Writer and portrait artist Dani Trew has researched female fashion and economics in the 18th century extensively. Here, in a 3 part series she explores the role of the hoop petticoat in the emancipation of women.
The hoop petticoat became aesthetically aligned with aberrations from nature and was repeatedly described as ‘monstrous’, ‘shocking’, ‘unnatural’ and even at times ‘ungodly’. As the author of The Enormous Abomination
wrote, ‘In General; Can any thing be more out of Nature, a grosser Insult upon Reason, and Common Sense, than this monstrous Disproportion between the upper and the lower part of a woman?’.
Open robe dress or mantua: 18th century. Courtesy of The Museum of London
While literally disfiguring the female body, it also disfigured the social body. In the previous century the hoop petticoat had been reserved solely for aristocratic women, but with the increased spending power of the bourgeoisie, any woman who could afford a hoop in the 18th
century could wear one. As Joyce Appleby has argued ‘the democratisation of consumption’ – depicted in the growing popularity of the hoop petticoat – ‘threatened to undermine a class discipline and a system of social control’. What had previously been a traditional mark of aristocratic status, was now the emblem of radical levelling through capitalism.
Under Hoop and Bell: 1787. Boyne & Walker. Museum of London – Under Hoop and Bell, Satire on Mrs. Wells, the actress and mistress of Major Topham, here represented in the position of the clapper of a bell - Mrs Well's petticoat- with a ring through his nose and a string attached to Mrs Well's ring.
But it was not just that the hoop petticoat was a symptom of the changing economy – that it played a figurative role within discourse of representing the economy – it was in fact a mechanism of capitalism itself. In 1745 a group of ladies, under the pseudonym of Jack Lovelass, stated that in its sheer size and technical complexity, the hoop petticoat, was ‘encouraging and finding work for a great number of hands that would otherwise be unemploy’d.’ The increased consumption of material that it demanded was therefore, a ‘very great service to the nation in general, and consequently to every individual, by employing our poor, and increasing the circulation of our specie.’ Something as seemingly trivial and marginal as female fashion was actually functioning at the heart of the economy. The realisation that the economy itself was as irrational and volatile as fashionable taste, was incredibly alarming for rational thinkers who believed that the new economy should function in an equally rational way.
Follow this link to Part 3