For Christmas this year, the gift I most enjoyed giving was a year’s worth of old photographs that I collected while traveling across North and South Dakota, Illinois, Oregon, and Florida. I spent many pleasurable hours in antique malls and flea markets, looking for images with a story to tell that my friend, a historian who specializes in rural women’s history, would find interesting. As I was wrapping the gift, though, one of the photographs reminded me so strongly of Laura Ingalls Wilder that, in the end, I just couldn’t part with it.
The photograph is a stereoscopic view called “Waiting for a ’Bus,” but I think readers will instantly see what it was that reminded me of Wilder. It’s the crinoline1 —or hoop skirt—of course, as well as the polonaise coat and the muff. These details echo Wilder’s fashion interests of the 1870s and 1880s, which she shared with readers in Pioneer Girl, as well as in her novels. At first, I thought the stereograph was from that same time period, and this particular card may date from that era, but the image itself and the fashions it depicts are older—from the 1860s. Wilder’s young aunts and her mother might have worn such dresses to the sugaring-off party in Little House in the Big Woods, where Aunt Ruby’s and Aunt Docia’s “large, round skirts” sailed across the dance floor, and Ma’s skirt was “ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon” (pp. 141-42).
But this particular stereograph, I discovered as I started doing some research, has an even larger story to tell about the follies of fashion and the prices that women had to pay when they followed it too slavishly. If you look closely at this card, which is meant to be viewed in a stereoscope that would turn the side-by-side images into a three-dimensional view, you will note that the young woman is standing just beneath a handwritten sign that reads, “A Young Man Wanted.” And thereby hangs a tale. . . .
This view of the fashionable young woman drew its inspiration from a cartoon that appeared in Punch, or the London Charivari on December 3, 1864. The butt of the joke was definitely the woman, who unintentionally appeared to be advertising for a young fellow or putting herself on display to attract one. In 1866, photographer Michael Burr turned the cartoon into a stereograph of a fashionable woman caught in the same position and spread the joke further in an era in which stereoscopy was all the rage.2 I missed the joke completely, being enamored of the young woman’s ermine muff, matching bonnet, and prodigious hoop skirt.
All that attention to fashion was also part of the humor, it turns out, for hoop skirts, in particular, were the cause of much mirth and satire in the press. Consider these images from the same year as the original cartoon—on April 9, 1864, the Punch cartoonist showed us the difficulty that such fulsome crinolines could cause for women on a stroll in the country. On June 18, the theme resurfaced again with another cartoon that illustrated
how hoop skirts became a hazard on public transportation or city streets, and on July 9, the magazine published “A Man Trap,” which offered at least one ploy that would induce a man to duck into a hat shop. My favorite, however, came on October 1, 1864, with “The Safest Way of Taking a Lady Down to Dinner.” Here, the woman’s beau is forced to walk on the outside edge of the balustrade to accompany his crinolined dinner partner. In some ways, it is amazing that the fashion endured as long as it did with so much ridicule directed toward it. Even stranger, it just keeps coming back—the poodle skirts of the fifties held out by all those stiff mesh petticoats so that they would swirl around the dance floor seem to me to be just a shorter version of the same style. And have you thought about wedding dresses?
Nancy Tystad Koupal
1. I am using the word crinoline here to mean a stiffened petticoat or caged skirt that is also known as a hoop skirt, although the term originally meant a stiff fabric of horse hair and linen that women began to use for petticoats around the 1830s to widen and fill out their skirts. Wilder had the original meaning of the word in mind when she described her wedding dress in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography: “It was plain at the top, but gored so it was full at the bottom. It was lined through[ou]t with cambric dress lining and interlined with crinolin[e] from the bottom to as high as my knees” (p. 322). For a history of the term and the fashion, see “The Crinoline or Hoop Skirt,” Victoriana Magazine, victoriana.com, and “What’s All the Hoopla?” The Ultimate History Project, www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/crinoline.html.
2. Dennis Pellerin and Brian May, The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery: Stereoscopy versus Paintings in the Victorian Era (London: London Stereoscopic Company, 2014), p. 175.