For nearly four hundred years, it's the fashion that won't go away. Farthingales, bum rolls, hoops, crinolines, and bustles: the name changes, but the basic style of spreading skirts supported from beneath stayed the same.
Eighteenth century ladies loved their hoops. These were a light-weight frame of bent cane, covered in linen, that tied around around the waist to support the petticoats. The shape and size of the hoops could be modest for day, or spreading grandly for formal evening dress; the mid-century hoops for wear at Court gave a lady a considerable wing-span, extending her skirts two additional feet on each side of her hips. Regardless of the size, hoops were all about display. They showed off the fabric and elaborately decorated petticoat of the gown, visually narrowed the waist, and gave a sexy bounce to the skirts with each step.
But sometimes hoops displayed a bit too much. Climbing from carriages, sidling through narrow doors, and staying steady on a windy day all required practice and vigilance. As a rule, Georgian ladies did not wear any kind of underpants, and relied only on their knee-length shifts to protect their modesty. Unruly hoops could - and did - flip up at the wrong moments, contributing to major wardrobe malfunctions.
The young lady, above, has just received some grievous news. In her distress has ceased to manage her hoops over the arms of her chair, and given us quite a glimpse of her clocked stockings and high-heeled mules in the process.
I don't doubt that rakes and rogues (okay, most men) probably lived for such moments, and they appear again and again in the caricatures of Rowlandson and Gillray.
While this little poem from a men's magazine pretends to be offering advice, it's more salacious than cautionary. To 18th c minds, the sensible notion that ladies could wear breeches was almost unthinkably forbidden, and therefore titillating beyond measure. It's whichever wicked image the gentleman fancied: the lady completely uncovered, or gender-bending in tight-fitting breeches and high heels.
On HOOPS and HIGH-HEELS The Petticoat's of modest Use; But should a Lady chance to fall, The Hoop forbidden Secrets shows, And lo! our Eyes discover all. Then Breeches with High Heels, I trow, All hooped modest Ladies wear; For it is plain, these Modes we owe To Cupid and the willing Fair.
– from The Gentleman's Magazine, or, The Monthly Intelligencer, Vol. III, 1733.
The lower photograph shows our friends from the Margaret Hunter shop, Colonial Williamsburg, explaining hoops and under 18th c undergarments to a school-group; the modern girls look less than impressed, and much happier in their shorts and jeans.
Above: La Mauvaise Nouvell (The Bad News), by Jean-Baptist-Marie Pierre, 1740. Below: Scene from the Margaret Hunter shop, Colonial Williamsburg. photograph copyright Susan Holloway Scott. Many thanks to Chris Woodyard for sharing the poem!
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.