptian cotton. A suit of clothes was often bespoke, with an army of high street tailors working for low margins, accommodating variations in style and design.
Meanwhile, the boot industry based in Northampton and the hatters of Luton were gearing up for growth. Hats make an interesting subject in their own right with the bowler of billycock hat worn by the lower middle classes and the silk top hat worn by high status office clerks through to aristocrats. Winston Churchill famously wore a flat topped high crowned bowler hat – an anachronism even then – which along with his Havana cigars became a trademark during World War 2.
In the summer, the straw boater – a headgear made of pressed and stiffened straw trimmed with a wide black silk band was universally worn by all classes. Photographs of the crowded Edwardian city streetscapes often reveal a sea of straw boaters! For the first time, a wide choice of garments at affordable prices were available to a public eager to embrace respectability.
For the upper classes Piccadilly was the Mecca and Savile Row had shown the way with tailors like Henry Poole and Co, Huntsman, and Gieves and Hawkes received royal warrants for their court attire and military uniforms. Well-cut clothes in the most expensive cloth were a luxury but payment could be on account and credit was easy to obtain.
The Edwardian was defined by the clothes he wore. Like a uniform or badge of class, the working man was recognisable by his hard-wearing corduroy or moleskin trousers, waistcoat, collarless shirt, cloth cap and muffler. The blue-collar or office worker would be defined by a blue serge suit and bowler hat. Countrymen and farmers would wear tweeds.
The higher the status, the more variety would be contained within a wardrobe of perhaps a dozen tailor-made suits. The Edwardian style started off with high lapels which showed a small expanse of shirt and emphasised a high starched wing collar. The coat or jacket could be cut in a variety of styles. Sometimes cutaway, it could be trimmed with braid piping, and the sleeve cuffs would be fastened with two or possibly three buttons. After around 1910 lapels got deeper and wider and three buttons became the norm.
the Piccadilly Johnny was a recognisable type that haunted the stage doors of theatres
To complement the suit, the wearer would sport a short necktie or a bow tie made of Macclesfield silk with possibly a square of the same material used as a handkerchief arranged to tuck into the top breast pocket. High-waisted trousers, always supported by braces, were cut to finish in a fishtail high at the back. Over this was worn a waistcoat often in contrasting material. Discretely striped white flannel with mother-of-pearl buttons was a popular choice, or a light grey silk with small lapels. The waistcoat’s bottom pockets were made to accommodate a pocket watch on a silver or gold chain.
Woollen cloth for gentlemen’s suitings was a much heavier weave than today’s lightweight fabrics. Cloth came in a wide variety of types and textures with technical names like worsted, broadcloth, hopsack, serge, bird’s-eye, twill, barathea, pin stripe, tweed, flannel and much more. Above all, the suit had to keep its wearer warm. The Edwardians wore a lot of layers because most houses and buildings were heated by coal fires. Central heating was a rare commodity only to be found in public buildings and stately homes, and, even then, far from ubiquitous.
crowded Edwardian city streetscapes often reveal a sea of straw boaters!
Formal wear was a different story and gentlemen, perhaps aided by their butlers, could change their clothes according to the time of day. The morning for a stroll in the park or a visit to one’s club, the man about town needed a morning coat. By the afternoon, this had become a frock coat, a full double-breasted coat trimmed with silk revers.
A visit to the country would necessitate another quick change into a tweed knickerbocker suit, a sartorial informality equivalent of today’s track suit! The four button Norfolk jacket is recognisable from its integral belt which buttoned above the waist and kept in place by two applied bands of material which covered breast pockets. Knickerbockers or plus fours were short breeches which fastened at the knees with buckles and were worn with long socks and brown Balmoral boots.
The sporting calendar, which included the Henley Regatta and the Eton versus Harrow cricket match at Lord’s, would require a blazer and white flannel bags. Club blazers, varsity blazers and totally spurious but colourful striped blazers proclaimed the wearer’s affiliations. The boater would be trimmed with club colours in the form of a club scarf or tie. Footwear had to match the informal register with brown leather and buckskin co-respondent shoes being de rigeur.
The evening necessitated a change to evening tails, worn with white tie and white pique waistcoat. Towards the end of the Edwardian era a lamentable trend crossed the Atlantic – that of the short silk faced dinner jacket otherwise known as a Tuxedo.
Our gentleman’s cutaway morning coat was a single-breasted tailcoat, either in black or grey, worn with a single or more likely double-breasted waistcoat of a fine cream or dove grey material fastened with pearl buttons. If a single-breasted black waistcoat was worn, this might be accompanied by a linen slip or under-waistcoat whose outer edges could constrain the cravat fastened under the neck with an ostentatious tiepin.
the combination of black coat and jacket with pin-stripe trousers was a virtual uniform for civil servants, politicians, station masters and other important luminaries.
Trousers would be a high-waisted pin stripe in Cheviot wool and the combination of black coat and jacket with pin-stripe trousers was a virtual uniform for civil servants, politicians, station masters and other important luminaries. Today, the combination is still worn by hotel managers where it is an indicator of status and old-world formality.
The Edwardian gentleman would wear a pair of cloth topped button boots or glace kid ankle boots. To set the ensemble off, a cane – usually a silver topped or horn handled Malacca cane – and a pair of gloves in lavender kid. The ultra-fashionable might wear a high-necked starched collar known as a masher. This would reinforce posture as well as indicating the wearer was one of that louche tribe known as the K-nuts! The music hall song I’m Gilbert the Filbert, Colonel of the K-nuts was a tribute to this unlikely fashion.
For the past twenty years, Stephen Hoare has been a freelance writer and journalist, writing about higher education, business schools and the public sector for The Guardian. He is a regular contributor to the Times’ special reports and author of many non-fiction titles including The Assassination of John F Kennedy and Hiroshima for Batsford’s ‘A Day That Made History’ series.
Stephen Hoare’s latest book is Piccadilly London’s West End and the Pursuit of Pleasure published by The History Press price £20. ISBN 9 780750 995658. Stephen Hoare is also the author of Palaces of Power: The Birth and Evolution of London’s Clubland published by The History Press 2019. ISBN 978-0-7509-9076-9 price £25