'Costume is a language. It is no more misleading than the graphs drawn by demographers and price historians'.
-Ferdinand Braudel 1973
Court dress worn by Mrs. Ann Fanshawe: 18th century, 1752-1753. Courtesy of the Museum of London
The hoop petticoat was constructed from a series of hoops of wale bone or cane, which allowed material to be draped over it on display. After its entry into the English court in the 17th century, it remained, in various forms, as a garment solely worn by royal and aristocratic women. In the 18th century, however, it became a ubiquitous garment, worn not only by women of the court, but also by the increasingly fashionable bourgeoisie. The wearing of this garment eloquently voiced many of the changes felt by women of the period: the increased spending power of the bourgeoisie; the practical defences needed by women entering the public sphere; and the specifically female language of fashion which evolved in the newly created homo-social spaces of shops. The wearing of the hoop petticoat was, therefore, not a symbol of patriarchal restrictions as it came to be figured in the late 19th century, but in fact a non-verbal expression of the increasingly independent bourgeois woman.
French hooped silk brocade dress: 18th century. Courtesy of The Museum of London
Aside from decorative appeal, it served an intensely practical role for the urban woman: to provide ‘shelter and protection’ by keeping ‘men at a proper distance’. In the wildly popular novel, Clarissa 1747, by Samuel Richardson, the character Anne Howe sympathetically replies to a friend concerned about unwanted male advances, ‘I desire my hoop may have its full circumference. All they're good for, that I know, is to clean dirty shoes and to keep ill-mannered fellows at a distance’.
The male reaction to women appearing in the public sphere armed with the necessary sartorial defences, was that of indignation. In The Enormous Abomination of the Hoop Petticoat 1745 the author calls this ‘Prodigious Garment’ a ‘perfect Publick Nuisance’, and describes how it impractically takes up ‘the whole side of a street ’. Men were literaly watching their space become dominated by the opposite sex.
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