Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Harem Trousers and Edwardian Fashion


Edwardian Fashion by Daniel Milford-Cottam

non-fiction, reference work published 2014



By the early 1910s, Poiret had reached the height of his influence.. The culmination of his passion for the exotic came in 1911, when Poiret threw an extravagant fancy-dress ball, ‘The 1002nd Night’… the approved costumes featured lavish turbans, metallic fabrics, wired tunic hems, and harem pants.

These same details appeared in Poiret’s own designs, with many going on to feature prominently in fashionable evening wear.


There was even a brief fad for harem pants seen peeping out from beneath the hems of day and evening skirts. The harem pants craze was more enthusiastically taken up by satirists and cartoonists than by fashionable women, and harem pants were unsurprisingly short-lived as a day-to-day garment, though a popular option for fancy-dress balls.






A Deputy Was King by GB Stern

novel, published 1926


[A tenant in a lodging-house has died: the landlady wonders who she was, and asks another resident what she thinks]

She had brought the dead woman’s ‘things’ in for Loraine to see. The foreign old woman had had, apparently a taste for false jewellery…Loraine looked at a brooch:

‘This is all right; it’s Turkish work, I should think, from this hole left in the filigree for the material of your dress to be pulled through and pinned; that’s the way they always do it. Your old lady may easily have been a Turk.’

-- At which the landlady cried out in holy horror, not fancying the idea of having had anyone in her house connected with ‘them nasty harems, which I didn’t even like in skirts, Miss, and very glad to see them go out, what with my daughter Mabel not even able to step on a bus without spraining her ankle.’


observations: And so fashion filtered down in the 1910s and 1920s – a style such as harem pants begins at a costume ball for the richest and best-connected clients of a top designer. Some time later, women called Mabel are climbing on the bus wearing their harem skirt/pants combo. It’s not clear from the landlady’s  story exactly when the fashion mistake caught out her daughter’s ankle,  but it’s a true fashionista’s story – the original wearers of harem pants probably never travelled by bus…

And of course another recommendation for the book Edwardian Fashion, by blogfriend Daniel Milford-Cottam – an indispensable guide to the clothes and the attitudes of the first years of the 20th century. All fashion fans should read it: there is another entry about it here.  The top picture is from his book. 


The second extract is from a book we've already featured, part of the Rakonitz Chronicles. This is very much a side-anecdote – and the woman concerned was Greek rather than Turkish – but all the clothes in Stern’s book are carefully chosen and beautifully described. There are embroidered corsets on Anastasia’s bed and there is a brocade and feather evening cloak. There is the Chinese Coat dealt with in another entry. At Toni’s dress shop, the gowns have fancy names, and there is one called ‘Sauve Qui Peut’ which is a challenge to combine sherry and vermilion as feasible colours. It is hard to imagine, but Stern does make it convincing. It is a ‘dress of the cities’ as the people of the Rakonitz family are ‘children of the cities’.

We have mentioned before both Stern and Agatha Christie writing about the dresses with fancy names. Another business in common is the letting and sub-letting of flats – Toni in the book, in the first years of marriage, is shown taking flats, then finding a better one and re-letting the first one – without ever moving into the first one. Agatha Christie describes exactly the same process in her autobiography – these people have three rented flats on the go at one time.

The two lower pictures are from the Library of Congress

ADDED LATER: I am happy to say that we inspired Daniel, author of the non-fiction fashion book above, to post a piece on women/trousers/harem pants - and it is fascinating. Find it here.

21 comments:

  1. Moira - How interesting that those traditions from other countries (like harem pants) catch on as fads and even fashions. And what an interesting resource that Cottam book seems to be! Fascinating! I'd suspect there are probably a lot of other fashions like that, that caught on and were adopted from other countries (like the Egyptian craze of the the '20s and '30s). Really interesting phenomenon, I think.

