A Treatise on Hoops


A Treatise on Hoops


Reviews the history of hooped dresses, calling critical attention to the trend.


Beck, S. William


December 1888


Beck, S. William


essay (fashion)
essay (gender politics)




During all the long period that the hoop had part and lot in costume, it had to bear up against a series of ably-directed and well-sustained assaults on all sides. The decrees issued against it by kings and emperors in different countries afford curious reading in view of the failure which attended them, for whether it was intended to limit the inconvenient size of the hoop, or to keep it within bounds of occasion, no attention whatever appears to have been paid to any regulations or ordinance or proclamation, and the hoop went on its accustomed way without regard to any man's behest and careless of complainings. What rulers failed to effect, earnest men—preachers and satirists—still endeavoured to accomplish, and, it must be said, quite as unavailingly. The hoop was proof against ridicule and indifferent to reproach. When in its first stage, known here in England as the vardingal, or farthingale, Bishop Latimer, preaching at Grimsthorpe in 1552 upon the Nativity, was very severe upon these roundabouts, as he called them, which the devil in all cunning had invented as an instrument of pride. Taking considerable liberties with history, he represented the damsels of Bethlehem as going gay in bracelets and these foolish vardingals, and the Virgin Mother, chief among women, as contented with modest and plainer apparel. “I think,” said the preacher, “Mary had not much fine linen; she was not trimmed up as our women be now-a-days. I think, indeed, Mary had never a vardingal; for she used no such superfluities as our fine damsels do now-a-days; for in the old times women were content with honest and single garments."

Disregarding now the picturesque literature of the earlier hoops, the times are reached when, after a period of neglect, the "bewitching round" again appeared in costume. Sir Roger de Coverley mentioned the “new-fashioned petticoat" in 1711, but this is not to say that the great hoops which made a lady walk as if she were in a go-cart were introduced at that date. The years of the eighteenth century were younger than that when the satirists again had such an excellent opportunity of being funny at the expense of fashion. It was in 1711 that a pamphlet was published entitled “The Farthingale Reviewed; or More Work for the Cooper. A Panegyrick on the late but most admirable invention of the Hooped Petticoat," a tedious essay in rhyme, commencing: —

“There’s scarce a bard that writ in former time
Had e’er so great, so bright a theme for rhyme:
The Mantua swain, if living, would confess
Ours more surprising than his Tyrian dress.
And Ovid's mistress, in her loose attire,
Would cease to charm his eyes or fan Love's fire.
Were he at Bath and had these coats in view,
He'd write his Metamorphosis anew;
Delia, fresh hooped, would o'er his heart prevail,
To leave Corinna and her tawdry veil.
Hear, great Apollo! and my genius guide,
To sing this glorious miracle of pride."

It cannot be said that the appeal to the gods was very successful; beyond twitting ladies with diverting to their petticoats the elaborate attention they formerly bestowed on the high-towering head-dresses which had then been worn, the poem is dull indeed, and, in some other respects, not well suited to modern readers.

From the time of its revival the hoop had a merry reign, and change ran riot in the shape and size of it. A lady resembled first a huge bell, then a dish-cover, then she seemed to be rising from a great drum, next as if she stood in a butter-churn, to which George Colman compares the hoop when he says that at times it expanded from such dimensions to the circumference of three hogs-heads. All the essayists held high revelry over the vagaries of the petticoat. Particularly did Mr. Isaac Bickerstaff, in 1709, have one brought up before him for trial, and gleefully relates how the garment — if hoops can fairly be considered as apparel — had to be hoisted up to the ceiling to show its proportions, and then formed “a very splendid and ample canopy” over the court assembled, covering it with a kind of silken rotunda, in its form not unlike the cupola of St. Paul's."

After running a long course of changes, but with popularity undiminished — perhaps stimulated by all this pother, the hoop took on a new shape about 1745, expanding on either hand so that a lady in the very newest fashion was like nothing else so much as a drummer in a cavalry band with skirts about him. It was at this stage in its history that a pamphlet was issued with the following title: — “The Enormous Abomination of the Hoop-Petticoat as the Fashion now is and has been for about these Two Years Fully Displayed: In Some Reflexions upon it Humbly Offered to the Consideration of both Sexes, especially the Female. By A. W., Esq. London: Printed for William Russell at the Golden Ball, near St. Dunstan's Church, Fleet Street, 1745.” And the form then fashionable is necessary to be remembered as its pages are conned. As the author says: —

