Sunday, January 4, 2009

A New Year's Tribute to Fat Clothes

Happy New Year to all my fellow history geeks! It’s now time to write those resolutions down and by far the most common New Year's resolution is to drop a few pounds. Every year, between January 1st and January 15th, hoards of people find new religion at their local gym. But sometime by February…poof! I can use the treadmill in peace again. Maybe it’s the extra calories giving us an energy boost. For me, the first week of January is not a time to head to the gym, but a time to reach for the baggy clothes. Wait…here comes the history part….

Thus this first post of 2009 is dedicated to my favorite royal fat clothes throughout history.

The Houppelande
I have always loved this painting by Jan Van Eyck (above) recording the happy couple’s wedding with a new baby on the way. If the Dutch had hallmark cards, this image would have fit perfectly. Unfortunately, the painting is not a wedding portrait and it is doubtful that the wife is pregnant. The woman in the picture is just sporting the hottest 15th century fashion called the houppelande. The houppelande was worn by both men and women to emphasize a rounded stomach. It created this "bun in the oven" look by padding and layers of cloth. The beauty ideal of the time was a sloping S–shape with rounded shoulders. Just imagine medieval moms telling their kids to slouch a little more instead of standing up straight.

Steal the look:

You don’t have to be pregnant to look like a 16th century fertility goddess. Remember the MuMu? (spelling?). Slouch optional.

The Pregnant Man look
Seeing a man’s stomach fat bulging over his belt is right up there with butt cracks and wife beater t-shirts, but in the 16th century a little paunch was oh-so sexy. Shown here is Elizabethan heart-throb Robert Dudley proudly posing with his protruding gut. Unfortunately, I doubt Dudley had this much to offer. He is just wearing a 16th century peascod. The peascod used padding and horse hair to mimic a curved peapod-shaped belly bulge. your hearts out.

Steal the look:
This one is not tough. Just grab a pair of pants that are one size two small, lift the excess fat over the belt and enjoy! No picture needed. Just google "muffin top." Tight hose optional.

Henry VIII – king of fat clothes
How fat was Henry VIII? You will have to read The Raucous Royals to find out, but I will give this hint: the clothes were not helping. Henry started a whole fashion craze for padded clothing with monstrously big shoulders.

Steal the look:

Dig into your closet and find that 80’s power suit. If you want an extra boost then you can even add the Velcro shoulder pads. (come on…you know you have them!) Brooding look optional.

Do these Pumpkin Breeches make my butt look fat?
You have to love fashion statements named after vegetables. The pumpkin breeches gave 16th century men some junk in their trunk and also hid the family jewels. The purpose of these man-skirts was to make the wearer's legs look lean in comparison to their big hips. In the 16th century, a man's legs were the most sexual body part of their body and they were not afraid to wear puffy skirts to show them off.

Steal the look:
Dig really deep deep into that closet and pull out your parachute pants and voila… it’s hammer time! Dance skills unnecessary.

The Bell of the Ball
You might think it odd that I have included the crinoline hoop in my list of fat clothes. The whole purpose of the bell-shape was to create an illusion of a smaller waste. It served its purpose so well that crinolines caused the demise of stays and corsets. But like all good fashions, this one only worked on some people. Queen Victoria refused to wear one calling them, 'indelicate, expensive, dangerous and hideous.'1

The always sensible queen had a point. Indelicate. Yes. When the wearer sat down she risked her skirts flying back up in her face exposing her underpants. Women couldn't even sit in their carriages and instead had to kneel on the floor on the way to the ball. Expensive. Certainly. The average crinoline cost 6s 6d in 1861 and required an obscene amount of fabric. Dangerous. Definitely. Several women caught on fire when their puffy skirts came too near the fire. And forget using the fire escape. Woman wearing crinolines could barely fit through a door. The average room could only hold 2-3 crinoline-clad ladies. The hems of some crinolines even reached four yards around the bottom. Hideous. Sometimes. They made short and stout woman look like a merry-go-round ride.

But like all good fat clothes, crinolines did serve one purpose - the steel structure and layers of fabric were really warm in the winter months.2

Steal the look:
Cut a hole in the top of the largest bird cage that you can find. Attach to waste with string. Put on any large skirt. Then put on 10-20 more skirts until desired puffiness is achieved.

These are just a few examples of unflattering fashions throughout history. What's your favorite fashion slip? Did your suits ever have shoulder pads? Did you ever wear neon? How about leg warmers? I will confess that my prom dress had puffy sleeves bigger than my head.

This month the Raucous Royals newsletter will be featuring the most scandalous hats throughout history. Sign up here to receive the newsletter. Happy New Year!

(1) p. 173, Picard.
(2) The first crinolines were made from horse hair and not metal. The word crin comes from the French word meaning "horsehair."

Sources and Recommended Reading
Picard, Liza. Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870. London, UK: St. Martin's Press, 2007.
Pendergast, Sara and Tom. Fashion, Costume and Culture, Clothing, Headgear, Body Decorations, and Footwear through the ages, Detroit, MI : UXL, c2004.
Harold . Extreme beauty : the body transformed, New York, NY : Metropolitan Museum of Art, c2001.
Laver, James, Costume and fashion : a concise history, New York, NY : Oxford University Press, 1983.


Sara said...

THe houppelande may be one of the reasons why we don't have "middle ages faires". We'd all look like we were on our way to our childbirth classes...I look forward to reading about scandalous hats- I love hats!

Lucy said...

You are so funny!! And- did you have to remind me of those shoulder pads and leg warmers? Don't forget the big hair.

Catherine Delors said...

Well, after the holidays, these fat clothes may, sadly, come in handy...

I gave you an award, Carlyn!

Bearded Lady said...

Sara - haha so true, Even fairies should be inflicted with unflattering fashions.

Lucy - I kind of wish leg warmers would come back. They were so comfy!

Catherine - awwwwww (big blush) thanks!

Carmi Cimicata said...

I am loving your illustrations and blog! Thank you for visiting me again and leaving a comment.

Anonymous said...

I can never get over how great your blog is. I've given it an award:

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