A La Mode – Part Ten

Panniers or side hoops

It was the height of fashion, particularly in the 18th century, amongst women, especially those of noble birth, to wear enormous, highly decorated dresses. The bigger, more voluminous and decorative they were, the greater they enhanced the social status of the wearer, not least because the expanse of material required and the time and effort to make them made them heavy on the purse.

Decorative external fabrics are one thing but they need a firm structure over which to stretch and this was the job of an astonishing feat of engineering known as panniers or side hoops. Worn as undergarments, their purpose was to extend the width of the skirt whilst leaving the front and back relatively flat. This was achieved by having a large stuffed sack or bag which hung down from each hip so that they stood out from either side of the waistline. They resembled the wicker baskets slung over mules, from which they took their name, pannier being French for a basket. The undergarments were made from a variety of materials including whalebone, wood, metal or reeds.

The name may be French, but the fashion probably originated from Spain in the 17th century, if some of the portraits by Velazquez are anything to go by. It then spread to France, being popular in the latter years of Louis XIV’s reign and then to the rest of Europe. Panniers were adopted in England, it was thought, around 1710.

Panniers varied in size depending upon the size of dress they were supposed to support, the largest panniers being reserved by noblewomen for special occasions. But this strange form of undergarment descended the social scale, servants wearing more modest structures. For many they helped create the perfect female form, wide busts and hips with a thin waist.

There were some drawbacks to wearing a pannier.  Not only were they uncomfortable but they hampered mobility. Because the emphasis was on width – they could increase the width of a dress by several feet – it meant that two women wearing the things couldn’t get through a door at the same time or sit together on a couch. Some architectural modifications had to be made to accommodate the fashion, including the widening of doors and the development of curved balustrades.

For some men, the opportunity to pour scorn on this mode of dress was too great to let pass. A contributor to the Gentleman’s magazine, in March 1750, really went to town. “Every person we meet, every post we pass, and every corner we turn, incumber our way, and obstruct our progress. We fit in a chair hid up to our very ears on either side, like a swan with her head between her lifted wings. The whole side of a coach is hardly capacious enough for one of us. We go up a pair of stairs, as if we were pushing some great burden before us”.

On the face of it, Jack Lovelass launched a stout defence in his The hoop-petticoat vindicated, published in 1745, claiming that the fashion accessory was a boon to society, “finding Work for a great Number of Hands that would otherwise be unemployed.” I can’t , though, help thinking his tongue was firmly in his cheek.

The pannier had a good run for its money but the upset of the French Revolution and the move to crinolines and then bustles saw this rather bulky undergarment fall out of favour.


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