One of the oldest hoop skirts on record is the spanish verdugado, the root of the English Farthingale. The original farthingale was stiffened with hoops made Spanish verdugo reeds, and was first introduced in the late 1400’s. One of the first examples of the farthingale was worn by Joan of Portugal, a rebellious trendsetter in her time. She was known for wearing gowns that exposed the decollete, something that was considered quite scandalous at the time. As she already had two illegitimate children by the Queen’s steward, rumors quickly spread when she introduced the hooped skirt, suggesting that she started wearing them in order to disguise another pregnancy.
Early farthingales had the hoops visibly sewn into the skirt, rather than as a separate garment worn underneath. As the style trickled down to the middle and lower classes, the stiff hoops were replaced by thick cord or bands of fabric to create the fashionable silhouette without the restrictiveness of the reeds.
The farthingale was introduced in England in the early 1500’s by Catherine of Aragon, future wife of King Henry VIII, though at that time she was intended to marry his older brother, Arthur. While royal women in her position were often very influential in terms of fashion, the farthingale did not truly catch on until almost forty years after her arrival at court. It is at this time that we start to see evidence of stiffened hoop-skirts in royal portraits, creating the conical shape that became the hallmark of Tudor fashion.
Another style of farthingale appeared in France in the 1570’s. This one created an almost cylindrical shape to the skirt with a wide hoop at the waist as well as at ankle-height. It was predominantly a court garment, and later evolved in the 1590’s to a style that got rid of the lower skirt completely, jutting out from the waist with pleats and wire or whalebone like spokes on a wheel. Fittingly enough, this style is known as the “wheel farthingale”.
While farthingales remained fashionable until the 1620’s, they were not without their detractors. Many women complained at how uncomfortable they are, and James I was said to have hated farthingales so much that he tried to ban them on two separate occasions.
Farthingales fell out of favor at the end of the seventeenth century, to be replaced a couple of decades later by a style called panniers. Early panniers resembled a farthingale that had been squished into an oval shape, and were named for the style of basket that were hung from pack animals to carry goods. This came as a tremendous boon to basket makers and coopers, as panniers were constructed from interlaced sections of whalebone, osier, or metal that were tied together with cord and tape. Due to their specialized construction, the cost of these articles was very high and was mostly restricted to the upper classes. Most middle- and lower-class women made due with bum-rolls, a sort of oblong pillow that tied around the waist that had been used since the Elizabethan era to create a wider shape around the hips.
Panniers continued to expand sideways as the eighteenth century continued, eventually reaching such immense proportions that very wealthy women had to turn sideways in order to walk through a doorway because their skirts were over six feet wide. There were even pamphlets published declaring the wearers of such wide skirts as immoral and demanding to know what right they had, to take up the room of six people. Which, I believe, was entirely the point of such conspicuous consumption to begin with. If you were wealthy enough to wear such gigantic skirts that could barely fit through doors, it meant that you had the money to afford servants that you could send off to fetch whatever you needed. Not to mention the gowns themselves, for someone with as elaborate tastes as Queen Marie Antoinette, cost almost twenty times more than what a skilled worker made in a year. For each dress.
Of course the French Revolution spelled the end for panniers and large skirts as a whole. Skirts in the early 1800’s were narrow, draping delicately from just under the bust, and did not widen again until the 1820’s. For the next twenty years women relied on crinolines, cotton or linen underskirts stiffened with horsehair, to create volume under their dresses.
By the mid-1850’s, skirts had again reached such volumes that layered petticoats simply became too cumbersome to wear. Steel cage crinolines were patented in April of 1856, and soon were being produced in volumes of tens of thousands every year. They could be tied by tapes around the waist or sewn into the waistband of a petticoat as its own separate garment. Whalebone, cane, and even inflatable rubber versions were also introduced, but the steel hoops were by far the most common. At their largest, hoop-skirts of the late 1850’s and early 1860’s reached a circumference of almost 6 yards.
The hoop skirt offered the women a great deal more freedom than the petticoats did, as it stood away from the body, allowing them to walk and move freely. It did, however, come with some disadvantages. A woman had to be very careful when sitting down, otherwise she ran the risk of her skirt flipping up over her head. And while the hoop skirts could act as a kind of buffer between a woman and an unwanted suitor, it put equal distance between them and the gentlemen they actually wanted to court them. Also, despite the graceful swaying effect that the hoops caused when a woman walked, they often swayed enough that passers by could catch a glimpse of ankle. This was cause for such a scandal that the regular shoe style was replaced by ankle-covering boots. (After all, only loose women displayed their ankles.) Worst of all, as these giant hoop skirts were worn by women of all classes, there were many incidents of women’s skirts catching in machinery, or brushing a hearth or candle flame and catching alight.
It was suggested that women in domestic service forgo the fashionable hoops and save them for their leisure time. This was met with a great deal of displeasure from middle- and lower-class women, who saw the suggestion as not only an effort to control their mode of dress and further underline class differences, but an effort to limit their basic freedoms. In response to this, there were many women who refused to work for employers that would not allow them to wear crinolines.
Now it was plain to see that the sheer volume of skirts was getting more than a little excessive. Towards the late 1860’s, the size of the hoops began to decrease, shifting the volume towards the back of the dress. A modified version, known as the crinolette, appeared as the missing link between the hoop skirt and the bustle. The crinolette was a series of half-hoops that could be adjusted with a series of ties to increase or decrease the fullness. At the time, a full skirt of some kind was considered vital to enhance the smallness of one’s waist, so draped fabric about the back of the skirt became increasingly more complex, until they reached the tea-cart-style bustles that were common in the 1870’s. This style was supported by a smaller frame that rested on the bottom, known as a “lobster pot” for its resemblance to same.
Crinolines saw a revival in the 1950’s, in part due to Dior’s New Look campaign, which brought full skirts and petticoats back into fashion. Compared to the frilled petticoats that were also common at the time, a hoop skirt was often seen as a better alternative as they would not flatten over time, and would not require continuous pressing and starching. These hoops were designed to fall a couple inches above the skirt’s hemline, as having a visible slip or crinoline was seen as a major faux pas.
Today hoop skirts are seen as more of a novelty than anything else.They are used most frequently by brides looking to add a little more volume to their skirts, or by people involved in historical re-enactments.