Study Room resource: The role and status of women 1900-39

Prints and drawings, including fashion illustrations, architectural drawings, design drawings, watercolours, posters and much more, not on display in the galleries, can be seen in the Prints & Drawings Study Room. To make it easier for teachers and lecturers to access the most popular material with groups, we have developed themed Study Room resources which contain original prints and drawings.

The status of women in Britain changed dramatically over this period. Largely as a result of campaigning by the Suffragettes, women won the right to vote in parliamentary elections - a limited measure allowed some women to vote in 1918, and in 1928 all women over 21 got the vote.

There were other changes too, linked to World War I (1914–18) and its aftermath, and to Britain's economy. The impact of the war on women's lives was considerable – though it caused devastating losses (around 750,00 British men died) it also gave many women an unprecedented taste of independence, and the opportunity to work in jobs previously open only to men.

Women's lives were also affected by social legislation, such as the introduction of a widow's pension in 1925, and the provision of social services designed to support the welfare of women and children. As they gained independence, women were increasingly targeted directly by advertisers selling everything from convenience foods and clothing to cars and cigarettes. Fashions changed too, from the constricting corsetry and floor-sweeping skirts of the Edwardian period to styles which were lighter, less structured, and more comfortable and practical.

Christopher Nevinson, Acetylene Welder

The images referenced below appear in the Study Room resources but are unavailable to be shown on the website due to copyright issues

'Evening Dresses from Vogue 1930' by Edward Steichen, 1930. Museum no. Circ.969-1967
This photograph was published in the American edition of Vogue, a magazine that became an authoritative source of information and ideas for women who aspired to dress stylishly. By the end of the 1930s many of Vogue's fashion features were illustrated with photographs rather than engravings or drawings. Many of the most important photographers of the day worked for Vogue and it became well known for the quality of its fashion photography.

From the mid 1920s to the late 1930s Steichen was the principal 'in-house' photographer for Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue. Steichen's photograph epitomises the glamour of 1930s fashion, and the desirable look of the period, with use of extravagant, luxurious fabrics. Dramatic contrasts of light and dark bring out the tactile and visual qualities of the fabrics - silk georgette and satin, and an ermine fur trim to the hem of the black dress.

This photograph can be found in Print Room Box 6a.

'Flower Seller in Hampstead' by Bill Brandt, early 1930s. Museum no. PH.24-1978
Many of Brandt's early photographs were reportage documenting conditions of life in England during the Depression. His subject matter ranged from coal-mining communities in the north-east, street traders in London, and the domestic lives of the middle and upper classes.

This photograph appeared in his book The English at Home (1936). He captioned the picture "All A-blowin' and A-growin", which had been a street cry of flower-sellers since the Victorian period. Cut flowers were purchased by those who had no garden but wanted flowers for button-holes, as a table decoration, or simply to brighten a room. Scented flowers - wallflowers, pinks, mignonette, stocks - were amongst the most popular. The flowers were bought from Covent Garden Market.

Women flower-sellers carrying large baskets were to be seen on the streets of London until the 1940s, but were gradually forced out of business by florists' shops.

This photograph can be found in Print Room Box 6a.

 

'Parlourmaid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner' by Bill Brandt, 1932-5. Museum no. PH.17-1978
Though many girls and young women had enjoyed an unprecedented range of opportunities for employment during First World War, the majority were forced to give up these war-time jobs, by prior agreement with the trades unions, as soon as the men came home.

This left women with many fewer options, and for many working-class girls their best chance of finding work was to go into 'service' as a domestic servant. Most middle-class families employed at least one servant, usually a maid, for cooking and cleaning.

Newspapers carried columns of advertisements for domestic help, ranging from ladies' maids and housekeepers to parlourmaids and governesses. Life in service could be very hard - parlourmaids were expected to get up hours before the family they worked for, in order to light fires in the downstairs rooms, to fetch hot water to the bedrooms, and to serve breakfast. They would also dust, polish and generally clean the house, and wait at table. Many had to submit to strict rules as to how they should spend what little free time they were allowed. There was a gradual decline in domestic service, partly because labour became more expensive, but also because there was a gradual increase in opportunities for working-class girls in retailing, clerical work and factory work.

This photograph can be found in Print Room Box 6a.

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