Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Hoop Dreams

Over the centuries men and women have gone to extraordinary extremes to alter the human form.  In the 2001 exhibition "Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed," curator Harold Koda of the Metropolitan Museum of Art looked at the many ways cultures from around the globe have highlighted or exaggerated  various areas of the body, often with fantastic or appalling results. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue dissected the figure into five component parts, comparing varied interpretations within historical and cultural themes. I am not attempting to reproduce the comprehensive work undertaken by Koda and his staff; instead, I will focus on one particular development which has recurred several times in European dress.  If you can obtain a copy of Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed, it makes for terrific and enlightened reading (Yale University Press, ISBN# 0-300-09117-6).

A Minoan period snake goddess is the earliest reference to the "possibility"of a hooped skirt that I know of. Certainly the technical ability to create such a garment would have existed for many millennia up to this point. The weaving of baskets demonstrates an ability to interconnect materials, so it is not implausible to suggest that such a garment could have been manufactured. In this illustrated clay figure, the skirt projects out in a bell-like form, but is this an actual depiction or simply an artist's way of representing a flounced skirt? Either way, the silhouette achieved by the exaggeration between the smallness of the waist and the width of the hip-line can be compared to later periods in Western fashion.  It is important to remember that this figure was unknown to the public until the early part of the 20th century, long after such skirt-extension devices were fashionable with Europeans.
Minoan Snake Goddess, 1400 BCE
It wasn't until the advent of humanism and the consequent Renaissance that we see a desire to manipulate the shape of the skirt. This was probably a response to a need of the upper classes to visually separate themselves from the working class. In donning an impractical garment in the form of a hooped skirt, 16th century women also created a showcase for the more elaborate and expensive textiles being developed in Italy and through trade with the East. Mid-century illustrations, such as the example below—further supported by portraits of the ruling elite—have provided a wealth of documentation which sadly cannot be supported by extant examples of dress. Developments in the construction of garments, namely the separation of the bodice and skirt, meant that a greater distinction between the upper and lower torso could be achieved. It is interesting to note that while the skirt increased in width during this time, the torso was restricted through corsetry. These two developments came to Northern Europe, from the south: the corset from Italy and the farthingale from Spain. Catherine of Aragon, consort of Henry VIII, is credited with their introduction to England.
Print, 1563
Print, 1567
In the portrait of Henry VIII's last wife, Catherine Parr, we see a silhouette that has changed very little over a 40-year period. Consisting mainly of triangular forms, her compressed body becomes nothing more than a mannequin for the display of a sumptuous arrangement of lynx, cut velvet, and brocade.  None of these materials would have been of domestic manufacture, but would have been tailored in Fleet Street, with the lynx originating from the Russia and the textiles from Italy. She wears the fashionable French hood, another introduction of some 20 to 30 years prior. Her garment affords her little movement, but compensates by providing her with a great deal of warmth. As befits her status as the queen of England, she stands on an elevated dais, covered with an expensive carpet from the Middle East. Such textiles were greatly prized and usually found their way onto table tops and beds. Her anointed, royal status is conveyed by her placement on this prayer rug.
Catherine Parr, 1545?
Catherine's costume would have been the required garment at court for ladies. Away from this atmosphere women were freer to don a more practical garment for their daily activities. The desire for a rounded hip and smaller waist would have been accommodated with the use of bum rolls or what we today would refer to as a bustle. By the end of the 16th century, these could be quite large as seen in the plate below.
Dutch Caricature, 1600
At its worst, the French farthingale was an enormous structure. Fashionable at the end of Elizabeth's reign, it would continue into the first quarter of the 17th century, in the court of James I and Anne of Denmark. The long busk of the bodice forced the skirt up behind. Although there was minimal room for arms and hands, they had to be used for steadying this edifice. Dressing at this time was quite complicated and relied on an enormous amount of time and effort. Much of the garment was either laced or pinned in place. The yardage required to create the skirt was pleated and pinned directly to the foundation garment or hoop itself to hold it in place.
Elizabeth I, circa 1600
The 18th Century:  French Leadership

Freedom from the enormous hoops of the 16th and early 17th centuries was short lived. By the early 18th century, hoops were once again in fashion. Similar to earlier forms, they were made by inserting a variety of materials into an underskirt to display the more expensive textiles of the outer garment. While originally conical in form, they quickly flattened out and began to extend on either side of the torso. By 1740, this silhouette could extend to an unmanageable 5 feet in width! (It is important to remember here that this style would have be for the most formal of occasions.) The effects can be seen in the development of the French door, at six feet wide, the canape, and the profusion of armless chairs in interiors. This flattened silhouette was ideal for the lavish display of the newer silks and their large patterns of sprawling, often exotic botanicals. Italian silks and damasks now compete with the state- supported textile industry of Lyons in France and Spitalfields in London.

Victoria & Albert Museum
See this comparison of an English robe on the left and a robe Française on the right. While the silhouettes are virtually identical, the arrangement of the pleats are quite different. The English example is sewn down. The French example is often referred to as a "Watteau" pleat, after the artist of the same name who documented many a woman wearing such examples. Luckily for fashion historians many examples of both survive in public and private collections.

Under the dresses above a lighter form of support was worn. These baskets, or paniers, were tied around the waist, as seen below.
Kyoto Costume Institute
Print circa 1780
The 19th Century:  Consumerism and the Middle Class

Some costume historians have compared the growing imperialistic policies of European nations with the expanding skirt. Certainly by 1856 the time had come to look back and adopt an undercarriage to support the silhouette. The artificial cage crinoline was introduced to provide a lighter alternative to earlier forms of the hooped petticoat. This development married fashion with technological advancements and made for a cheaper, more universally available garment for all levels of society, truly a much more democratic garment than had been seen since the Renaissance. As the cage crinoline replaced the many layers of petticoats worn up until this time, women must have felt comparatively free.  
Kyoto Costume Institute

In its initial form, the shape of the skirt was dome-like in outline. A pad for support was still needed to hold the weight of the skirt's back. Below, the Princess Royal wears a particularly grand skirt, possibly displaying a quantity of Honiton lace. At their largest, these skirts could have a circumference of 180 inches or more.
Victoria, Princess Royal 1859
The postcard of the crinoline shop below illustrates the two options available to women. The cage crinoline is clearly seen hanging on the left, while a pair of hooped petticoats is on the right. Notice the shopkeepers are as fashionably attired as their potential clientele. This is something you would never have seen with earlier attendants. The democratization of fashion is at work here.

Crinoline Shop, Paris
Victoria & Albert Museum

By the middle of the 1860's, the shape of the skirt and its support has become more elliptical. Emphasis is shifting towards the back of the garment, paving the way for the next development, the bustle, which is still just another variation.

Musee Costumes et des Modes, Paris
The emphasis on a full skirt has had its share of incarnations throughout the 20th century, employed mainly for evening dress. We have seen designers play with interpretations of the panier in the 1920's and new materials allowed Dior to experiment with the fullness of the nylon crinoline of the 1950's.  With the unceasing need for novelty and change among today's fashionistas, the crinoline will undoubtedly reappear sometime soon.

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