How Did Women Wear Hoop Skirts?

By Ellen Horan (Guest Contributor)

Cut-away schematic diagram, Punch Magazine (1856)

Cut-away schematic diagram, Punch Magazine (1856)

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?’


What is a “Hoop Skirt”?

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.


Who Wore Hoop Skirts?

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.


Cultural Approaches to the Skirt

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?

Ellen Horan was raised in Philadelphia and New York. After graduating from 31 Bond Streetcollege, 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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  1. Barbara A Unruh says

    I would love to read this. Trials involving real people interest me a great deal. Tells you a lot about society in that time and place.

  2. Melyssa says

    I had no idea how hoop skirts worked. I learned a lot from just this post — can’t wait to see how much knowledge I gain from the book, which sounds fascinating.

  3. librarypat says

    I attended a Civil War reenactment event this past weekend and was surprised how the women with these large hoop skirts were able to sit in auditorium seating – arm and fold down seats. My daughter manages her skirt, but it is easy to forget or loose control if you don’t watch it. One lady did just that leaning over to talk to someone several rows up. The back of her hoop followed suit and gave all a full view of pantaloons until another woman pushed the skirt down.
    I am most interested to read what your research revealed about the treatment of women in court and prison.

  4. says

    I read 31 Bond Street (don’t enter me) and really enjoyed it. It was fast paced and suspenseful, & think the author did a fabulous job putting her spin on a true story.

  5. Carol Wong says

    I have an answer for the question of how did women ever manage with hoop shirts. My answer is that they didn’t always manage! According to family legend, one of my ancestors (I have no idea who) was getting into a wagon and her shirt flew up and she was deeply embarassed because of her exposure.

    I would love to read this book about Mary Cunningham. Please enter me in this contest/

    Thank you,

  6. Carol Wong says

    I have an answer to that question about how did women manage when they wore hoop skirts!
    According to my mother’s family legend, one of our ancestors was trying to get into a wagon and her hoop skirt went up. She was mortified that people could see her underclothes. So the answer is that they didn’t always manage!

    I would love to read this book about Emma Cunnigham. Please enter me in this giveaway.


  7. says

    Love this post! It’s a bit of paradigm shift to realize that hoop skirts were a welcome relief to the women of that time. 31 Bond Street has been on my TBR list for a long time, but I’m determined to read it over the next few months. Thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  8. says

    I really enjoyed reading about the hoopskirt and I’d love to get a chance to wear one. Briefly. 31 Bond Street looks fascinating and I’d be thrilled to win a copy! Thanks for the opportunity.

  9. Jack Sicoli says

    so far i’m one of two males to leave a comment, apparently hoping to win one of the 3 books available. good luck to all of us.

    have fun and watch out for the bears.

  10. says

    Thanks for posting this! It’s a great site. Nice to hear the added anecdotes about hoop skirts. I hope you all join the “31 Bond Street” facebook Fan Page, where there will be some fun giveaways in coming weeks. Good luck to the winner(s) Ellen

  11. Tom H. says

    I read 31 Bond Street (don’t eneter me either) – the book was riveting and frankly, my only complaint is that I read it so fast I was disappointed when I had nothing more to read. And to think this happened just a few buildings down from the great restaurant, Il Buco, at 47 Bond Street today! Magnificent and thanks for a great read.

  12. says

    Tom, thanks for the wonderful compliment. Just wanted to tell you that I celebrated the sale of 31 Bond Street to Harper by taking my writing workshop to Il Buco to celebrate!

  13. Koko says

    What we women are willing to endure for the sake of “fashion”! Personally, I would love to try on hoop skirts. I think they are very flattering (especially for pear-shaped women like me).

  14. Carol M says

    This book sounds really good! I’ve always been interested in the how people lived during this time period. Thank you so much for the giveaway!

  15. Rebecca says

    Aha, this explains those low to the ground, armrest-less chairs of the day!
    Would love to read 31 Bond street!

  16. velga malek says

    Going to the bathroom sounds easy, just do it & go on your merry way. However a bus ride during rush hour in this contemporary time would be impossible.

  17. Ccohron1 says

    I love the information on hoop skirts! Very interesting. Joseph Davis, Jefferson’s older brother, had a plantation south of Vicksburg, MS. The whole family and slaves read books and magazines on the latest farm systems to fashion. Cotton was the main crop. A neighbor was quoted in 1857 that hoop skirts were all the rage. He guessed that Joseph Davis would gave to go to 48″ rows to handle the new dress code….good humor in 1857…

  18. Lisa D says

    I am a civil War Reenactor. Here is my insight on hoopskirts

    1. They are a TON lighter than the pre 1850s option of wearing many petticoats (or under skirts) to get the same effect.

    2. they are cooler than wearing the corded petticoats of the past.

    3. Using the rest room in layers upon layers of petticoats is much harder than using the bathroom in a hoop. Actually It is easier to use the bathroom in a hoop than in a modern skirt with pantyhose! To explain that: A proper woman of the era wore a specialized pair of drawers…they were split crotch..just pull up the skirts, sit down, the drawers split for you, do your business stand up, and bounce a few times to set your skirts back in place…done.

    The hardest thing to do in a hoop skirt is sitting down in a folding chair…I can’t tell you how many times I wound up on the floor rather than in my seat before I figured out…HOLD THE CHAIR!

  19. David Gadd says

    A few years ago I purchased a small chair, with a seat depth of about 8 inches, at auction at Bonham’s in Los Angeles. It was described in the catalog at a “Victorian mahogany sidechair.”

    As I was previewing this item, which l thought might be a child’s chair, the employee at Bonham’s asked me with a knowing air, “Do you know what this chair was for?”

    “No,” I replied, intrigued.

    “It was for women who wore hoop skirts,” she answered promptly. “They could only perch on the edge of a regular chair, so they made these small chairs for them. The chair fits under the hoop skirt.”

    I still have the chair, with what may be the original (and very worn) silk-covered cushion, in my living room.

    I have posted a photo of it here (if links are allowed in these replies):

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