"Suppose the Fine Lady coming into a room, the graceful Manner of doing which was formerly reckon’d no small Part of Female Education and Good Breeding". First enters wriggling, and sideling, and edging in by degrees, Two yards and a half of Hoop, for as yet you see nothing else. Some time after appears the Inhabitant of the garment herself; not with a full Face, but in Profile; the Face being tum'd to, or from the Company, according as they happen to be situated. Next, in due time again, follows Two yards and a half of Hoop more. And now her whole Person, with all its appurtenances, is actually arriv’d, fully and completely in the Room: where we are in the next place to consider her. She sits down: if it be upon a Couch or Squab, though the Couch or Squab be five yards long, her Hoop takes up every Inch of it from one end to the other. If upon a Chair, 'tis the same thing in effect: only the Hoop is suspended in the air, without anything else to rest upon. But now enter Two, or Three, or Four more with Cooperage of equal dimensions. I^pon their sitting down, too, Insequitur stridorque strepitusque. The Ladies need not check at the Latin: they shall have it in English — The Rustling and Crush of Silk and Silver, and the Crash and Cracking of Whalebone, immediately ensues. The Hoops and Petticoats, when contracted and muddled up into a Heap, make, if possible, a more awkward and ungainly Show, than when they were free, and unconfin’d. They rise and sink into such hideous wrinkles; into such Mountains and Vallies, into such a variety of uncouth, irregular Shapes; as exceed all the descriptions of Painting or Poetry. For myself, I will not pretend to enter into the details of them; but appeal to the eyes and judgment of all who see them. It is nevertheless to be observed, That whoever of any Three happens to sit in the middle, has her Hoop on each side toss'd up at least a foot higher than before; in which Attitude, she looks like a Higgler-Woman, that sells Apples or Cabbages, sitting on horse-back between Two Panniers; only the Higgler's Panniers are well enough shap’d; These the ugliest that can possibly be contriv'd, or imagin’d. Such is the exquisite Taste and Fancy of the Fair Sex in this refin’d Age, so fam'd for Elegancy and Politeness."

The miseries of crinoline, still well within memory, will acquit this sketch of any suspicion of over-colouring in respect of the inconveniences which were patiently endured by women in the cause of fashion; and as regards what will seem to be an incredible expansion of skirt, it is a matter easily proved that a circumference of five yards was often exceeded by those who were not to be baulked of going more bulky than ordinary.

The tract is remarkably proof against criticism, not only in its assertions but in style, and is especially to be commended as being written without the least indelicacy upon a subject which too readily lent itself to freedom in writing, when licentiousness too often passed for wit. As an arraignment of the dress and manners of its day it is vigorous enough to have made many hoop-wearers uncomfortable, and might in almost any other cause than dress reform have been absolutely effective. But, directed even against a riotous excess in dress, and written with an evident sincerity, it made no headway at all against the hoop, which went out of wearing only when its time had come. It is not always in direct invective that the obnoxious structure is assailed. It was sometimes written down with epithets; it was an “unnatural piece of foppery;” it was “odious and ridiculous," " shocking and abominable,” or it was “a gross insult to reason and common-sense." But ladies were next appealed to in virtue of the hoop being so generally worn that their rank and station were not to be distinguished. Why should they not leave hoops to citizens and common people? They were asked, too, to mind cards less and their prayers more, and assured that they would be all the more admired “if reading of the Bible and other Books of Religion took up at least half as much of their Time as the reading of Plays, Pamelas, Novels, Romances, nay, Tatlers and Spectators themselves."

As for the expediency of the fashion, what could be said for it? Besides showing how it was cumbrous and unsightly, not only on entering into a room, or on sitting down, but in churches, in coaches, and in daily life, the plea that ladies dressed not to please themselves, but their admirers, was met by the answer that men liked not their hoops, but would like the wearers better without them. It was in spite of, rather than because of the hoop that men still were devoted to those whom they could not approach. There was quite enough that could be said against it even without the higher test of right and wrong, although for that matter it could be proved absolutely sinful and unjustifiable. But, to be sure, without an appeal to religion this fashion stood condemned already; it confounded all proportion and was suited to nothing, and besides, how wasteful it was!

“It certainly takes up much less Time and Pains, and Expense to hoop a Cask completely than to hoop a Woman."

