A social history of outrageous fashion
Should we ladies or gents ever be transported back in time how thrilling it would be to wear the clothes of the time, except it would take an age just learning how to wear them. Until the early twentieth century a man's shirt was no more than an undergarment and so no self-respecting fellow would ever have appeared in his shirtsleeves, particularly in front of a lady. So used to freedom of movement, we would undoubtedly stumble over the hems of our skirts, struggle to breathe in a corset and fail to master all the languages of the fan. Being a woman in the past was a full-time occupation. We had to learn from childhood how to move in a long skirt: get used to taking little steps and only stride out perhaps when privately taking the air.
We had to remember to slew ourselves sideways through a door in our crinolines and walk slightly in front of or behind a companion as it was impossible in such a monstrosity to get too close to anyone. Plus we had to remember to manoeuvre our bustles in such a way as to enable us to be able to sit down without there being a catastrophe. To lift a skirt was an art, only really needing to be practised when mounting stairs if a girl had correctly learned the art at her mother's knee. She also learned how to gently let her foot push her skirt forward in front of her at the end of every step, thus never becoming entangled in fabric, but also remembering never to let her whole foot show.
Turning was done with a single clean movement. In the case of farthingales, eighteenth-century hoops and later crinolines a lady's hands were always clasped in front of her or allowed to rest on the swell of the skirt, enabling her to control it. A woman's movement in such garments was always smooth as the slightest unguarded hip movement could set the whole inflated ensemble swinging in all directions! The woman of yesterday was, just as today, a product of her clothes. During many periods, women had to appear carefree while in the vice-like grip of a corset plus walk smoothly from the knee, as the swaying of hips was considered indecent. In short, a girl had to glide with the effortless grace of a ghost… With modern day knee-length skirts we have become accustomed to crossing our legs. This along with other modern habits are a world away from women sitting with their knees apart in order to create a 'broad lap', which when sitting would have given our clothes the recommended drape and the sitter poise.
Crossing our arms correctly had to be learned. Rarely done when wearing a corset or hooped skirt, it was instead recommended to hold your arms out from your body, elbows bent helping to create an open space on either side of your torso thus drawing attention to your fashionably tiny waist. Arms were allowed to be crossed in the Regency era but only beneath the level of our 'short stays' so as not to spoil the line of our classically inspired gowns and long, willowy figures. This was to be the first time we women were not considered indecent in displaying our bare arms in public, even if it was usually only in the evenings. What has remained unchanged is the fact that men and women whoever they were and whenever they lived have always communicated by the clothes they wear.