The Early Dance Lecture 2008

A Labour’d Hoop to Ornament the Fair…

by Ian Chipperfield

Hoop petticoats have been worn in Europe for over half of the period 16th – 19th c. – why were they so popular? As a fashion that usually starts as a demonstration of wealth, in time each style became popular across the classes. Was it because “the hoop gave the feet a freedom of motion” or because “from an abundance of pleats… the body rises slender and elegant”?  Did the reign of the hoop petticoat owe its longevity to fashion or to the vanity of women, displaying themselves to best effect from a broad base? To be sure there have always been people willing to condemn the fashion for hoops, whether because of the cost, discomfort, ridiculous shapes or even the sinfulness of deception.

In 1477 Fray Fernando of Talavera1 wrote that “It is in truth a great deceit in a woman who is slender, hipless and very thin, to give herself hips and a shape with cloth and wool; if carried out in moderation it might be overlooked and at most would be a venial sin. But done in such a way, without moderation and with exaggeration, it is undoubtedly a deception and a lie of great guilt and consequently a great sin……. thus the padded hips and hoop skirts are very harmful and very wicked garments; with reason they have been forbidden under pain of excommunication.”

Although worn in Spain and Portugal in the 14th c., the farthingale does not reach English shores until the 15th c. and even then does not seem to become popular till near the mid century. As early as 15192 ladies are recorded as having appeared at a court masque wearing ‘hoops from the waist downwards’ but whether these were separate hoop petticoats or merely bands of decoration on the skirts or even hoops attached to the dress skirt is not known.

The word farthingale is an English corruption of the Spanish ‘verdugos’ meaning the smooth twigs put out by a tree after it has been coppiced.  Certainly willow has been used for a long time in basket making where it can be twisted and bent to shape, providing a strong yet pliable material. Early farthingales may have been hooped using willow withies but accounts in the records of the Great Wardrobe also mention ‘bents’ and ‘bent ropes’. Bents may be dried reed or particularly Marram grass which when bound together gives a supple stiffness to either corsets or hoops. The word ‘bents’ seems to have developed to mean a stiffening generally as well as the actual material used.

It is interesting to note that in Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe accounts her farthingales are repeatedly being repaired, altered and made more or less stiff by her tailors. The sharp ends of the bents would have rubbed against the fabric of the hoop and frequently made holes in it. An alternative seems to have been to use tightly rolled lengths of cloth as ‘ropes’ and to thread them through channels or tucks on a petticoat foundation. Hence ‘bent ropes’ where ‘bent’ is used in its general stiffening usage.

Strangely enough England seems to have been very behind in the use of whalebone to hoop farthingales. Mary Queen of Scots is recorded in 15623 as having whaleboned farthingales but bone is not recorded as being used in Elizabeth’s wardrobe for this purpose till 1580. One of the many reasons for the apparent lack of any hoops surviving from the 16th or early 17th c. is probably the damage caused by the bents.

Our only sources of information about farthingales are contemporary portraits and a Spanish tailor’s book intended as a useful aid to other tailors or their customers for reckoning amounts of fabric needed for garments. The Libro de Geometrica, Practica y Traça of Juan Alcega4, first published in 1579 and well known now from its later edition of 1589, gives the panel shapes of a farthingale laid on silk as a guide for the most economical layout for cutting. It is not a ‘pattern’ in the modern sense and requires a certain amount of knowledge to be able to use it. Alcega says the farthingale according to his shapes would have a hem of about 13 hand spans which is roughly equivalent to 3 metres. In comparison with some of the images of Elizabeth from the late 1570’s and early 1580’s this seems quite moderate.

There are about four images of ladies wearing farthingales of the Spanish type where the hoops are visible5. In each image the farthingale seems to be instep level or even floor length. How did this effect woman’s movement and particularly dance? With a firm stiffening as the bottom hoop the skirt is held away from the feet leaving them free to move as long as they are always within its boundary. With a softer boning the feet are liable to hit the hoop or catch against it. When doing jumping steps such as the galliard a floor length hoop absorbs the movement and deadens quicker than a hoop worn off the ground.

