The hoop first entered fashion in about 1710, giving skirts a domed or birdcage-like appearance. Made of three or more hoops in cane, metal or whalebone, they were suspended from the waist by tapes. Hoops soon gained a wide fashionable appeal and ladies for the first time found their legs relatively unconstrained. However, the freedom of movement initially afforded was lost as the century progressed and hoops elongated to become flatter at the front and back. They reached such dramatic proportions in the 1740s and 1750s that women would often have to pass sideways through the door.
It is not surprising that hoop-wearing attracted both satirical commentary and ridicule. In 1741, a writer to the London Magazine reported, “I have been in a moderate large Room, where there have been but two Ladies, who had not enough space to move without lifting up their Petticoats higher than their Grandmothers would have thought decent.” Hoops certainly afforded the opportunity to glimpse ladies’ ankles and even their white-stockinged legs. Somewhat inevitably, these cumbersome, if not wildly impractical items caused accidents. As a letter-writer to the Guardian attested in 1713, “…I saw a young lady fall down, the other Day, and, believe me Sir, she very much resembled a Bell without a Clapper.”
Despite the common cry of hoops being “woman’s folly”, their manufacture was a male industry. Difficult and time consuming to produce, they were costly items to buy and attractive to thieves. Yet despite their huge circumference and robust construction, the concern remained that “many Ladies, who wore ‘hoops’ of the greatest Circumference were not of the most impregnable Virtue.” A softer, more practical alternative were panniers, termed “false hips” rather appropriately in England. Like a pair of bags in appearance, they were tied around the waist and perched on the hip. They equally attracted a fair amount of jibes, with the Mercure de France proclaiming that they were “an outrageous and inexplicable fashion”.
By the 1780s the fashion for hoops and panniers had begun to fall, to be replaced by the bustle or “rump”. However, for dress at Court, hoops did not make a final exit until 1820 when it was announced that “His Majesty is graciously pleased to dispense with Ladies wearing Hoops.” Within a century, fashion had come full circle, and society was ready to embrace the new, cleaner line of the neoclassical style.