Sunday, June 11, 2017

"The Lady's Disaster": Fashion Gone Bad, c1746

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Susan reporting,

Yes, I love 18thc fashion, but I also have a fascination for the those wardrobe malfunctions that could only occur in the Georgian era - towering hairstyles so extreme that bystanders duck in terror, cork rumps that serve as life preservers for ladies that topple into the Thames, and hoops that flip up at inopportune moments. Of course many of these are more social satire than actual occurrences, since then, as now, fashion has always been a favorite target for exaggeration and ridicule - but who can resist those wickedly pointed 18thc prints and cartoons?

It was, then, with great delight that I saw this print posted recently on Twitter by historian Greg Roberts. Called The Lady's Disaster, it claims to depict an actual wardrobe malfunction in a London street c1746. According to the caption, the scene was:

"Drawn from the Fact. Occasion'd by a Lady carelessly tossing her Hoop too high, in going to shun a little Chimney sweeper's Boy who fell down just at her Feet in an artful surprise, at ye enormous sight."

"Artful surprise", indeed. (See the detail, right.)

Yet the print is more a commentary on the foibles of fashion and the ladies who follow them than on the artful boy. Eighteenth-century hoops were designed to support and extend a woman's skirts to an extreme width; imagine them something like a wire lampshade or even a Hula Hoop, tied around the wearer's waist with tapes. Unlike crinolines a century later, the 18thc hoops didn't have additional supports like ruffled petticoats under the hoop, and beneath her wide-spreading skirts (which to complicate things further were in fact called petticoats) than a knee-length shift.

Hoops were ridiculed for their impractical folly and cursed from pulpits as the Devil's vanity. Mantua-makers (dressmakers) loved them, because they required so much costly fabric to cover and thereby resulted in a bigger sale. Women liked how hoops made their waists look small by comparison, and provided a graceful gait likened to floating clouds and rippling waves.  A woman couldn't help but make a grand entrance when her skirts were as wide as she herself was tall.

The woman in this print, however, saw her grand gesture of flicking her skirt away from a lowly chimney-swift backfire when her extra-large hoops - and her petticoats - flipped upward. Bystanders laugh, tradesmen smirk, and other women (probably prostitutes from their own revealing dress) lean from windows to get a better view of her mortification. Even a mongrel dog offers his own commentary by lifting a leg against another woman's hoop skirt.

The non-PC caption not only describes the woman's "wide Machine" (her hoops) and chastises her for wearing it, but also attempts to put her hoops in a historical context by mentioning the farthingales worn by Elizabethan women in the late 16thc.

"If Fame say true in former Days,
The Fardingale was no disgrace;
But what a sight is here reveal'd!
Such as our Mothers ne'er beheld.
A Nymph in an unguarded hour,
(Alas! who can be too secure)
Dire fate has destin'd to be seen,
Entangled in her wide Machine.
While Carmen, Clowns, and Gentle folks
With satisfaction pass their Jokes.
Some view th' enamel'd scene on high
And some at bottom fix their Eye.
Mark well the Boy with smutty Face,
And wish themselves were in his place.
Whose black distorted features show, 
There's something - to be seen below.
And awful grinning at her Foot
Cries sweep! sweep! Madam for your Soot....
In moderate bounds had Celia dres't,
She'd ne'er become a publick Jest."

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. How many modern paparazzi pray for the moment when some starlet  - "gone commando" for the sake of a clean line in her designer gown - slides from her limousine and reveals a bit too much on the red carpet?

Above: The Lady's Disaster, artist and publisher unknown, London 1746, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.


Lucy said...

I'm really pleased to see a print from the year in which my current manuscript is set. Something else of note is that hats had also become veiled in the period shortly before the depicted mishap, so in the Gentleman's Magazine, June of 1745, we get this poetic comment.

"What whimsies are these? what comical farces?
They hide all their faces, and shew us their a-----es.
But from hence an excuse for the ladies may rise,
For when conscious their nethermost charms treat our eyes,
Perhaps they may blush, and t'is a sign of some grace,
When their breech is exposed, to cover their face."

Melinda said...

Hi! Love this post :) But the disastered lady doesn't wear drawers or breeches under the dress. There's an under- or modesty petticoat, with fringe or some sort of delicate trimming at the edge, the chimny boy's hat covers this trimming, so it appears to be drawers underneath.

Melinda said...

*The chimny boy's hand shovel (not hat, sorry)

Lucy said...

For that matter, drawers weren't worn by women in this period at all; the first ones didn't show up for another two or more generations, and when they did, they were a pair of detachable legs, not joined, that some ladies found a dire inconvenience.

However, a woman would be wearing a shift, or chemise, under her corset, generally reaching to just below her knees, and in this case, it may have had a decorated border for extra fashion. I suspect that it is indeed her shift that is showing.

Lucy said...

And, to qualify... I should have said not worn by English women in this period. I believe the French were somewhat ahead, but I don't know when they started in Paris. And it seems to me I got that tidbit from one of you two, and something you posted a while ago. :-)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Melinda & Lucy - You are, of course, both right - not breeches or drawers, but her shift, and I stand shamefaced. It's right there in the print. I clearly just wasn't thinking, or seeing. Really, when is modesty ever an issue in an 18thc print? What can I say except that it was late Sunday night when I wrote this post? ;) I've deleted the paragraph, and thank you for keeping me honest.

However, in a (slight) defense, I do know that "never say never" applies more to fashion than anything else; the one time someone says or writes or blogs the words "women never wore...." is the minute that a primary source document will pop up to prove the exact opposite. Clothing is so personal that there aren't any absolutes, and I'm certain that somewhere in 18thc Britain there's at least one woman who wore some sort of under-drawers. (If Samuel Pepys's wife was mentioned as wearing flannel ones seventy years before....)

Just not the Nymph in this print. :)

Unknown said...

It looks as if her embarrassment was not going to be just a quick peek by the bystanders. The edge of her skirt ("petticoat") has caught on a hook (or perhaps a fitting for a torch or other light?) fastened to a panel near the door. She seems to be attempting without success to detach her clothes from it. But, of course, the radius of her hoop is longer than her arm, so she's hung herself "out to dry", so to say.

Lucy said...

Susan, you're right about the "never say never" too. :-) To be honest, I've always wondered if women didn't wear some sort of short-sy type thing to deal with their periods. It wouldn't be hard to make something by pulling the back part of your shift forward and pinning it to hold some sort of absorbent material, but of course, we don't have the documentation, and so it's largely assumed that they just went around without anything. Somehow, that doesn't seem logical or likely.

Erin said...

I've always wondered what women did to combat thigh chafing before drawers. Someone had to improvise something for sure!

Lucy said...

As far as that goes, cornstarch works wonders. So some sort of powder, perhaps?

Lucy said...

I'm coming back to this post though it's more than a month old, because a little research has brought up something that anyone looking through archives may find interesting.

In this case, it was Melinda who had the right idea. The lady is undoubtedly wearing a shift, but the trimmed item showing should be a short petticoat over the shift, also called a dickey. (Assuming, that is, that she was modest enough to put one on!)

C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington's handbook of 18th Century English Costume pointed the way. :-)

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