How Did Women Wear Hoop Skirts?
By Ellen Horan
My novel, 31 Bond Street, explores the fate of a well-do widow with two teenage daughters, Emma Cunningham (still considered youthful and attractive in her 30′s), during a sensational trial for murder. By reading the newspapers of 1857 to research the actual case that it is based upon, I was thrust back into that era. When I immersed myself, I found that ‘day to day’ existence was rarely explained in the newspaper – as so much about contemporary life was taken for granted. One of my biggest curiosities was ‘how did women ever manage to wear hoop skirts?’
First of all, 1857 was the year flexible metal hoop was patented and came to market and it created a huge sensation. It was made of foldable loops of steel, and could collapse for storage, and then pop open with the touch of a spring. Women had been burdened with heavy skirts that were kept fashionably full with wooden hoops and layer upon layer of crinolines or horsehair, so the new hoop skirt was a modern revelation. It was a huge hit because it lightened the load. We think, from a feminist perspective, that such items were ‘suffered’ by women, burdening them and slowing them down, but hoops were hugely popular among women. They were relieved of the weight of multiple layers of petticoats and heavy crinolines and bone or wooden stays in their skirts. The metal ‘cage’ hoop seemed light and liberating by comparison. Movement became easier. Wearing a metal hoop skirt was often compared to ‘sailing’ since there was nothing underneath, and your skirt fabric was stretched around a brace, much like a sail.
Women wore hoop dresses to fancy events and parties, but also under a daytime dress known as ‘the promenade dress’ for shopping and other activities. An evening promenade was something all New Yorkers turned out for in the days before the Civil War. After work, all classes loved to link arms and walk up and down the avenues, with women showing off their hoops. During 1857, the larger the hoop, the more fashionable, the skirts became wildly elaborate and covered with follies like beading and fringe and ruffles. New synthetic dyes had recently been invented creating vivid clashing colors like purple and orange. Skirts would grow to wider and wider circumferences, often taking up 20 yards of fabric, stretched out like gigantic lampshades. Women were crazy for these latest fashion fads, and metal hoops were in huge demand, with women outside the cities anxiously awaiting new shipments.
The hoop skirt was as lampooned by men as it was embraced by women. Satiric poems and cartoons appeared in the daily newspapers, describing the danger of being toppled by a gust of wind. So how did women wear hoops? Apparently, to sit down, you needed a lot of practice – you tipped the hoop under your rear end up a bit, and sat, which gave you the right balance to perch on the edge of a chair. If you sat without doing that first, the front ballooned upwards, exposing the room to your crotch-less pantaloons. To relieve yourself, which I assume you never wanted to do in a public place, you would gather the metal hoops upwards, and strategically place yourself over a stool which held a chamber pot.
After Emma Cunningham was indicted for murder, she was no longer wearing hoops, but skirts that hung limply as she waited in jail for her trial. I believe she would have traded the bars of prison for the ‘cage’ of hoops any day. But that is another question I explored in 31 Bond Street – how did women survive the courts and prisons in 1857?
About the author: Ellen Horan was raised in Philadelphia and New York. After graduating from college, where she studied painting and history, she lived in France for a year while working as an au pair and studying studio art. She remained abroad for a second year and was offered a grant to live and paint in the South of France. She returned to New York City and worked for many years with photographers and photo agencies. She maintained an art studio and worked as a freelance photo editor for magazines and books. She turned her attention to writing after becoming intrigued by the Bond Street murder case. She lives in downtown Manhattan, the setting of her first novel, 31 Bond Street.
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