An article by Tessy Staylace (1998-2017)

One admirer's perspective on petticoats, crinolines, hoops and farthingales


Why are bulky skirts so intriguing? Why do they continue to find a place in the female wardrobe, despite their unwieldiness? What makes them so attractive?

Well, one of the most obvious answers is silhouette: A wide skirt exaggerates the female figure, allowing for the illusion of a thinner waist, and a curvaceous-ness that defines femininity of form.

Mystery is another aspect. What’s under there? The skirt seduces us into a world in which few men participate. Beneath the surface lies a myriad of captivating items: petticoats, garters, suspenders, stockings, panties, garterbelts, long girdles, long corsets - and the fragrances bestowed upon her flower garden by the lady herself. How can one help but wonder…and desire to see and explore?

But the mere width of the garments seems to preclude our examining the contents further. So, we are stymied, as well as seduced, urged on as well as separated. Perhaps this protection gives the lady the courage to further inflame his passions, she secure in the knowledge that any advances can be dealt with easily, and allowance for advance kept in proportion to her interest in the gentleman. A garment to control her libido, as well as that of the interloper.

But there is further dichotomy here: The strength endowed on womanhood by such garments is countered by the fact that they leave her "open-ended" and accessible. Accessible to the elements, such as wind and unfortunate stumble; accessible to unwarranted intrusion by those with little regard for the social probity assumed above. This has been particularly true during times in our history when it was considered uncomely for a lady to cover her private areas, further discussed below. At one time, hoop crinolines and voluminous petticoats placed a lady’s very well-being in immediate danger should her clothing catch fire, or should her hoop attach itself to a moving vehicle.

Recently, there existed a great deal of controversy on Broadway, because, during intermissions, the ladies’ rooms always had long lines, while men could zip in and out with very little wait. Advocates argued that ladies required stalls and men did not, so the ladies’ rooms should accommodate more fixtures than the men's. The whole situation almost turned ugly, as some impatient (and improper) women charged into the gentlemen's restrooms, waving off surprised reaction as necessary to further their cause.

There is an historical reason for this situation: During the earlier days of Broadway (during the Victorian and Edwardian eras), it was considered indelicate for the distaff side to give the impression that she had to attend to bodily functions. Add to that the incredible project involved in undressing and redressing, along with the confining atmosphere of a facility stall, and one can well understand why ladies stayed in their seats during intermission. Therefore, little reason existed to construct the ladies’ rooms with too many fixtures - they wouldn’t use them anyway. Most women attended to their bodily functions BEFORE leaving for the theater, and drank and ate little thereafter. An examination of historical copies of Playbill -type publications yields some affirmation of this situation: Almost every article was written to attract the female reader.

[A reader adds:] 

"Many / most women then used enemas or laxatives before traveling, to preclude the need to find a place to have a movement in someone else’s chamber pot. (Most theaters likely wouldn’t have had running water toilets until the 20th century.) This little bit of social history is almost completely unknown. In fact, a daily enema habit was considered a good thing then, because it was considered good to 'be regular' and to go #2 at a known time, making it predictable and easily scheduled when stinky chamber pots would be emptied.
"Similarly, in the days when long, open-bottom (legless) girdles that cupped under the bottom were worn, many women’s 'toilette' in the morning included an enema, to forestall the need to un-girdle and re-girdle later, (by detaching the rear and side suspenders and folding up the rear part of the girdle—which was not easy if it had boning), especially if at work or visiting. For urination, women pulled down their panties (worn over their girdles), straddled the toilet, and let go. Again, these practices were virtually never written about, only occasionally hinted at, so they are unknown today."

But wide skirts also helped in the personal activities of women during the hooped crinoline and farthingale eras: Anecdotal evidence suggests that there were instances of women attending lawn parties, and standing off to one side whilst urinating. No proper gentlemen would ever think a lady would do such a thing, but who would know? It was a day when the wearing of wearing any type of "panty-ed" garment, including drawers, by women was proscribed ("only a loose woman would wear pants!"). All it took was a little practice, and the lady could avoid a trip to the outhouse, with its attendant uncleanness. How happy the lady would be at the prospect of escaping the necessity to access such a small space in such a large skirt! Their "dirty" little secret!

So: Were the unwieldy (crinoline hoops) and confining (corsets) fashions of years gone by the result of male oppression? This seems to be a common bit of propaganda in our "feminist" culture. Those of us who appreciate these fine adornments notwithstanding, it was males who actually caricatured crinoline cages and tightlacing, expressing disdain and belittling women for their fashionably foolhardy adherence to "fads." It was men who pointed out possible medical deleterious effects of tightlacing and the dangers of wearing cages, which could either catch fire, or become caught in a passing vehicle or other moving object. These observations became fertile ground for cartoonists’ satirical lampooning of these fashions.

So it was women who begot these innovations, and, unlike some men of another era, we are forever grateful to them and their understanding of the effects of feminine attire on men. Generally, with exception, modern women do not have a clue regarding the seductiveness of petticoats and the like. Rather, many feel that the fewer the articles of clothing they wear, the more attractive they are to men. One can only suppose they mistook the male’s admiration of the naked female form to be a signal to disrobe, not realizing that mystery is what beguiles the average man.