The Spanish farthingale was followed by or evolved into the French Farthingale, also known as the drum or wheel farthingale, a very familiar shape from the later portraits of Elizabeth. The English are always ready to jeer at foreign fashion and in 1596 Stephen Gosson6 comes up with a (questionable) reason for this French invention:

‘These hoopes, that hippes and haunch do hide,

and heave aloft the gay hoist traine,

As they now in use for pride,

So did they first begin in paine;

When whores in stewes had gotten poxe,

The French device kept coats from smocks.’

The next fashion for hoops seems however to have been an English invention with English magazines being the first to mention the 18th c. hoop petticoat. Notice that I do not use the 19th c. theatrical or dressmakers word of ‘panniers’ when talking of this fashion since it never seems to have been used in 18th c. England. The Hoop petticoat appears about 1710 and lasts in common fashion for the next 70 years – about the same length of time that the farthingale survived in its various forms. There does not seem to be much comment in contemporary writing regarding the farthingale but the 18th c. delighted in the hoop petticoat and commented frequently upon it:  ‘the circular hoop gave the feet a freedom of motion, shew’d the beauty of the leg and foot which play beneath it, and gained admirers when the face was too homely to attract the heart of any beholder.’7

At first a widening bell shape, the hoop soon became flattened from front to back and developed into the fan hoop, the square hoop, the dome hoop and pocket hoops, the smallest of all 18th c. hoops. For court wear the hoop survived its demise from everyday fashion during the 1780s and continued in use till 1820, although not in the extreme form as worn for court in the 1740’s and ‘50’s when it could be up to 6 foot wide and flat from front to back. Indeed the width of fashion in the mid century, even for everyday wear, caused it sometimes to be necessary to advertise events with requests that no hoops should be worn. In 1742, the first performance of Handel’s Messiah was a charity event and ladies were requested to attend without hoops and gentlemen without swords so as to be able to fit more people in the hall. Mrs Cornellys, the organiser of the Soho Society at Carlisle House in 1760, announced the next meeting in the Public Advertiser and: ‘Humbly hoped that Ladies will (if agreeable to themselves) come without Hoops, as it prevents many Subscribers from coming into the Music Room.’8

The 18th c. has left a lot of comment showing that the hoop spread to all levels of society whereas for the 16th c. we are limited to pictorial evidence only. Mrs Delaney when living in Ireland as the wife of a clergyman in 1744 was disgusted to find that even dairy maids wore large hoops and velvet hoods – surely a great sign of moral depravity! Clearly an insignificant and unfashionable person such as a dairymaid should not be of significant size in the regions of the skirt – a clear sign of presumptions above her station. Hoops advertised in The Norwich Mercury9 at about the same time could cost as little as a 20d with, as a comparison, ‘fine strip’t Flannel at 1s/- per Yard and cambricks from 2s to 10s per Yard’. The previous year Mrs Delaney had a new maid and thought that she, ‘promises very well, and has a sprightliness without pertness that pleases well, and wears no hoop.’10

Unfortunately the nineteenth century cage crinoline, although invented in response to the growing width of fashionable skirts and the mass of petticoats required to support them, soon spread to all classes of society just as hoops had done in the 18th c. With mechanisation, the manufacturing of crinolines reached new markets and new heights of production. In about 1858 the London company of Thompson’s had a workforce of over a thousand women and, ‘turned out between three and four thousand crinolines daily. In twelve years the Branch in Saxony alone manufactured 9,597,600 crinolines.’11 The crinoline became widespread in society and all classes wore the ‘steel hoop’. Notices even survive from factories where the hoop was expressly forbidden because of the danger of it being caught in machines – a strange foretaste of health and safety notices of the present age! A large crinoline however remained the mark of wealth because of the cost of the fabric needed for a dress. Skirts alone could take eleven or more yards of fabric 22” wide12 quite apart from the bodice, sleeves and any trimmings.

