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Early Motoring Apparel

This is an exceptionally rare photographic image of a young child model dressed in specialized motoring attire that was designed to match the mother’s garments. MOTOR magazine, spring 1906. Image courtesy Automotive Research Library, La Mesa, CA. Digital enhancement by Julia Henri.

The world most assuredly changed with a spark and a pop back in 1886.

That was the year when the first gasoline powered automobile was offered for sale by German inventor Karl Benz. The Benz Patent Motorwagen then went on to display at the Paris Expo 1887 and a year later, Karl began selling his automobiles to the public.

Karl was married to Bertha, a beautiful, intelligent and feisty young woman who decided early on that she would show the world that automobiles were meant to be driven by women as well as men.

So, on a sunny August morning in 1888, and completely unbeknownst to Karl, Bertha loaded the kids into one of the Motorwagens and decided to head over to her mother’s house located about 65 miles away. The journey was perilous with a lot of on-the-spot problem-solving due to continuous mechanical issues with the Motorwagen. This was Bertha’s initial test drive and she made all the necessary improvements to the car along the way; changes that notably improved upon Karl’s engineering. Finally, when Bertha and the boys arrived at grandma’s house twelve hours later, she sent a telegram to her husband to let him know where they were, and this was the first documented road trip ever recorded in an automobile. Three days later, Bertha and the boys returned home via a different route, and women have been driving automobiles ever since.

Automobile production began in 1890 in the United States. There were only a few hundred vehicles in the US by 1895 but this soon changed. By 1900, over 8000 automobiles were being driven by the wealthiest families in this country. Automobile driving was considered a sport back then, regardless if one was taking a spin around town, indulging on a scenic road trip or speeding over a race track.

Clothing was an essential part of owning a newfangled car; both as fashion as well as function. Driving was chic because cars were built by hand and costly before Henry Ford’s assembly line started rolling them out in 1913…one every two and a half hours.
It was quite the high-fashion societal spectacle when the American Edwardians were out and about in their automobiles. However, before the electric starter was first marketed for gasoline powered vehicles, simply starting the car was considered both dangerous as well as dirty business. Although most automobiles were started by the hand crank method, black powder cartridges or spring starters were sometimes employed; simply setting the vehicle in motion often resulted in torn and badly soiled clothing or damaged hands if left bare. The oil or acetylene gas lamps had to be lit by hand and with that came an oily residue that stained. Of course, the ride alone was often dusty, muddy, cold and wet especially if drivers and their passengers were caught in bad weather. Early automobile travel involved oil, smoke, dust, dirt and horse-droppings because the roads were shared by horse drawn carriages until about 1930.

Driver’s clothing became highly specialized during the early Edwardian era when proper daily etiquette dictated that certain clothing had to be worn for specific events. There was morning attire as well as that worn for afternoon luncheons and teas; evening clothing designs were less elaborate for simple suppers, but long on detail for elegant ballroom affairs. Not only did every meal time require particular clothing, but a separate style of frock or suit were worn for business meetings, family strolls in the park, a lady’s shopping excursion or for visits with friends or family. The rules for mourning attire loosened after WWI, but a specialty wardrobe was still required. Consequently, clothing for every person at the head of the household was typically changed as often as four or five times per day, and and the Edwardian upper class family had a budget that demanded costly fashion expenditures.

Highly specialized drivers’ clothing was not only stylish, but required to shield the driver and passengers from the splashes, stains and dirt that would undoubtedly occur while bouncing along in their splendid automobiles. Women, as well as men, owned multiple full length driving dusters that covered their expensive clothing beneath. The earliest were made from canvas or heavy linen. Later, shorter versions became popular and styled in leather, fur, and heavyweight silk.

Typically windshields on Edwardian vehicles were not sufficiently large enough to keep drivers and passengers clean. It was also quite popular to show off just how fast a car could go, so driving goggles for both men and women were essential to shield the eyes from wind, rain, mud and all those bugs that slammed into the face.

A Man’s first year with his first motor-car is like first few days of the child with a new toy…
to play with it, look at it, touch it…put it away and take it out again…to examine into the innermost mysteries…..

            C.H. Cloudy, MOTOR magazine, April 1908

Chic Automobile Caps for men came in a variety of styles and were designed to keep that blowing dust out of the oiled and coifed hair beneath. Some had flaps in the back to protect the neck and collar. Men’s Racing Bonnets were not just for a racing drivers. These were made from fleece-lined rubber, leather or “khaki cloth” and were marketed to gentlemen drivers who enjoyed the risk and rush of fast driving in general.

Men and women both required driving gloves to protect the hands. Motoring gloves were always designed gauntlet-style and were made from a variety of materials such as unlined wool, fleece-lined twill, buckskin lined with rabbit fur, or kid leather.

