Tag Archives: France

Oh My, Don’t Your Hips Look…Wide

24 Sep

People wear a lot of strange things for fashion. While I’d like to think looking really weird for “fashion” is merely a construct of 20th and 21st century haute fashion, that of course couldn’t be further from the truth. While some weird things were caused merely by a shortage of technology (or maybe forethought?), like how shoes up until recently were the same for both feet (there was no “left” and “right”, just “shoe 1” and “shoe 1 again for shoe 2”), some things are just designed to look a little different.

I am thinking particularly about panniers, which is like a mini hoop skirt apparatus designed just to make your hips stick out. The front and back stay flat, which supposedly is to show off the swanky fabric of your dress. Panniers were popular in the 18th century. Once they become popular in the Georgian era and in the years leading up to the French Revolution, rich and fashionable women competed to see who could have the biggest panniers.

Eventually they got rather out of hand, and the panniers were so big that women couldn’t fit through doors. In some places, doors had to be widened to allow these fashionable ladies through. To solve the problem, some creative designers gave the panniers hinges, which allowed the panniers to be temporarily lifted in case fashionable ladies were in places without fashionably wide doors. The most extreme panniers (common enough in French court dress a la Marie Antoinette) were several feet long- on either side! Can you image being seven feet wide???

Marie Antoinette in court dress, 1779.
No wonder people thought she was crazy.


There is a scholarly article floating around out there that argues panniers empowered women of this period because it made them such a large and imposing sight standing next to men. I don’t know how much I buy this, but mostly because of the lack of evidence of late 18th-century famous empowered women…who wore giant hip bustles. I could be missing something though.

One final note: the word “pannier” comes from “panier”, which are the baskets/carrying bags that go on either side of a pack animal. How is it that looking like a taffeta pack animal was cool? Some fashionable panniers even had hidden compartments for ladies to store things they didn’t want to carry around. So…they kind of were like pack animals. Very fashionable pack animals.