Wide skirts, whether in the form of hoops, crinolines, farthingales or voluminous petticoats alone, are a direct barometer of the times. Skirts become paltry during times of war and unrest, not only because of the scarcity of material, but of the mood of the women, preoccupied with thinking about their men who are away, busying themselves in their support. No time for encumbrances. Witness the American Civil War: The bell-shaped Southern Belle lost her "pouf" for the interim. However, after almost every such period, there comes about a widening of the skirt. Recent examples include World War II (Dior), the Korean conflict (teenage rock-and-roll skirts and cocktail dress crinolines), and the Vietnam conflict (bouffant evening dresses and gowns). Now that the Cold War is over, we see pouf returning, even if only as a choice.

Ever wonder what became of the large mass of excess lacing which resulted from tight lacing corsets in times gone by? Well, many times, it was simply drawn through the eyelet which formed at the waistband of the petticoat where it fastened in the rear. There, this "ball of laces" provided a pleasant upswing of the silhouette at the rear, especially in times when bustles were not in vogue.

The crinoline hoop (horsehair over a rigid frame) was an innovation born of the fact that as many as seventy pounds of heavy petticoats were worn at one time to keep nineteenth century lades’ skirts propped. The hoop did, indeed, alleviate milady of such weight, but offered the disadvantages mentioned elsewhere in this piece. Soon, however, concern began to emerge concerning the untidy look of the "hoopline" under the skirt – the outline of the hoop structure clearly seen from without. In response, many women began to wear one or two, or even three, petticoats OVER their crinoline cages to soften or eliminate these hooplines. Back to square one! This added weight again, and reduced the effectiveness of the cage in reducing such.

One might think that "hooplines" were only a consideration during the last century; that this was not a subject of discussion in modern history. The fact is, there was a short time in The Fifties when hoops were the rage, worn over crinolines…and more crinolines. However, the term "crinoline" in the Eisenhower era, was differently defined. During this period, the term referred to a knee-length petticoat, usually made of stiff netting or some other such material (even though horsehair was not unknown). In Europe, any skirt propped up by a crinoline was known as a "rock-n-roll" skirt, and the petticoat underneath was a "can-can slip." Generally, a crinoline was never known by anything else but its nineteenth century definition in parts of the world outside of the United States.

History does repeats itself! It was considered improper amongst the teen-agers who boosted this fad to allow the lines of the hoops under their skirts to be seen. To eliminate these lines, they wore crinolines OVER the hoops, making the silhouette even wider! This, of course, almost guaranteed that an observer would be treated to some wonderful glimpses of underskirt. This writer once beheld such a sight…and it will remain embedded in mind forever, as an example of delightful overindulgence. The wearer veritably "floated" into the room, and the eyes of every male could not keep anywhere else! A memory with a halo around it!

Ellen Melinoff, in What We Wore -- An Offbeat Social History of Women's Clothing, 1950 to 1980, printed solicited comments about the era. Some of them, regarding hoops, were very telling:

(pg 69) "There was a girl in my school--a real sosh--who always wore her hoopskirt with such aplomb. She'd sashay down the aisles between the desks (to sit with a boy! in the eighth grade!) without it once ever flipping up. Not even the school bus was her undoing like it was for the rest of us "mere mortals." And the ridge of her hoop never showed through her skirt either. Not showing the hoop line was like not having VPL today. She must have topped her hoop with layers of crinolines. She wore this very long and with real Capezios." [Ellen Ekman]

(pg 65) "In the fifth grade (1957), full skirts hit. The fuller, the better. So we wore not one, not two, but three or more petticoats, starched stiff. When that wasn't enough, we learned to wear a hoopskirt. I say learned because it took practice to learn to seat yourself without the hoop flying up in front of you. I remember my mother suggesting that I could wear just one petticoat. Couldn't I see how much more graceful it looked, wearing just one? Of course not. What was the point of wearing just one? The fuller, the better.." [Lyn Messner]

Fifties fashion designer Anne Fogarty, an icon of the era, was dubbed "Petticoat Queen" for her advocacy of the flared and bouffant skirt. In her book "Wife Dressing" (1959), she relates a story concerning her husband’s bout with these beautiful creations. She came home one night after a long day to find him sound asleep, his head pressed against a large mound of petticoats as a result of rolling over. Apparently, she had been sorting them earlier, and had left them on part of the large bed; he had fallen asleep on the other half. Upon hearing her, he awoke and greeted her, but only after exclaiming that he thought he had died and gone to heaven! For, when his eyes opened in the fog of sudden awakening, he found himself immersed in a cloud-like atmosphere, soft and delicate, and totally out of touch with reality. (Many present-day women think most men are too!) I think we can all relate to that!

In conclusion, certain ladies, who, throughout The Fifties, very rarely could be found without their frou-frou, should be cited. These women understood the attractiveness of these wonderful undergarments, and how they enhanced their femininity. They were fortunate enough to live in a era where such attire was consider fashionable, but when there existed many women who shunned crinolines and petticoats, instead preferring to wear their fuller skirts and dresses "sans petti."

So, a broad salute to Alice Lon, Connie Stevens, June Allyson, Shelley Fabares, Patti Page, Grace Kelly, and Ann Sothern. They will live in our memories forever, symbols of what we all miss so much. In addition, a special honor goes to Wynona Judd, the contemporary country-and-western singer who never needed an excuse to wear her full crinolines on stage and elsewhere, whether considered fashionable at the time or not! A bright and shining star. Too bad her daughter (and duettist), Naomi Judd, chose not to follow in her foot-steps. A fallen star, in my book.

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