Revolutionary Underwear and 203 Edwardian Underthings

by Cynthia Anderson

What is typically hidden from sight is not generally expected to have much power, especially when it comes to effecting social change or imposing shifts on the world. However unexpected, underwear have proven to be powerful in shaping the attitudes, bodies, and societies in complex and unexpected ways. As it turns out, the garments featured in our 203 Folkwear Edwardian Underthings pattern were present at the start of a revolution! 

Great change rarely occurs due to one individual thing, but in a series of occurrences that take on a life of their own. The period known as the Edwardian Era, between the late 1890’s and the beginning of The Great War in 1914, would prove to be such a time. The changes that occurred would forever alter the trajectory of Western culture. The reverberations cast by this game-changing era are still felt in the world today, even down to our underthings.

itching of indutrial landscape
Factories in the Industrial Revolution

The catalyst for this uproar of change was the Industrial Revolution in Britain (late 1700s to mid-1800s). It transformed an economy that had been based on agriculture and handcrafts to an economy based on large scale industry and mechanization. The steam engine, science, and mass production would literally lead the way.

With great industrial fortunes being made, so came the extreme displays of wealth, resulted in the Edwardian era also being given the lavish title La Belle Epoque (The Beautiful Era) and the Gilded Age. In part, this extraordinary show of excess was ushered in by the hedonistic lifestyle of Britain’s new king, Edward VII. The royal family were seen as fashion trend setters, while British high society reigned as the cultural elite, with everyone taking their cues from Edward’s extravagances, behavior, and attitudes. The photos below are typical of Edwardian women on display.

Extravagantly dressed women of Gilded Age
Bell Epoche women living lavish lifestyle

Middle-class women were quick to emulate their societal ”betters.” Societies, which were mostly poor population, became the victims of these blind excess. Unfortunately, today’s “fast fashion” continues to give life to these same disparities.

The era also brought with it upward mobility felt mostly by the expanding middle-class and the wealthy. The poor were excluded, being often left worse off than before. It would seem the rich were unwilling to acknowledge the price their privilege was forcing upon society. Disparities in clothing held up a disturbing mirror.

With the Industrial Revolution came many new advanced technologies, with textiles at the forefront. The new advancements in fabric manufacturing would transform the production of clothing in ways never seen before. The volume of production would soar, allowing for a broader range in quality and pricing for almost every pocketbook.

Mother and child working in textile mill
A woman and children factory workers Women working in textile mill
Women working in a crowded and dangerous factory. Notice all the standing.

Societal change was uneven, enabling some to take advantage of the new wave of possibilities, while others were shut out. With new opportunities women and their fashion began to shift in tandem. Some women were benefiting from new freedoms. The socially acceptable bicycle allowed for independence and mobility all at the same time. Hence, the practical bloomer or drawers became popular (one of the pieces in our 203 Edwardian Underthings pattern).

Literacy was on the rise and knowledge more accessible. The sewing machine enabled more ready-to-wear clothing production and women could more quickly sew their own clothing. Job opportunities due to the invention of the typewriter, telephone, and telegraph created opportunity where there had been none before. Despite the fact that many women labored in factories for subsistent pay, there was a new woman beginning to emerge. One that was better educated, interested in politics and social causes - and was on the move. A changing world for women meant a change in wardrobe too.

Possibly, the greatest impact on fashion due to the Industrial Revolution was the unexpected advancements in the manufacturing of lace and hosiery. This would change women’s underwear and our attitudes towards undergarments that still persist today. 
The woman in photo above maybe working on a lace making machine

The Edwardian Era is synonymous with lovely white-lacy-underthings. For the first time in history, lace was applied to underwear, and a lingerie industry was born! Lace transformed underwear from the plain and practical to highly coveted items that appealed to women’s desire for delicate and feminine undergarments. Mass produced lace would create an entirely new industry that would change the relationship with underwear and it’s place in the world forever.

Edwardian Underthings advertisement

Advertisements and fashion sketches in the ladies’ magazine of the day fueled the desires of the rich and poor alike. Access to mass advertising helped to transformed underwear to lingerie almost over night. There were already a plethora of popular undergarments at this time, including the corset, the chemise or camisole, drawers or bloomers, petticoats, crinolines, and all kinds of silhouette enhancing padding. However, the addition of lace would elevated the desirability of these familiar garments.  Our 203 Edwardian Underthings pattern features the camisole, drawers, and petticoat and has instructions for crocheting lace for lace insertion or lace edgings to add to these underthings.

Women aspired to fine, delicate, and diaphanous lace-encrusted creations made of semi-sheer cotton batiste, voile, lawn, linen and silk, all beautifully decorated in lace and delicate touches of embroidery and ribbon. While fine cotton was the preferred fabric, taffeta and other crisp fabrics were used for petticoats and outer most layers of lingerie or underskirts.


Advertisement for edwardian ladies camisole and petticoats

The availability of mail order, created a purchasing frenzy!  Lingerie could be bought secretly, which added to it’s allure. Beautifully-made and fine-quality lingerie was widely available during the Edwardian Era and was generally within the purchasing ability of most middle class purses. The popularity and ease of mail order only helped to expand the joy of pretty lingerie. The fact that so many piece still exist on the market today, is a testament to the popularity of Edwardian lingerie.

The epitome of lingerie desire was in matching sets of lingerie items, with matching lace insertion detailing. Sound familiar? The relative cheapness of cotton along with more durable and affordable machine made laces allowed undergarments to become more economical and practical, as well as pretty. Of course, it did not hurt that the range of lace designs was almost endless.

Soft pastel cotton fabrics were available for lingerie making, but white reigned supreme as the Edwardian aesthetic. White fabric also had the practical benefit of not being easily ruined when laundering. While technology in dyeing fabric was improving, one ran the risk of fabric not being colorfast and fading. Coveted lace dresses dominated fashion of the era and the impracticality of such dresses would set the wealthy apart from all other segments of society.

While the fruits of the Industrial Revolution were not enjoyed by everyone, a more democratic consumerism was born, allowing for a greater range of cheaper goods helping to lead the way. Insinuated into this new found democracy, were the prurient desires of men. Hence, the most important items in a young woman trousseau shifted from fine table and bedding linens to lingerie.

Edwardian Man & Woman underwear conversation

The 203 Folkwear Edwardian Underthings Pattern is the perfect excuse to indulge yourself in the same luxuries as so many Edwardian-spirited women. This pattern consists of all the easy and versatile to make pieces you will need to find romantic inspiration - the camisole, petticoat, and drawers/bloomers. Watch for an up-coming blog on how to make the 203 Edwardian Underthings Pattern for everyday wearing - just in time for Spring!