“As to the ladies, the chief new invention of my time, if not the only considerable one, is the hoop-petticoat. A dress, which even in its original institution was sufficiently absurd; and greatly disgusted the men, however it might please the women.”(A.W. 6)
In this quote from an imprint to William Russel, the author A. W. expresses his distaste for the popular fashion of the hoop-petticoat. A.W., like many other men of eighteenth century, despised the hoop-petticoat, an undergarment that artificially widened the appearance of a woman’s hips. The hoop-petticoat was a garment that by merely existing drew the attention of every person in the room. They were at the height of their popularity and size in the 1750s, so large that women had to turn side-ways to fit through doors, took up entire sofas, and blocked walkways (A.W. 9-11). However, in regards to the culture of England in the 1700s the most important aspect of the hoop-petticoat was neither its size nor it’s shape, but rather the persistence of the garment itself, especially in light of its opposition.
While historians are fairly certain the hoop-petticoat itself arose in England, the details surrounding its creation are unknown. However, the hoop-petticoat is first mentioned in the The Tatler in December of 1709 (Chrisman 7-8). Although the origins of the hoop-petticoat itself is unclear, it was far from the first undergarment to change the shape of the women wearing it, in fact the farthingale of the fifteenth century also artificially dilated women’s skirts and was commonly made of whale bone or cane, like its descendant the hoop-petticoat (Chrisman 7).
Despite men’s complaints that the hoop-petticoat was cumbersome, unnecessary, and sometimes dangerous, the trend persisted and hoop-petticoats were worn for over a century, as the fashion did not fully leave the English court until 1820 (Chrisman 10).
A great deal can be learned about 18th century society when one considers why both sexes reacted in such strong opposition to a piece of clothing. Men’s concerns about the woman’s undergarment are indicative of their larger anxieties about women, gender roles, and morality. A.W. posed the question: “In general; can anything be more out of nature, a grosser insult upon reason, and common sense, than this monstrous disproportion between the upper and lower part of a women?” (8). This reaction to the hoop-petticoat expresses A.W.’s belief, and the belief of many other men, that the garment subverted cultural norms, a change that caused anxiety in society.
While it was very true that hoop-petticoats gave women an exaggerated shape, unlike stays (corsets) that constricted women’s upper bodies, hoop-petticoats freed women from the heavy skirts that used to surround their ankles and allowed them increased mobility. In her article, “Unhoop the Fairer Sex: The Campaign Against the Hoop Petticoat in Eighteenth-Century England,” Kimberly Chrisman argues that women “willingly adopted the hoop as a means of protecting, controlling, and, ultimately, liberating female sexuality” (1). This newfound mobility threatened the idea that a women’s place was in the home and a man’s place was in public, also known as separate sphere’s ideology (Lecture).
The topic of shifting gender norms through dress was not solely blamed on the hoop-petticoat. Macaroni style, a style of opulent dress popular with fashionable men of the era, plagued British society and was associated by many with effeminate men. In his article “Of the Ruling Manners of the Times,”John Brown blames these types of men for “the sexes [having] little other apparent distinction, beyond that of Person and Dress,” an idea that violated separate spheres ideology and caused societal anxiety (34). Additionally Brown criticized the moral character of Macaronis, just as the moral character of women was called into question due to the tendencies of hoop-petticoats to reveal parts of women’s legs. (Chrisman 5).
Due to the hoop-petticoats position as a highly discussed topic in society, it makes appearances in several novels from the time period, Maria Edworth’s Belinda and Clarissa, the 1747 novel by Samuel Richardson. In Belinda we see a prominent man of fashion, Clarence Hervey, put on a dress to both to point out the absurdity of the hoop-petticoat and to prove that his “masculine awkwardness” would not be evident if he wore the hoop, and that if his face was covered he could pass as a women (Edgeworth 74-77). He succeeds, an example that supports the fear that Brown had about the convergence of the sexes. In Clarissa the hoop-petticoat is symbol of protection and consequently feminine independence, as the titular character’s loss of her petticoat becomes an expression of her vulnerability (Chrisman 12).
Overall the hoop-petticoat transcended its fundamental purpose as an object of fashionable dress, and instead of just changing the shape of women’s bodies it contributed to a change in society by challenging gender ideals in 18th century England.
A.W., Esq. The enormous abomination of the hoop-petticoat, as The Fashion Now is, And has been For about these Two Years Fully Display’d: In some Reflexions upon it, Humbly offer’d to the Consideration of Both Sexes; especially the Female. 1745. Eighteenth Century Online Collections. Web. 7 March 2014.
Brown, John. “Of the Ruling Manners of the Times,” in An Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times (1757-8): pp. 17-34.
Chrisman, Kimberly. “Unhoop the Fairer Sex: The Campaign Against the Hoop Petticoat in Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 30.1 (1996): 5-23. JSTOR.Web. 1 February 2014.
Edgeworth, Maria. Belinda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
Koscak, Stephanie. “A Revolution in Fashionable Life: Radical Whigs and Radical Fashion.” University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles. 14 Jan. 2014. Lecture.
Grimm, Samuel Hieronymus. The Macaroni. 1774. Victoria and Albert Museum Online Collections: P.39-1939. Web. 9 March 2014. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O56633/the-macaroni-watercolour-grimm-samuel-hieronymous/
Schabner, A. Side Hoop. 1778. Victoria and Albert Museum Online Collections: T.120-1969. Web. 2 February 2014. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O13863/side-hoop-a-schabner/
Stays. 1770-1780. Victoria and Albert Museum Online Collections: T.192-1929. Web. 10 March 2014. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O10456/stays-unknown/