After centuries of drooping, flowing garments, there arose in the days of Henry VIII a real novelty — the hooped skirt, which developed later into the farthingale associated with the reign of the great Elizabeth.
The farthingale came to England, through France, from Spain. It was the outcome of the vogue enjoyed by the stiff brocades and elaborately embroidered materials fashionable at the time and somewhat earlier.
The first (Spanish) farthingale consisted of a bell-shaped series of hoops, widening towards the feet, which were sewn into a substantial foundation, making a sort of under-petticoat. Extended over this framework the sumptuous and heavy brocades of the gown and petticoat acquired artificially- an enhanced effect of stiffness and richness. The skirt was usually open down the front, to reveal a richly decorated petticoat, sometimes with jewelled ornamentation.
The later "cartwheel" farthingale formed a foundation of a different shape. The wheel-like hoop, slightly flattened in front, was fixed at hip level by an arrangement of spokes radiating from the waist, and carried an almost horizontal tray-like basque or box-pleated frill, and from its edge the skirt fell vertically almost to the ground. This shape also displayed the maximum of richly embroidered stuff.
From this beginning the hoop waxed and waned through various phases — sometimes disappearing altogether, as in the time of Charles I, only to reappear in more extravagant form than ever in the eighteenth century.
An English historian, writing of the recrudescence of hoops in the eary part of the eighteenth century, quotes amusingly an allusion to the fashions of 1711, and to those of the sixteenth century, made by Sir Roger de Coverley when describing his family pictures: "You see, sir, my great-great-grandmother has on the new-fashioned petticoat, except that the modern is gathered at the waist; my grandmother appears as if she stood in a large drum, whereas the ladies now walk as if they were in a go-cart." From a "Receipt for Modern Dress," published in 1753, we cull the following extract: "Let your gown be a sack, blue, yellow, or green. And frizzle your elbows with ruffles sixteen; Furl off your lawn apron with flounces in rows, Puff and pucker up knots on your arms and your toes; Make your petticoats short, that a hoop eight yards wide May decently show how your garters are tied."
The hoop, indeed, became so enormous, as worn in fashionable Society in England towards the end of the eighteenth century, that the same historian quoted above is moved to make this comment: "Although the hoop had been happily discarded in private life, it appeared regularly at Court in as great State as ever." Referring to a lady's Court dress of 1796, he continues: "Not since the days of its invention was this article of dress seen in more full-blown enormity; and, as if to increase its size in the eyes of the spectators, immense bows of ribbon, cords, tassels, wreaths of flowers, and long swathes of coloured silks are twisted around and hung about it, in the most vulgar style of oppressive display. The pinching of the waist becomes doubly disagreeable by the contrast with the petticoats and the head, overloaded as it is with feathers, jewels, ribbons and ornament; altogether, the unfortunate wearer seems to be imprisoned in a mass of finery almost sufficient to render her immovable. All the inconvenience and crush of a St. James's levee could not, however, banish these monstrosities, until George IV abolished them by royal command."
It was at the instance of another royal personage that the hoop came once more into favour, after the lapse of half a century of oblivion. The beautiful Empress Eugenie introduced the crinoline at a time when she was unwilling that her condition should interfere with her appearance at social and official functions. M. Worth, who was more interested in the creation of artistic triumphs for his illustrious client than in the possibility of her continued attendance at parties, opposed the innovation with uncompromising vigour — he regarded it as an abomination — but, for the first time, he had to yield. The Empress won the battle, and the new version of the hoop, the crinoline, entered upon a fresh period of popularity, which lasted for some years.
The crinoline had one beneficent effect. Prior to its reintroduction, in the form of a cashmere petticoat mounted on three steel or whalebone hoops, there had seemed to be no end to the tendency to increase the width of the skirts of the dress; and just before the hoop reappeared the number of petticoats — the upper two always starched to board-like stiffness! — required to support this enormous yardage assumed alarming proportions and weight. Medical men criticized the mode with great severity, for the mere strain of wearing their clothes caused women in delicate health to faint with dangerous frequency. Since the new contrivance gave to the skirts the desired fashionable spread, without necessitating an enormous number of supporting petticoats, it was seized upon with rejoicing by overburdened womankind; and before long the multiplicity of petticoats was abandoned, with the exception of one or two made of muslin, which showed as an exquisite lacy froth when their wearers daintily picked up their dresses. With a petticoat of hoops the skirts had no limitations as to width, and it was soon understood that the more voluminous the crinoline the mpre elegant the effect.
And, as always, certain women tried to outdo their neighbours, until at last the ultimate ideal in smartness was to have a crinoline so huge that one could not pass through a doorway. Oh, those hoop skirts of the 'sixties! Certain pictures of crinolines of this time appal us by their size; but it must be remembered that, no matter what the fashion may be, certain women will always make it ridiculous by overdoing it. And a normal crinoline, worn by someone who knew how to wear clothes, like Madame de Metternich, Madame de Morny and particularly the Empress Eugenie, had a certain graceful elegance and enhanced subtly the distinction of its wearer.
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