Earlier blog entry: Extreme Style: A Survey of Women’s Fashion, pt. 1 (August 3, 2014)
Swimming suit 1885 - source: Etching and Engraving Picture File
19th century swimwear and tennis wear: When women first began to swim, beaches were strictly segregated between men and women. Even so, modesty was the goal with style not much of a consideration. The first swimsuits were far from practical or comfortable; ladies went as far as to sew lead weights into the hem of the "bathing gown" to prevent the dress from floating up and exposing their (stocking covered) legs. Bathing costumes were made of a heavy wool flannel that absorbed pounds of water. When women began playing tennis in the late 1800s, they basically just wore their everyday clothing. Some of the more aggressive players raised their hemlines a few inches for better mobility.
A Perfect Health Corset Superior to all Others - source: Etching and Engraving Picture File
Corsets: Corsets were in style for centuries. The shapes changed in order to modify the body to conform to whatever idealized figure was in style. The materials changed from iron to steel to whalebone. They were worn by all economic classes and all ages. There were even special styles designed to be worn while sleeping. In the Victorian era girls as young as one year old were put in corsets. They were said to improve a girl’s posture and health, although there is no word on why a boy’s health did not require the same garment.
Panniers: 17th-18th c. The French word pannier translates as basket, and the understructures to support this style were originally made of woven wicker baskets tied to the waist. Doors were reconfigured and armless chairs were designed in response to the fashion.
Cage Crinolines or Hoop Skirts: When metal cage crinolines were patented in 1856 they were an immediate hit. Women were overjoyed with this invention because it meant they could eliminate the six heavy petticoats they had been wearing to achieve the ultra-full skirted look then in style. After the cage was adopted, skirts became even fuller, often using 20 yards of fabric. At the height of their popularity enough steel was produced in Sheffield, England to make half a million hoops in one week. The crinoline knew no class differences and was adopted simultaneously by all, with only the quality of the crinoline material changing. The inflatable rubber crinoline, an attempt to reduce the weight of steel hoops, was a short-lived fad that never really caught on.
Bustles: In the mid to late 19th century the circular hoop skirt shifted until all of the fullness was in the back. This major change in silhouette in such a short time is attributed to the influence of Charles Frederick Worth, the world’s first
Couturier. Professional fashion designers are so central to our understanding of style that it is hard to believe that they’ve only been dominant for a short time. Worth revolutionized the business of dressmaking. He opened The House of Worth in Paris in 1871, and began the custom of presenting seasonal collections of his own designs. He was also the first to put labels into the clothing he manufactured. As other couturiers appeared the desire for new styles became a demand for new styles.
Hobble skirts: During the first decade of the 1900s, just as women began demanding more freedom and equal rights, one of the most restrictive fashions of the twentieth century came into style. This was the hobble skirt, a slim, ankle-length skirt that grew narrower from the hips to the hem. Popular between 1905 and 1910, the hobble skirt was so tight at the ankles that the woman wearing it could only walk in very short steps. Horses are hobbled by tying their front legs together with a short rope to keep them from running away. The hobble skirt was named after this. Women who wore the skirt often wore a special contraption underneath it. The hobble garter was a band made of two loops of fabric attached to each leg just below the knee. The bands were connected by a short strip of cloth preventing the wearer from accidentally taking a normal stride and ripping the fashionable skirt.
Chopines: Developed in the early sixteenth century in Venice, the high-platformed shoe called the chopine had both a practical and symbolic function. It was designed to protect the foot from irregularly paved and wet or muddy streets, but the enhancement of stature also played a role. The wearer literally wanted to stand out in a crowd. The chopine's height introduced an awkwardness and instability in a woman that required her to rely on an attendant to help her walk. While most examples are between three and five inches tall, more extreme versions rose to over 18 inches.
Platform Shoes: 20th and 21st century descendants of the Chopine became fashionable in the 1940’s, 1970’s and the first decade of the 21st century. The silhouettes from each era are remarkably similar.
Xray foot in stiletto - source: Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed by Harold Koda
Stilettos & High Heels: 16th – 21st centuries at various times. High heels were first worn by men in the 16th century to help secure the foot in a stirrup for horseback riding. Women soon adopted them and high heels have cycled in and out of fashion ever since.
How do we strive to stay stylish today? Will anything we wear be considered extreme in 100 years? Compared to the historical fashions pictured here our clothing seems so practical and simple. But maybe there are a few styles that could be questionable in a century or two? A short and highly opinionated list might include some of these.
Washed, distressed and pre-ripped pants. Tattoos. Bikinis too small to swim in. Modifying the body through implants. Logo T-shirts advertising the store that sold you the T-shirt. The idealized bodies of the past, shaped by corsets, padded shoulders, or extreme bustles do look odd. Will future generations question our ideal figure represented by fashion models who are taller than 99% of American women, with an average body mass index officially in the anorexic range?
As new fashions are continually designed our perceptions of beauty will continually adapt. Our pursuit of the next beautiful extreme is the one thing that remains constant.