Thursday, June 14, 2012

Of Hoops & Heels & Wardrobe Malfunctions

Thursday, June 14, 2012
Isabella/Susan reporting:

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.

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!


Anonymous said...

when women started wearing draers is still hotly debated in some circles. However whether they are shown wearing hoops or a riding habit and tumbling down stairs, falling off horses, or just trying to enter a sedan chair or carriage, females were usually shown with a bare backside by cartoonists. Such scenes appealed to the element of juvenile humor in males without being labelled more than naughty.
Though why women would go along with hoops and other cages, puzzles me. Of course, once the fashion leaders said it was the fashion everyone else goes along so as not to be singular or a figure of fun.
fashion has always puzzled me.

MJ said...

I still remember both of my grandmothers wearing day dresses during the early 1960s. It wasn't until 1966 or so that my "trendy" grandmother donned trousers and even that was scandalous. We've had quite a fashion change in a very short time with the acceptance of pants for women

Mike Rendell said...

I am reminded of the Rowlandson cartoon of lecherous old men standing at the foot of the steps of the Royal Academy, waiting for ladies to fall down the spiral staircase and reveal their naked nether regions! I am including it in a blog next week, but it certainly bears out that ladies wore nothing underneath their petticoats!

Murr Brewster said...

I can imagine the practiced ballet moves required. Shoot, we used to wear dresses so short (c. 1966) that we couldn't go a degree off vertical. If you dropped your pencil on the floor, you had to make a zippy parabolic swoop-and-dare-I-say-snatch while keeping the upper body upright. That was probably the most athletic move I ever had.

~N. said...

I suppose the acrobatics required to sit, stand, ascend, descend, disembark from a carriage, etc. is not that much different than the acrobatics required to do all those things in a mini skirt and no panties a la Britney Spears.

Why we women fall for the more outrageous fashions amazes me now that I'm in my 50s. Of course, I followed some awful trends when I was young and foolish too.

Isobel Carr said...

We went out on a Tall Ship on the San Francisco Bay in hoops … the wind does VERY interesting things to such garments. It was like wearing a sail from the waist down. Hard to stay upright and in one position on the deck.

live sports said...
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Anonymous said...

Wasn't breeches first worn in England in the Restoration period? I think Charles' wife wore it and created a furore!

Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone will read this comment but I've been trying in vain to figure out how in the world Regency women dealt with their "monthly courses". I always understood they used rags but if they didn't wear underpants what did they attach the rags too? or were they using them like a modern day tampon? that would surprise me, because I would think, Regency women might be afraid of how it might effect their virginal status... maybe?

Unknown said...

A female friend of Wolfgang and Nannerl Mozart took a tumble in a shop, and naughty Wolfgang immortalized the embarrassing moment by having a painting made of the upended unfortunate. Their favorite game involved shooting darts with an air gun at a circular target fifteen paces away. The target could be as wide as a meter and was decorated with a caption and an embarrassing--and detailed--cartoon of one of the participants. Apparently this isn't the only time that an uncovered rear end was depicted on one of Wolfgang's targets.

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