King Edward reigned from 1901 to 1910, marking those nine years as the historic Edwardian Era. In terms of fashion, however, the “Edwardian Era” goes from roughly 1890 to the start of WWI in 1914, though many extend it to 1919. In France, the era of 1895-1914 was referred to as La Belle Époque — the Beautiful Period. Clothing of the era was elaborate, over the top, and sometimes extreme in the silhouettes upper-class women were expected to conform to. This was especially true with Edwardian eveningwear, where all the embellishments, beautiful fabrics, and latest designs were put on full display.
Evening dresses were worn for formal parties, opera, ballroom dancing, and dining out. Of the many styles, the low bust and shorter sleeves of the Edwardian ballgown was reserved for the young and unmarried. House parties were only semi-formal affairs, thus allowing for more modesty and less fussy details.
If you have been invited to attend and Edwardian Ball, you will need to dress the part. This article will look at the fashion history of Edwardian evening dresses from 1900-1914 and offer resources for putting your own outfit together.
Edwardian Evening Dress History
Edwardian evening dresses between 1900 and 1910 showed great variety in trim and decoration, but minimal change in the overall silhouette. The decade took inspiration from the skirt shape and large sleeves of the early Victorian 1830s, the empire waist of the Federal period, and accessories of the Renaissance. It was a mashup of everything beautiful from the past 200 years.
The evening dress bodice was tight and boned, with a square, heart, or wide V opening in the front and a smaller V in the back. The S bend shape was in full effect, thrusting bosoms out and buttocks up and back – a look that was extreme in illustrations, but less exaggerated on real women. Lace was draped around the bust and down the front of the bodice to soften the sharp shape. On more modest Edwardian evening gowns, a draped lace Bertha collar circled the neck.
Younger and unmarried women showed off the most skin, while mature and married ladies preserved their modesty with sheer or lace necks and long elbow-length sleeves. Most ballgowns and dinner dresses fancied short puff sleeves, wide bell shapes, or thin straps on the cold shoulder models. Sleeves featured pleats, ruffles, lace and gathering to widen the top and create the illusion of a small waist. Bust enhancers (similar to padded bras) and hip padding were used to enhance the bodices and bottom shapes of smaller-figured women. This is a wise idea to use today if you have a more tubular-shaped body.
Edwardian evening gown skirts were floor-length and bell-shaped until 1908, when they narrowed into the hobble skirt until 1911. A panel of lace draped down from bust to floor on some waistless models, and trains appeared on many dinner dresses but were impractical for ballgowns. Embroidery, applique, silk flowers, lace insets, and ruffles adorned the bell-shaped skirts. Taffeta petticoats rustled underneath the gown, calling attention to a lady’s every movement. Waists centered around the middle until 1909.
After 1909, the extreme curvy shape was replaced by the tubular column with a high Empire waist in a style known as Empire, Directoire, and Madame Recamier. Colors were either the emergent bold, rich new Asian hues promoted by designer Paul Poiret or remained in the pastel-is-still-pretty camp of Lady Duff Gordon, who instead made changes through shape and detail. She draped her gowns on her models and adapted corsets to be more relaxed and straight figured, as well as adorning her creations with satin, net, gilt lace, chiffon and spangled panels edged with pompoms and fringe. Skirts were often two or more layers with the outer layer starting at the knee. Hanky, asymmetrical, tulip, tiered or barrel hems were just of few of the many skirt variations.
Edwardian evening dress colors generally favored light pastels: rose pink, mauve, sky blue, lilac, yellow, teal and peach, with white or ivory trim. Winter colors were emerald green, medium blue, black, red, and burgundy, with black trim. The trend for black and white dresses repeated itself across the decade. After 1909, colors turned away from pastels and into the rich jewel tones of the Orient — black, gold, deep purple, red and sapphire blue.
Edwardian evening dress fabrics included satin, lace, chiffon, silk crepe, taffeta, tulle, and organdy. Usually, two or more fabrics were used in one dress, with stiffer fabrics on the bottom and light fabrics for draping on top. For hot summers and afternoon teas, very lightweight linen and cotton would be used (voile is excellent) as well as almost sheer silks. Trimmings were lavish, layered and excessive: lace, braiding, crochet, embroidery, beads, ribbon work, flowers and bows made an appearance. Panels of hand-painted flower or beading and metal sequins offered the only patterns seen otherwise solid colored dresses.
Take a look at these beautiful photos and illustrations of Edwardian formal dresses by year: 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, and 1913. Below the gallery is a discussion of accessories and a guide to dressing for your own throwback Edwardian dinner, ball or evening affair.
