Before I progress even one second into my blog I must issue a disclaimer: None of the people pictured in a hoopskirt? Is me.
And perhaps with slightly more cynicism, we think of bad ’80s prom dresses and nightmare bridesmaid’s gowns.
What we don’t think of hoopskirts are, are as fashion options that existed for legitimate non-costumey and/or celebratory yet dreaded occasional wear any time more recently than during the Civil War era.
Apparently, we were wrong.
It seems that in 1938, LIFE magazine ran an article discussing an emerging renaissance for the hoopskirt, complete with cage crinolines and stacks and stacks of petticoats. 1938, people. Hitler was busy seizing control of Germany and taking over the Sudetenland. Teflon was invented. Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1. And the first functional television system was patented.
With the modern era closing in and obvious signs of war looming in Europe, you would think this would have been a year that would welcome streamlined, even almost military design. This ought not to have been a year that welcomed the return to ladies wrapping their hips in a cage and yet? According to a four-page spread in LIFE, September 5, 1938, that’s precisely what was on the fashion horizon.
It was a little tricky to cut and paste the images because Google Books didn’t make things easy on me, but I persevered. Click on the images to make them bigger.
Here’s the detail of the smaller illustrations.
And here’s the text from this page. My comments will appear in parentheses.
Hoopskirts may start new Fashion Cycle.
LIFE PRESENTS A PRIMER OF STYLE NOTES WHICH CHARACTERIZE THE 1938-39 SEASON
When the monkeyshines of the Labor Day weekend are over, one of the five largest industries in the U.S. settles down to the serious business of selling fall wearing apparel. Torrid September weather may be driving frantic women to stores for more cool clothes, but they will find only shopworn leftovers. (Seriously, why don’t we write like this anymore?) Trade practice decrees that the first Tuesday after the first Monday in September marks the opening of the fall season (oh, how things have changed! They started selling fall clothes a month and a half ago. In June. I was sticky just looking at the wool). Women who recognize the advantage of shopping when size and color ranges are complete go out and buy.
This September they will find saleswomen swooning over romantic evening dresses (but what about the customers?). It seems the western fashion world is emerging from the second tubular cycle, i.e., mostly straight lines, into a bell-shaped cycle, i.e., like a bell (duh). Agnes Brooks Young has it all down with graphs and charts in a scholarly tome, Recurring Cycles of Fashion. The sketches on this page show the rise and fall of the last bell-shaped cycle. That took one hundred years. Note how the slim Empire lines of Empress Josephine spread into the bell-like skirts of Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie, then receded through bustles to the tubelike outline of the post-War (note the capital W-War; this was 1938, the world had only seen one World War and so, “The War” was all you needed to say) flapper.
This July buyers from all over the U.S., on their annual pilgrimage to New York showrooms, were amazed at the number of hoopskirts shown by Kallman & Morris, evening-dress specialists. Here were aristocratic hoops for the masses. Here was fashion repeating itself.
On the following pages is a brief survey of the new styles which women will find in apparel shops throughout the country this fall. Among them are tubular dresses, bell-shaped dresses, back-fullness (bustles) and front-fullness (front ruffles, flounces, front peplums) dresses. But that again is typical of the history of fashion. All cycles overlap each other. Each cycle has its distinguishing characteristics. For a primer of what makes the 1938-39 clothes new, see the following pages.
Detail of the illustrations:
And here’s the text:
HIPPY GIRLS WELCOME THE FORM-CONCEALING FLATTERY OF HOOPSKIRTS
When Empress Eugénie was the toast of Paris and Scarlett O’Hara was a Georgia belle (they did realize Scarlett is fictional, right?), hoopskirts were in fashion but only rich ladies wore them. Now when hoopskirts suddenly reappear on the 1938-39 fashion horizon, every girl in the U.S. can, if she will, indulge in a hoopskirt (because the illustrations made them look so very appealing). She may pay $18 or $300 for it. In either case she will be helping to prove the theory that fashions follow long-range cycles, even as hog prices and car loadings (ummmm….qua?), and that the second bell-shaped era is upon us.
American women, notoriously hippy, are expected to pounce upon the bell-shaped silhouette. (Let’s think about this for a moment: the word notorious, while not starting out with negative connotations, by 1938 had 300 years under its belt of being synonymous with “infamous” or “ill-famed”. So their hips are as gangsters are unto the world. Nice. P.S. Somebody needs to start a chick-rock band named Notoriously Hippy. Just saying, and you’re welcome.) The nipped-in waist, the wide-spreading skirt are perfect camouflage for excess pounds below the waist (because “notoriously hippy” girls all yearn for a little extra girth). Nettie Rosenstein, top-flight designer, obtains a modified bell outline by using stiff horsehair and taffeta petticoats under her wide skirts (the fashionable girl’s mortification will be complete with her very own hair shirt corset). Kallman & Morris does it with hoops.
Girls with hoops will get into predicaments (I like the use of this word here; it’s all euphemism-y. Makes them sound like they’re going to become unwed mothers). Some of them, sketched on the page opposite, happened to the models posing for LIFE’s hoopskirt photographs at the Waldorf-Astoria (it’s owned by Hilton now…damn you, Conrad Hilton!). Practical manufacturers foresaw the difficulties, solved them by sewing hoops onto detachable petticoats (perhaps the detachable petticoats can be factored into car loadings, since that’s a lot of extra fabric to haul around?). The new evening dresses are so cut that although girls may be driven to parking their hoops, they will still look demurely romantic.
At least it ends well. Even if you’re notoriously hippy.
And if you’re sitting there smug in your post-modern comfort: a T-shirt and yoga pants, a light summer dress, just remember…Alexander McQueen showed several hoopskirts at their Paris Fashion Week Spring 2013 show.
Thankfully, this is a look me and my hips can, according to the fashionistas, pull off. Boo yah and fiddle dee dee, y’all!
Bonus point if you can identify which actor plays the Tarleton boy on the right side of the screen.