G.E. sends me a Daumier print of a Parisian woman with a huge bell shaped skirt catching the falling snow.
G.E. asks if this fashion really was worn. Why this silhouette? What does the hourglass figure symbolize? What made the skirt grow so big? What was happening at the date of this Daumier print in the world of Parisian women (1860s)?
This is the era of 1850-1870 of the Second Republic in France, after the Bourbon Royal Louis Phillipe abdicated in 1848. “Les Misérables,” Victor Hugo’s novel, takes place during the very beginning of the July Monarchy (1830-1848).
In 1848, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president by a vote taken by men. All men, property owners or not, were allowed to vote. Subsequently, the Second Empire was established by plebiscite on Dec. 2, 1852, when the Prince-President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte officially became Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.
As president, he was a conservative Catholic, whose policies belied his stated campaign belief in the values of the revolution (1790s). He wanted stability, tradition and nationalism in his reign. In the light of this, French Republicans wanted government help with employment, bread and rights.
In the nation that established The Rights of Man (1789), women, especially, had few civil rights. Under the Napoleonic code (1804), women were forbidden from entering into legal contracts. Wives couldn’t engage in commerce without a husband’s written permission, and all property in a marriage was the husband’s.
By 1860, French women were actively protesting to achieve the vote.
In the light of discord, Napoleon III championed growing French industry and capitalism, and he championed the remaking of Paris (under Baron Hausman, architect of “Modern” Paris 1854-1870). Napoleon actively supported the Algerian War between French colonists and Muslim Algerians.
Women in France were questioning the purposes and nature of marriage and their own rights in the light of the conservative regime, and many historians point to the crinoline cage hoop skirt as the outward symbol of a real cage.
This cage was invented in 1856 by Frenchman R.C. Milliet as a series of steel bands strung together with tapes and wires, a lightweight “volumizing” hoop skirt.
Previous fashion had emphasized this unique hourglass silhouette. The ideal female body (1840-1860) was a slim torso, dropped shoulders, small waist and large hips. The crinoline enabled a corseted waist to look even smaller because of the dome shape.
Technology enabled the fashionable woman space, air, and movement. She did not have to wear numerous heavy petticoats, but one cage of five to eight hoops. And these cages could be 6-8 feet wide.
Fashionable women could “take up” 8 feet of floor or street space. They asked for two seats on a bus, and they expected men’s help downstairs or up into carriages. Some historians of fashion say this was proof of servitude to men and fashion.
Today we view the elaborate gown, the hoop skirt, and think those skirts limited the female. But they empowered the female. Taking up physical space is important in a world where you do not take up political space.
In 1860, male commentators on this fashion wrote that a woman could conceal a pregnancy or hide a man under those hoops. These comments, meant to be defensive, show that the hoop skirt could be threatened by its very size.
Also, fashion historians point out the sexual nature of the 1860s “crinoline debate.’ Men wrote, “What are you hiding, my lady? And within your own bell-shaped space, what would I see?”
The threat of the female with a large physical presence led to the rise of what is called the New Domesticity. That was the mid-19th-century education of young girls as wives and mothers, marriage through matchmaking and not passion or romance, and the archetype of the good wife vs. the middle class adulteress. Divorce was not allowed until 1870, and by 1870 a new French word is born: ‘“feminisme.”
That is a powerful container for symbolism.
Men’s fashion of the same era became black, plain, and severe — the bland businessman of the 1840-1870s. Middle- and upper-class men became solemn, and women became elaborate and “large.”
Vilification of what a woman wears, and who she is when she dons a costume (Hillary’s pantsuits) is as common today as it was then. I find it so fascinating that a woman might have chosen to wear voluminous crinoline as an art form, to create an illusion, to underscore what she is, where she is. How she envisioned who she is, was, perhaps, powerful, because the illusion was also a reality.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Saturdays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.