The men of the time seem to hover between hating and loving the fashion. Some rhapsodised about its beauty: ‘This mass of material forms as it were a pedestal for the bosom and head…. and a young woman with a low necked dress and bare arm, her hair beautifully arranged, her skirts billowing out behind her… could never appear more beautiful nor be better attired, and I see no reason why art should disapprove.’13

On the other hand, a common male complaint was that the hoops continually hit the shins, particularly at parties and in ball rooms. ‘Whether as a waltzer or as a husband, a man likes a woman he can take to his arms; and how is this possible when she is entrenched in an impregnable hoop petticoat, which when he approaches he breaks his shins against?’14 Whilst hailed as making walking and movement so light and easy, the crinoline was at the same time an inconvenient and potentially dangerous fashion. To ascend into a carriage or omnibus involved squeezing the hoop through a narrow space after which it would spring back into shape filling the available area. Sitting could be a trial, and advertisements even went to the extreme of proclaiming that their crinolines, ‘do not cause accidents, do not appear at inquests, are better than medicine for the health, are economical, graceful, modest, ladylike and queenly.’15

More than any fashion the crinoline does seem to have caused accidents and taken life. Open fires and large dresses supported on metal frames proved a fire hazard with the wearer either burning to death or being branded by the impression of hot steels against the flesh. Florence Nightingale campaigned against the crinoline and publicly demanded that, ‘the Registrar General would tell us the exact number of deaths by burning occasioned by this absurd and hideous custom.’16

I leave it to the reader, wearer and viewer of ladies wearing these hoops to judge for themselves if these fashions were hideous or a foil to enhance the beauty and grace of the wearer. The fact that the hoop has repeatedly returned to fashion seems to indicate that society approves of the style, although nowadays more as a fossilised element of dress which is relegated to the fairy tale wedding dress or ball dress.

1 MSS. Fray Fernando of Talavera. Quoted in Soc. Espanola de Excursiones, Bol. XII, quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh, 2000, Theatre Arts Books, ISBN 0 87830 526 2, page 23.
2 Hall’s Chronicles, quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh, ibid, page 24.
3 Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, Janet Arnold, 1988, Maney & Son Ltd., ISBN 0 901286 20 6, page 189.
4 Tailors Pattern Book 1589. Facsimile reprint of Libro de Geometrica, Practica y Traça by Juan Alcega. Figure 67, page 49. Ruth Bean, Editor, Costume and Fashion Press, 1999. ISBN 0 903585 31 6
5 Patterns of Fashion, c. 1560 -1620, Janet Arnold, 1995, Macmillan, ISBN 0 333 38284 6, figure 30, page7. Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, Janet Arnold, ibid, figure 277, page 194, image from retable of St John the Baptist by Pedro Garcia de Benabarre, c. 1470. Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh, ibid, figures 6 & 7 page 26.
6 Pleasant Quippes for Upstart New-Fangled Gentlewomen, Stephen Gosson.Quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh, ibid, page 28.
7 London Magazine, The Modern Hoop Petticoat, 1741, quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh, ibid, page 60.
8 Public Advertiser, announcement to the public by Mrs Teresa Cornellys, 9th December 1760. Quoted in The Empress of Pleasure, Judith Summers, Viking, ISBN 0 670 91258 1
9 The Norwich Mercury, Issue of Saturday July 21st to Saturday July 28th 1744. Advert by Thomas Millner, at ‘the Stay and Hoop-petticoat Warehouse’, Norwich.
10 Autobiography and Correspondences, Mrs Delaney, 1743. Quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh, ibid, page 59.
11 Ciba Review, no. 46, quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh, ibid, page 166.
12 English Woman’s Domestic Magazine, Answers to Correspondents, March 1863, Vol. VI, p.238.
13 De La Mode, Theophile Gautier, quoted in The Cut Of Women’s Clothes, Norah Waugh, Faber and Faber Ltd., 1968, page 218.
14 How about the Hoops? unnamed source, quoted in Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh, ibid, p.136
15 Undated advert for ‘The Crown Crinoline’, no source given, quoted in The History of Underclothes, C. Willet and P. Cunnington, Faber and Faber, 1951, page 105
16 Notes on Nursing, Florence Nightingale, quoted in The History of Underclothes, C. Willet and P. Cunnington, ibid, page 98.

© Ian Chipperfield, The Staymaker