Making Herstory

Tides of Change at the Turning of the Century


I have a special place in my heart for the Edwardian era. There is something quite endearing about the time, from the absorbing history and elaborate dresses to the sentimental stories in literature and art nouveau architecture (even if one may sniff at the overkill). I’m certainly not impartial to modern adaptions and impressions of Edwardian life and history, such as Downton Abbey, Berkeley Square, Anne of Green Gables, Goodbye Mr Chips, Titanic and Mr Selfridge etc. but one of the issues with the representation of this era is the Pictorialist approach that emphasises beauty of the subject matter and tone, rather than the documentation of reality. There is more focus on aesthetic, and therefore the representation is rather romantic and utopian.

In reality, it wasn’t a utopian society for women at all. Following the end of the Victorian Era in 1900, it was unfeminine for women to have opinions, be political, or to hold ideas or desires of their own. Any woman who stepped out of this role risked everything simply because of the social expectations placed on their gender. If I were transported 100 years into the past, I would have been on the bottom most rung of the social ladder as an unmarried woman. I wouldn’t have had much of an education (unless very wealthy), and my brothers and father would have the control over what I could or couldn’t do in terms of my job and lifestyle. As a teacher, I would be unable to marry. What interests me the most about the Edwardian Era is the social changes that were happening. Many people mistake the 20s as the era of rebellion, but it was really the 1900s-1910s where revolutions towards modern society were beginning to take place – their effects finally being recognised ten years later. Wider access to education and economic and social gaps between the rich, poor, men and women were rallying points for socialists and suffragettes. Dresses were baring shoulders and shaved armpits, and Hollywood – the instigator of all things scandalous – was in its heyday. One of my interests is actually the art of the silent film, and the birth of the Hollywood Star. I even started a drawing challenge based around Silent Film actresses. I love Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Bebe Daniels, Clara Bow, Janet Gaynor, Barbara Stanwyck, Anita Page….Even though it was scandalous to be an actress at that time, I seriously think that their power to influence society was just as powerful as it is today. No doubt the expectations of how women ought to behave in society were softened when these actresses presented diversity and complexity to the female character. Despite the legends of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd et al, I really do think that women dominated the silent screen.

I started collecting candid photos of the Edwardian era around 2014, with the goal of completing a book of anonymous photos. I’d like to think of these photos as ‘reflective nostalgia’; looking at the issues of the era with critically aware eyes. What I do appreciate is the dominance of women in the collected candid photographs – particularly young, middle class women without the ‘gift wrap’ – reflecting women’s emerging voice and freedom. The ‘New Woman’, as they called her, was free-spirited, well-read and worldly. She was no longer the sweet, chaperoned sort, happy to play a background part in history. She was independent and scary: she represented the reform that well-to-do people frowned upon. Despite the layer of nostalgia (I struggled to find anyone who wasn’t white) there is a visual cry of the New Woman taking her rightful place in society.Our freedom of choice today is largely thanks to the suffragettes and New Women of the Edwardian Era for their nerve, courage, and non-conformity.