History from below: fashion, freedom, and the female form

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Attempts to shape the female form are nothing new, as current exhibitions at the V&A and York Castle Museum show. Neither is the particular concern with the posterior, demonstrated today by an increased demand for buttock implants. Such permanent “improvements” are beyond the financial reach of most people. The less wealthy (or less confident that the fashion will be a lasting one) can employ rear-enhancing items of clothing such as the Booty Pop to supplement their behinds. Modern fashion and lifestyle magazines give ample guidance to those who want a large behind with a small price tag. But what did women in the past do, and what might paying attention to these fashions suggest about our modern obsessions?

The Bum Roll

The premium option: For English ladies in the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-centuries, the ‘French Farthingale’ was the item of choice for providing a full skirt. Made up of a series of identical wooden or wicker hoops sewn into an underskirt, which was tied around the waste, it created a cylindrical outline in the skirt (see image, left). However, such intricate structures were costly, and unavailable to all but the wealthiest.

Fashion fix: Those of lesser (although still substantial) means employed the “bum roll”, or a sausage of padded cloth tied around the waste to force the skirt outwards. This cheaper approach may have gone some way to achieving the desired effect, but it didn’t fool anyone. In Ben Jonson’s Poetaster (1601), Chloe notes that she ‘debased myself, from my hood and my farthingale to those bum-rolls’, having married below her station. [1] Clear for all to see, an appropriately shaped skirt was an indicator of status as well as a means of enhancing the female form.

The Bustle

Bustle_c._1885The premium option: Perhaps marginally more practical than the “bum roll”, bustles were popular in Britain throughout the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. The form of these enhancements varied from wire cages and whalebone to frills of cotton or concealed horsehair. Their size changed across the period, with very large bustles becoming particularly popular in the 1880s before their use petered out towards the end of the century.

Fashion fix: Once again, the construction of such contraptions required immense skill and often expensive materials. Some ladies did make their own bustles at home, often in plainer fabrics than those made professionally. Homemade bustles still required significant investment, however, and some poorer Victorian ladies substituted purpose-built garments with rolled-up dishcloths.

Girdles and waist-cinchers: body-shaping for the mass market


The first half of the twentieth century witnessed the iconic curveless “cigarette-girl” figure of the 1920s., However, by the 1950s the shapely feminine form was back with a vengeance, as were the means to achieve it. With the emphasis more on narrowing the waist than enlarging the behind, girdles (skirt-like contraptions to flatten the abdomen underneath a dress or pencil-skirt) and waist-cinchers (corset-shaped garments to narrow the waist, creating an “hourglass” shape) were widely worn under outer garments. These took advantage of some elasticated and more modern fabrics such as nylon and later lycra to make them more comfortable than their nineteenth-century predecessors, although they could still be extremely restrictive. Crucially, however, the greater availability of materials and mass-production methods made these garments more widely affordable, and the home-made fix less common.

The way we dress is perhaps the most obvious way of communicating our identity. Yet our choice of clothing is far more complex than this, and continues to be shaped by other factors such as wealth, occupation, and cultural pressure. Although these three short examples suggest substantial changes in fashion and concerns about comfort and practicality, the Booty Pops and (much more dangerously) waist-trainers of today bear some strong similarities to the undergarments of the past. The history of fashion from the 1960s onwards, complete with bra-burning, flares, long-hair, punk style, and the onesie, can look like a victory for freedom of choice over how comfortable our clothes are and what they express. Attention to how we have fought against the natural shape of our bodies, both past and present, highlights that this victory is far from clear.



[1] Quoted in Robert I. Lublin, Costuming the Shakespearean Stage: Visual Codes of Representation in Early Modern Theatre and Culture, Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, p. 66.


Further information:

BBC Woman’s Hour, 25 March 2016 – Discussion of ‘Shaping the Body’ – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07414n2.

Yvette Mahe, ‘History of women’s hooped petticoats’, 3 September 2013 –


Aileen Ribeiro and Valerie Cumming, The visual history of costume (London and Hong Kong: Batsford, 1989).

Victoria and Albert Museum, Undressed: A brief history of underwear (2016) – https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear.

York Castle Museum, Shaping the body (2016) – http://www.yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk/exhibition/shaping-the-body/.



French Farthingales – By Unknown – Scanned from Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion’., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1972329

Bustle, c. 1885 – By Unknown – LACMA Image Library. Photograph LACMA., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14933298.

Illustrated 1958 Magazine Feature, ‘How to Tell Whether You’re Wearing the Wrong Girdle & Bra’ – Licensed under Creative Commons, via Flickr – https://flic.kr/p/wzEmhc.

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