There’s a scene in The King and I when the royal children meet Anna, their new English governess, and one looks curiously at her overly large hoop skirt. The curiosity is repeated by the king’s wives in a subsequent scene where they peek at her suitcase.
A healthy curiosity, I suppose, for people who live in a country where clothing follows the natural contours of the human body. Anna’s hoop skirt was supported by a crinoline and it sure looked as strange as it was large. But it was 1862 and cage crinolines were fashionable in Victorian England.
Anna’s clothing was, of course, both impractical and climate inappropriate in Siam. Why did Western women wear such large skirts anyway? I did a lot of Googling and came up with the following — by no means a comprehensive history of European fashion but, rather, an illustrative outline of the evolution of the hoop skirt.
In ancient times
Some historians claim that, originally, the hoop skirt was meant to be functional rather than fashionable. The hoop kept women from tripping on their skirts and kept their legs cool in hot weather.
Based on archeological findings, Cretans wore hoop skirts circa 1600 BCE.
Often mocked as the greatest fashion disaster in history, the “modern” (in contradistinction with the Cretan hoop skirt of 1600 BCE) hoop skirt goes back to Spain in the 15th century. Worn under the skirt by noblewomen was the verdugado, “a word for the Spanish word for wood, which refers to the rings of wood or willow osiers forming the rigid rings attached to the skirt.”
(Well, story has it that, before the farthingale appeared in the Spanish court, it was already a thing in Portugal where the banished queen, Joan, wore it to camouflage illegitimate pregnancies.)
When Catherine of Aragon sailed to England to marry Henry VIII (who would later divorce her for failing to give birth to a male heir) in 1509, she brought the fashion with her.
In England, the verdugado came to be known as farthingale. But, back in the 16th century, the hoop wasn’t as wide as what Anna wore in The King and I. The portrait of Princess Elizabeth shows a silhouette similar to an inverted cone.
The farthingale also became fashionable in France where it underwent an evolution.
Elizabeth was queen from 1558 to 1603. Her portrait above in a white dress with a wider farthingale is circa 1590’s. The “great farthingale” she was wearing under the skirt evolved from the French farthingale. So, within half a century, the farthingale evolved from an inverted cone to a shape that resembles a rounded but uneven square — uneven because the hoop was lower in front and higher at the back.
The farthingale went out of fashion during the first decade of the 17th century. Based on paintings of that era, what women wore under the skirts appeared to be more relaxed. Then, Spain came up with another fashion upstart — the pannier.
The earliest form of the pannier was wide and domed as seen in Diego Velázquez’s painting (1652-1653) of Maria Teresa, the Spanish princess who married Louis XIV of France.
The shape evolved into one that was wide at the sides, but flat in front and at the back as seen from these two portraits of Marie Antoinette, above and below, who became queen of France a century after Maria Teresa.
Unlike the farthingale and the pannier which were mostly worn in royal courts and formal affairs, the crinoline was worn by women of all economic classes. The Industrial Age had began and mass production of clothing was becoming popular.
The word crinoline comes from the “French words crin (horsehair) and lin (linen)”, the original materials used to create the hoop. But it was the steel cage crinoline that became accessible to every woman.
The steel-hooped cage crinoline, first patented in April 1856 by R.C. Milliet in Paris, and by their agent in Britain a few months later, became extremely popular. Steel cage crinolines were mass-produced in huge quantity, with factories across the Western world producing tens of thousands in a year.
The crinoline was worn not only in Europe but in European colonies and former colonies including the United States as illustrated in films especially those set at or around the time of the American Civil War.
MACHINERY ACCIDENT THROUGH CRINOLINE.—An inquest was held on Monday, near Bolton, on the body of Ann Rollinson, a married woman, recently employed at Firwood bleach works. On Friday afternoon last she was engaged in the mangling room, and had occasion to go to a wall where, in a recess, soap is kept for the use of the workpeople, and about a foot from the wall a shaft between three and four inches in diameter, and two feet six inches from the floor, driven by steam power, revolves about fifty times per minute. Her dress was caught upon the shaft, and she was pulled to it, and revolved with the shaft two or three minutes before the machinery could be stopped. She was mortally injured in the spine. No limbs were broken. She died at home in two hours after the occurrence. A witness stated that her dress would not have been caught but for the crinoline pressing it out. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death,” adding a request that the shaft should be covered with a casing.
By the late 1860’s, the hoop skirt was no longer as large as what Anna wore in The King and I as the crinoline gave way to the crinolette and the bustle.
The bustle was created by gathering skirt fabric at the back to create a shape resembling a large derriere to balance, some say, the bulge of the breasts which were pushed upward with undergarments.
In a paper written by Anne Mastamet-Mason of the Department of Fashion Design and Technology, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa, it is claimed that the bustle was inspired by the body of a slave named Saartjie Baartman (also known as Sarah Baartman) who was brought to England from South Africa and displayed on freak shows because of her body type which, by English standards, was unusual because she had large breasts, a narrow waist, wide hips and large buttocks.
The bustle went out of fashion during the first decade of the 20th century.
When “petticoat” is mentioned these days, we think of a flounced underskirt worn to create volume and make the skirt swish and bounce as the wearer moves. Yes, like the one that Scarlett O’Hara wore under her dresses in “Gone With the Wind”.
Interestingly, before the 19th century, the petticoat was not an undergarment but an exterior garment that was intended to be displayed, as illustrated by the polonaise with its draped overskirt worn over a petticoat.
The “invisible petticoat” came into fashion in the 19th century. It was worn between the crinoline and the skirt. When the crinoline went out of fashion, the petticoat stayed. Flounced, ruffled and made with sheer fabric, petticoats were sometimes worn in layers.
Although women don’t wear crinolines and petticoats in their daily lives anymore, the hoop skirt, the crinoline and petticoat are still popular for formal wear especially in wedding dresses.