Edwardian Evening Dress by Year
Accessories, Hair, Shoes
Evening hairstyles were similar to daytime styles with all fullness gathered up on top. Without a hat, ladies could create the hat effect with as much volume on top of the crown as their maids could achieve. Many had large buns, rolls or loose braids of hair (real or fake) perched on the high crown, often secured with a pretty tortoiseshell hair comb. The addition of a coordinating flower in the front or a feather dipping off to one side was considered especially beautiful. With the later Grecian inspired gowns, ladies used a ribbon or scarf to circle their hairdo. Turbans became trendy after 1910, decorated with a tall feather or large brooch.
Adorning a ladies’ hairstyle was not necessary. A beautifully styled full hairdo could be becoming by itself. Shop Edwardian wigs, hairpieces, and hair accessories here.
Accessories included long over the wrist silk gloves usually in white but sometimes in black. A feather or lace hand fan offered some relief from the heat of dancing. In winter, a short wool cape coat, long velvet opera coat, or long fur or ostrich feather boa was worn to the event. Shop our collection of coats and wraps.
Jewelry was optional. When worn it was meant to accent an evening gown, not overpower it, and wearing one’s wealth to excess was seen as vulgar — although a single expensive piece was encouraged. A high choker or “dog collar” of pearls (or one long strand wrapped around the neck a few times) was favored by many high society women, while a single strand of pearls along with simple drop pearl earrings (only if ears were visible) was more common. A pretty Y pendant necklace in a filigree style was another rich piece. By the end of the decade, the ultra-long pearl or faceted bead necklace was worn once again, having also been in fashion at the turn of the century. Look here for our favorite Edwardian style jewelry pieces, or here for gloves, handfans, wigs, and hair accessories for your costume.
Evening shoes were called slippers. Ladies’ slippers featured short French heels and a single or double strap that buttoned to one side. Many slippers came with a lace ribbon tied in a bow instead of straps. Fancy evening shoes were made of dyed silk or satin and embellished with beading on the straps and toe box. Slippers were also made of white kid leather or glazed (patent) leather in black. Shop Edwardian shoes.
Stockings were worn under dresses. Although hardly ever seen, they would match the dress and shoes. Stockings were thick silk or cotton and held up with garters clips attached to the corset.
For your event just wear pantyhose, thigh highs or stocking socks in white or black. Avoid nudes and sheers if your legs will be visible. View some stockings options here.
Edwardian Eveningwear Guide
The Edwardian era is a popular one for themed balls, dinners, and special events. The interest in all things Downton Abbey certainly helped bring the time period back into the mainstream’s attention. There is also some chatter that current fashion is turning back to the Edwardian era for inspiration in the 2020 decade. What that means is it will only get easier to find and wear Edwardian inspired evening gowns at affordable prices. At the moment, unfortunately, the selection is limited and expensive.
Most women who can sew or hire a seamstress will turn to a custom made Edwardian evening dress using one of several reproduction sewing patterns on the market. My favorite brand is Truly Victorian. I have links to other Edwardian era patterns here. Reading this article on Edwardian fabrics and colors may also help in your dress fabric selection. Don’t forget to make undergarments and a corset before making the dress to ensure a proper fit.
There are some sellers and shops on Etsy who can custom make a dress (most are post-1910s styles, which may or may not be okay for your event. Many events embrace the Edwardian era as anything between 1890 and 1920.)
There are a few reproduction Edwardian evening gowns available for $200-400. Recollections Dresses sometimes has evening gowns.
Some 1980s fashion does Edwardian/Victorian dresses (Etsy) can also be perfect for the era. Check your local vintage shops and thrift stores (especially in the bridal and prom racks).
Your next best and more affordable option is to choose a modern evening gown with an Edwardian look. This is not easy for the pre-1910s decade. I have many Edwardian inspired dresses here but only a handful will fit the Early Edwardian era look. I recommend looking for:
- Dresses with a natural waist or empire waist.
- Lace or lace trim dresses. The more the better! Avoid heavily beaded/sequin dresses (some is ok, all over is not).
- Dresses with full skirts (ballgown skirts). A column shape skirt for after 1908.
- Dresses with short or long sheer sleeves (not sleeveless unless it is a cold shoulder bodice).
- Dresses with a corset bodice. This will give you the most accurate Edwardian top. Many, however, are sleeveless or have thin spaghetti straps. You can add a draping of lace fabric around the shoulders and chest if you are a little crafty.
- Choose light colors and light fabrics for 1900-1910. Jewel tones are ideal for 1909-1914.
- Add a petticoat underneath the skirt for more fullness or a long slip of the column shapes.
- Trim it up around the bust and arms with lace, ruffles, ribbon, flowers and even some fringe. Be creative! The more you add, the less modern it will look.
- Add Accessories: Long gloves, jewelry, hair ornaments (or a wig) and possibly a jacket/wrap/fur.
- Choose comfortable, low heel dressy shoes.
- Some examples of new gowns are:
Feel free to ask me for help with your outfit anytime.
Edwardian evening dresses, formal gowns, party dresses, dinner dresses and dancing ballgowns of the 1900s and 1910s. History, pictures, dressing guide.