To pedants, it may seem obvious when new centuries start. Yet it is striking that it is only in the second decade of centuries, at least 10 years after the official fin de siècle, that these 100-year periods seem to acquire the characteristics for which they are remembered, whether in politics or fashion.
In 1910, the funeral of Edward VII, Great Britain's king-emperor, attracted one of the biggest ever gatherings of royalty: as the coffin left London's Westminster Hall en route to Windsor, it was followed by a mounted cavalcade of eight European kings, the German emperor, the heirs to the Austrian and Ottoman empires, royal highnesses from Egypt, China and Japan, plus more junior princelings than you could shake a sceptre at. Behind, in carriages, came their queens and princesses in floor length skirts and huge hats pinned on upswept hair.
Yet these were not the figures that defined the 20th century. The funeral was the last hurrah of its predecessor, the 19th. Only when the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 engendered revolution, destroyed empires and unleashed the US as a world power did the 20th century really begin to take shape. It was then that women put off their whalebone, shingled their hair and allowed daytime hemlines to rise to the knee – where they have remained ever since (give or take an inch or six).
Just as the early years of the last century were a wash-up period to the 19th, so the first decade or so of the 19th was an epilogue to the 18th. Only after the revolutionary wars, the battle to contain Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna in 1814 did the 19th-century map of Europe emerge. Even at the Congress, some of the so-called ladies were still wearing high-waisted dresses deliberately dampened to make them transparent, their modesty barely protected by the new-fangled drawers that had two legs wholly unconnected to one another. It took several more years before skirts began to bell out from natural waistlines, foreshadowing an age of propriety when crinolines would hide the lingerie breakthrough of Florence Gusset, knicker-maker to Queen Victoria.
The 18th century really started with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which scuppered Bourbon hopes of continental dominance and established the balance of power in Europe. To match the new diplomacy came new hair. Out went men's full-bottomed wigs in favour of smaller, neater pieces that were often tied at the back and covered in white powder – the look that came to define the century.
Even more marked was the sartorial and ideological turnround in the second decade of the 16th century, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg church in 1517 and began the religious reformation that would engulf Europe for almost 150 years. It was only in the second decade of the century that Henry VIII would define 16th century fashion, with its jewels, slashed and padded doublets and kingsize codpieces.
Of course, the dates that mark the start of a new century or a new decade are a man-made artifice – and moveable. Until 1752 in Britain and her colonies, including the Eastern states of America, the year ended not on December 31st but on March 25th. Some countries had made the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century but others did not change till far later.
Yet despite such vagaries, it is surprising how often a century starts to get into its stride a dozen or so years after its official opening – a tribute, perhaps, to the power that numbers and dates have on human psychology. Let us hope that some of the grimmer aspects of this decade are codas to the last century. Perhaps, as 2010 dawns, we will finally be able to start recognising the movements, trends and styles of the century that is to come.