And, continues the author, having made this comparison —

“which I hope is natural enough, I would by all means have the Tall and Big Females call’d Hogsheads; the Middle-siz'd Barrels; and the Dwarfish Kilderkins. Of which last sort, by the way, there are not a few who would be pretty, were it not for their Hoopage. But as they too must needs be surrounded with that fashionable incumbrance, they strut and waddle, like a Crow in a gutter, to the great diversion of the ill-natured, and no less concern of the compassionate Spectators. The Tall in this Habit are the most tolerable: yet some even of them you shall see, who having little round Faces, being short to the Waist, long downwards, and wearing a wide-extended Hoop, look like a Pair of Kitchen-Tongs set a straddle; and provoke Laughter to a high degree."

It is only fair to the writer, who may seem in these passages almost a Puritan and not a little bigoted, to state that he is not averse to any but great hoops. Although he would prefer to have no hoops, yet he would not object to them if they were but moderate in size; and, as he himself states, he is no enemy to fashion, he is neither Methodist nor Quaker, nor a testy old fool, always quarrelling with changes in dress. He declares himself almost a young man, only provoked to interfere in a matter which had come to be beyond bearing. This hoop petticoat, which so deformed one sex and irritated the other, was the one only thing that reasonable men found fault with in womenkind, but that was enough to neutralise all the other merits of acceptable dress. It began in or about the year 1709.

“Tho' I was then young, I well remember Every Body thought this New Fashion would be out in & Twelve-month at farthest: especially considering that Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., of censorious and facetious memory, expos’d and ridicul’d it with so much Wit and Humour, that it was believ’d the Fair Ones would be soon laugh'd out of it, heartily weary and ashamed of so nonsensical a whimsey. But we all found ourselves mistaken: the Hoop stood its ground; and has continued to this very Day. For many Years, however, it was a little modest and restrain’d within some reasonable compass, and so to a degree tolerable. But of late, within these Two Twelve-Months, or thereabout, it has spread itself to so enormous a Circumference, that there is no enduring it any longer. ‘Tis now past a Jest. The whole Sex, in a manner, especially the Younger Sort, the Misses, are by this prodigious garment become a perfect publick nuisance. The very sight of these cursed Hoops is enough to turn one’s Stomach. Besides the Trouble they give to others, they must needs be extremely inconvenient, and sometimes painful to those who wear them. Many Hundreds, I doubt not, have got their Deaths by them. I pass over the vast foolish expense of so much silk and other costly Materials, three times more than is necessary or convenient; only to cover such a huge extent of Canvas, or Striped Linen and Whale-bone: which huge extent is by itself beyond measure ridiculous. For is it not so?"

Is it not so? Not so much as to the extravagance and wastefulness of distended hoops, but the unsightliness and discomfort of them — are they necessary or convenient? These are considerations not supposed to weigh much with fashion, but hoops are exceptional in the demands that they make upon women. In point of grace or comeliness they are not, perhaps, to be held more guilty than some other excesses, but if they are written down as hideous and offensive it may be asked again, Is it not so? Probably the question may be asked many times before the art of dress is fully understood. We may never again be threatened with hoops “eight yards wide," such as a ballad of 1753 is righteously severe upon, showing how completely our author failed to bring about any reform, but so long as eccentricity with some passes for beauty, there will be revivals, more or less complete, of the hoop and the crinoline. At such times this spirited old tract should be kept in view, not so much to condemn what nobody is likely to defend, but to show the extravagance to which foolish emulation might again, as it did then, swell out the skirt. It is not that the statements contained in it are doubtful or unsupported. Robert Chambers shows how Edinburgh society suffered, within his memory, under the tyranny of hoops. In the morning a lady put on a "pocket hoop," resembling a pair of small panniers. For occasions, not quite full dress, there was to be worn a bell-hoop — a petticoat-frame in shape like a bell — made of cane or rope! For full state there was provided a hoop so monstrous that "people saw half of it enter the room before the wearer." This, the matter-of-fact chronicler goes on to say, was found "inconvenient." So inconvenient was it that in the narrow passages and entries of Edinburgh Old Town "ladies tilted them up and carried them under their arms; in case of this happening, there was a show petticoat below." This happy audacity has been denied to women of later days, although there were times when it would have relieved perplexity and spared much annoyance. So long as these facts remain, or John Leech's drawings are remembered, surely the shapeless horrors of crinoline should be impossible of renewal.