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    1. Hi Margot! Harem pants have been suggested to be the first example of really widespread unthinking/insensitive cultural appropriation of other cultures' clothing - the point at which Western fashion began challenging other cultures' claims on their own styles. Nowadays this is quite an ongoing issue, with the Native American communities getting very angry and vocal about seeing their sacred war bonnets and similar designs/motifs profaned on Western catwalks without understanding or recognition of their meanings... Similarly, we are beginning to see complaints about Western fashion using Asian/Middle Eastern/Aboriginal/Islamic elements in its designs apparently without awareness of, or sensitivity to, the original sources. It can be quite a minefield sometimes.

      I think I might post up an article to my other blog, Particular Articles, on the subject of women's trousers, I've had one in the drafts for a while. Will post a link when it's up!

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    2. https://danielmilfordcottam.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/on-the-way-to-masculinity/ As promised.

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    3. Thanks Daniel - I have added a link to your blogpost to the main text above. And yes, Margot, the whole idea of borrowing from another culture is a fascinating one, with all kinds of implications and ethical questions.

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  2. OK, I can't work out how Mabel kept spraining her ankle in harem skirts, although I suspect the landlady is thinking of hobble skirts which seemed pretty interchangeable with harem skirts/pants and would make a bit more sense. Also, some harem skirts were basically long narrow skirts with the hem terminating in two little leg holes rather than a full opening...

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    1. She doesn't sound like she was going to be tied down by accuracy!

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  3. Shocking because they were WOMEN WEARING TROUSERS!!!! And then came WWI...

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    1. Indeed, the problems changed. But it still took a while longer for trousers to be accepted. One of my favourite topics...

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  4. Hmm.... apologies, but I'll pass....maybe one of these days

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    1. Not really in line with your interests today...

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  5. Thanks for the reminder that I have to get a copy of Edwardian Fashion. And how cool that your post inspired Daniel to post his piece. I can understand why harem pants were short-lived; they look like they would make any woman except the slimmest look like a balloon. They might be comfortable worn at home.

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    1. Yes, I think they definitely just had novelty value. They do come into fashion now and again still, I remember a short moment for them in my own younger days, but I didn't succumb....

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    2. I finally got an actual physical copy of my own and will be glad when my reading crunch of June and July is over and I can read it.

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    3. Well done Tracy. Anyone with an interest in clothes or history will enjoy Daniel's book.

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  6. "them nasty harems" - wonderful (I think similarly of modern harem pants - very difficult look to carry off successfully). And I love the link to Daniel's blog and have just bought his book - sounds marvellous.

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    1. It's hard to think who harems ever suited really, isn't it?
      Daniel is a superstar!

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  7. Just came across this:

    http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=LAH19101124.2.107&srpos=&dliv=none&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN-------

    "When local and visiting club women began their crusade for lower car steps rumor ran that the hobble skirt was responsible for the movement."

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    1. Oh very interesting. Is it really saying that the hobble garter (of which I had never hitherto heard) restrains steps in order to preserve the flow of the dress or skirt?

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    2. I do describe the hobble garter in Edwardian Fashion. I actually don't know whether the hobble garter WAS worn - this is the only image I've seen of one: http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/fashion/the-hobble-garter/ - but it did receive a bit of press.

      This is the bit I quote: "Narrow in its confines, uncomfortable in the wearing, because of its pull-back effect, the women who wear them, so it is reported, have discovered that not only is free locomotion well nigh impossible, but if the wearer even makes use of her natural step when encased in one of these new freak gowns there is danger of a stumble and fall when least expected, and there is the added excitement of practically tearing the skirt asunder if it be fashioned of light material, unless a mincing gait is assumed."

      To be honest I think that while maybe a few women DID go to such lengths, I can't really imagine it was widely worn.

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    3. A bit like those bondage trousers of the punk era? I suppose there are always a few extreme items that get a lot more publicity than wear....

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    4. Yep, pretty much the same idea as the bondage trousers. Not widely worn, but gaining much publicity.

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