Fashion in photos

Family photographs are a great source of information about the fashions of the time. Archive volunteer Paula has been delving into some Nettlefold photographs – and her research has turned up some fascinating finds about the dress and style of twentieth-century women.

We are lucky to have lovely photographs of two Nettlefold family weddings. The first was the marriage of Evie (the Nettlefolds’ eldest daughter) to John Crosskey at the end of the First World War on 19 November 1918. The wedding reception was held in the beautiful grounds of Winterbourne. Evie and John had five bridesmaids and John wore his military uniform, the tradition for serving officers.

Evie's wedding
Evie's Wedding

Evie’s gown was very much of the time – feminine and free flowing – made with cream lace with a square cut train of cream panne. She also wore a lace-capped veil with a coronet of silver and orange blossom. Gone were the restrictive corsets and bustles of the nineteenth century – the modern ‘bra’ had arrived! The bra was patented in 1914 by Mary Phelps Jacob after using two handkerchiefs to form support to go under an evening dress. The ‘bra’ was popularly worn by 1917.

The second post-war Nettlefold family wedding was that of Annie (Nina) and Edward Carter, 14 months after Evie’s. They were married on 5 February 1920 at the Church of The Messiah in Broad Street, Birmingham. Nina and Edward had four bridesmaids and Edward also wore his military uniform. Nina’s wedding gown appears to have a shorter hemline than Evie’s, with a layered skirt with frills. She too has a veil of lace but also a long train. Nina’s choice of bouquet is much larger than Evie’s.

Nina's wedding
Nina's wedding

With the limited availability of fabrics and resources during and after the First World War, women’s clothing generally had become more practical and modest. Wedding dresses were also less fussy, with an emphasis on feminine flowing lace and fresh flowers (this was also in-line with the Art Nouveau movement of the time). Make-up would have been very natural looking and modest, with the use of rouge, powder and possibly kohl.

It has often been assumed that no distinctive wedding dress style existed during the First World War because, out of necessity, dresses were often reused or reworked, and outfits were frequently improvised. The reason there tends to be a vision of a particular ‘style’ during this period is all down to higher-class families, like the Nettlefolds, who could afford to spend on a special wedding dress and have their wedding day properly documented.

The improvisation of outfits in the twentieth century is showcased in the popular fictional series, Downton Abbey. When Anna gets married to Mr Bates, she wears a white blouse and dark skirt, while Mrs Hughes’ wedding outfit comprises a lilac dress with a borrowed coat (sorry for the spoilers!). Both wedding outfits are in sharp contrast to those worn by the aristocratic Crawley family depicted in the series.

The Three Aunts

Moving on from weddings and going back a few years, this photo dates from 1899 and depicts three sisters: Lady Emily Martineau, Alice Beale and Eliza Osler. All born into the Kenrick family, the ‘three aunts’ were sisters of Margaret Nettlefold’s mother, Louisa.

The three ladies are sat together in a garden on a spring/summer day in fairly lightweight clothing. However, their outfits are a far cry away from what we’d think as summer clothing. They’re all wearing full-length wide skirts, with petticoats boosting the width of the skirt; tight fitted bodices; and high-necked ornate blouses with long fitted sleeves with lace cuffs. This was very much the style of the period which gave not only a neat, rich look, but also the refined and virtuous look of a lady.

The ladies in the photograph may be wearing corsets or possibly girdles (a softer version of the restrictive corset) but corsets did continue to be worn until 1910, and there seemed to be no age limit to the wearing of a corset. The ‘bustle’, which had been very popular a decade before, had been phased out by 1888 having gone in and out of fashion over a period of 20 years. By the late 1890s, skirts were less full and softer petticoats were worn underneath.

Lady Martineau’s outfit, on the left of the photograph, seems to be quite ornate; there appears to be a striped bow at the back of her skirt, which is patterned and very full. She also has a feather collar around the shape of the bodice, which is possibly Ostrich feather, an accessory of the wealthy. She is wearing a small lace cap. All three ladies’ hair is styled in a tightly pulled bun, and their bodies are ornately decorated with lace. The lady seated on the right has an umbrella/parasol with matching gloves, which were common accessories.

What do you think about the Nettlefolds’ style? Let us know in the comments below!