“It is a Gentleman’s Glove in every sense of the word,” Charles E. Miller’s 1910 automotive supply catalogue read, “and guaranteed not to crack.” The description referred to black or tan kid leather gauntlet gloves for men that were constructed as well as embellished with “genuine silk” topstitching.

On the same page, Miller offered another pair of “the finest gauntlet gloves on the market.” These were designed with buckled wrist straps and had “perforated hands and fingers” that added flexibility and comfort. The gloves were made from the “finest quality Horse Hide” and lined with soft kid leather.

Both styles sold for $2.75 in Miller’s catalogue during a time when 37 cents per hour was considered a good wage.

Fashionable women who pass much of the year at their country places, traveling to and from town in their own motors, necessarily have a large collection of wraps, hats and veils…in the very newest modes and in the most becoming colors.
           Joel Feder, MOTOR magazine, April 1908

The elaborate fashions that wealthy women wore during the Edwardian and Post-Edwardian years were legendary even then, and women of means spent most of their lives dressing and undressing each and every day. If an Edwardian woman could afford an automobile, she wore the finest fashions and adhered to the strictest costuming etiquette as outlined by her upper class status.

Women’s magazines in the United States depicted chic motoring apparel directly alongside equestrian, tennis and golf designs. Most women’s high fashion magazines ran sections dedicated to the trends in the latest specialty sporting apparel during the early Edwardian years, and places like Saks & Co. featured some of the most luxurious creations in their 1904 autumn collection of Automobile Coats and Hats.

The Edwardian woman never left her home without an elaborate, custom-made hat and the most elite millinery salons catered to women motorists. Yet before the hat went on, a cone-shaped Automobile Hair Net made from fine silk webbing was draped over the elaborate up-styled hair to protect curls from being windblown. The hat that followed was styled for motoring, often with a wide brim for sun protection or perhaps thick felted fur for warmth. A woman motorist always carried at least one veil with her, and that draped completely over her hat and typically tied into an enormous bow beneath her chin.

Veils were not only used keep those elaborate, large Edwardian hairstyles tidy and clean, but they also masked the eyes, nose and face from the clouds of dust that blew off rough dirt roads. Airy silk chiffon or crêpe de chine veils were made into face-covering hoods with windows made from mica inserted at eye level. Some veil styles became so long and lavish in yardage that another passenger’s helping hand was required to assist in unwinding the veil if the hat was removed during a road trip. Of course, before it was time to leave again, it was necessary to go through the process all over again.

Women of wealth and good sense are learning more and more to master the mechanical secrets of the motor and proving that they have quite as much judgment and regard for public safety as any masculine chauffeur.
            Joel Feder, MOTOR magazine, March 1908

Likewise, affluent Edwardian children had motoring costumes as well. Often these were designed to match their parents’ clothing with the same glamour, posh and protective qualities. Boys sometimes wore miniature versions of their father’s clothing, whereas daughters were often dressed in lavish, youthful motoring attire similar in style to their mother’s duster, hat and veil.

Some considerable attention has been given to apparel for children’s wear….
There are many dainty designs for motorists of tender years that English motor tailors, as they are called, are putting out. Outfits consist of a smartly cut, silky linen dust-coat, a hat made from the same material, and a dust-proof veil made of Cinigale silk….

Buttoned bands about the wrists on the coat keep the dust from blowing up the sleeves.”
            Pierre Lillé, MOTOR magazine, July 1906

As automobiles became more affordable, sport driving apparel was advertised not only in high fashion magazines but also in motoring publications and supply catalogues. Car related magazines such as MOTOR were popular and well read and such publications were enthusiastically marketed to both men and women.

When the Post-Edwardian years progressed and the 1920s came into focus, this specialty clothing market became even more practical. The lavish silks and billowy chiffons were replaced with water resistant materials such as lanolin rich wool, rubber and leather. Patterns for homemade knitted automobile bonnets and even full length woolen coats started to appear in women’s home and needlework magazines.

Roads improved. Automobiles became more sophisticated, with glamorous interiors that could be as protective and comfortable as any room inside the family home. Motoring was still defined as sport through the mid-1920s, as dusters became shorter and more stream-lined in tailored designs that look remarkably similar to our contemporary trench coats worn today. Heavy gauntlet gloves, goggles and veils were no longer required.

As automobiles replaced the horse drawn carriage, road trips grew to be defined as general transit and family vacations. Motoring for sport soon turned off the public roads toward professional race tracks and speedways. Functional, fashionable motoring attire was no longer needed…nor considered…. As automotive technology quickly progressed, a large piece of the fashion industry slid into the shadows of memory.

With special thanks to D.A. “Mac” McPherson, Executive Director, HCFI, Automotive Research Library, LaMesa, CA for the library’s continued kindness, research assistance and provisional usage of images and documentation no matter how tight the deadline. Also with special thanks to Bruce Elder, Elder Antique Autos & Museum, Staunton, VA for many images and reference materials that were so graciously offered for use in this research.