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      Connected | March 29, 2024

      Object Spotlight: The Belle o’ the Ball Hoop

      Margot Rashba

      Written by

      Margot Rashba


      ABOVE IMAGE: Mannequins show off hoop skirt fashions from throughout the 19th century. John Burbidge commissioned a Woburn-based company to create these custom fiberglass mannequins, which he hand-painted and dressed. The mannequins are now part of PEM’s collection.

      The Belle o’ the Ball Hoop crinoline demonstrates how fashion and design can be practical, trendy and transformative.

      Designed by Mary Tom Clayton and worn and owned by Cile Bellefleur-Burbidge, the crinoline is now on view In PEM’s Fashion and Design gallery and is part of PEM’s collection of garments and accessories donated by Bellefleur-Burbidge's husband John Burbidge. Burbidge was a prolific fashion designer for Priscilla of Boston in 1948, known for his use of bustles, puffed sleeves and “star” bodices. Bellefleur-Burbidge was a designer in her own right, eventually channeling her creative energies towards cake decorating. (One of her creations previously appeared in the 2008 PEM exhibition Wedded Bliss, The Marriage of Art and Ceremony.) It's fitting that two designers came together to donate an object that gives us so many important insights into American fashion history.

      Originally developed in the 1840s, a crinoline is a hooped cage worn under petticoats in order to stiffen or extend a skirt. Usually worn with corsets, crinolines accented a tiny waist, a silhouette that remained a common beauty ideal throughout the 19th century. At first made of horsehair, then cotton, by the 1850s, crinolines were made of wire or metal bands, formed into a series of circles and attached with fabric tape. With the introduction of the sewing machine and midcentury manufacturing advances, the crinoline became the first fashionable garment to be introduced on an industrial scale and adopted by women across social classes.

      Yet the crinoline did not stay fashionable for long. While wide skirts were all the rage in the 1850s and early 1860s, the 1870s saw the fullness transferred to the back, where it was caught up in a bustle. Trains were added to the mix, with decorative elements like ribbons, draperies, pleated bands and fringe.

      The death of the crinoline seemed complete. However, almost a century later, Christian Dior’s 1947 Carolle collection, infamously known as the “New Look,” presented full silhouettes supported by stiff underskirts — a counter to the austerity of postwar Europe and a hearkening back to the full skirts of the 19th century. The understructure of a New Look outfit consisted of several petticoats that were starched and stiffened with plastic hoops. Associated with rock ‘n roll culture, petticoats also preserved the wearer's modesty in the lively partner dances of the time. Dior’s New Look's exaggerated the waist and hips, accentuating a particular vision of femininity that drew from the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

      Object Spotlight: The Belle o' the Ball Hoop
      Photos by Petra Slinkard/PEM.

      This New Look that revived an old silhouette presented the perfect moment for Mary Tom Clayton to invent her crinoline design. Clayton’s crinoline is made of plastic, a material whose flexibility provided a more light and buoyant quality than 19th-century designs made of metal and cloth. Adjustable pieces allowed the wearer to modify the crinoline, making this silhouette-transforming garment more accessible and accommodating. The Belle o' the Ball was even packable: The crinoline folds into a tiny eight-inch hat box that contains a secret compartment for accessories.

      In Clayton's 1948 patent, she notes that “conventional hoop skirts are heavy, which factor is accentuated in the case of elaborate costumes as are often used on the stage and screen.” These rigid hoops make for difficulty in sitting down or walking through doorways. In contrast, Clayton’s crinoline “allowed women to wear the large...skirt styles of the time with the convenience of being able to compress the frame into just eight inches when not in use – perfect for travel.” Featured in Life Magazine in 1952, the Belle o’ the Ball was said to “give dresses and trains full sweep,” offering wearers the full shape of fashionable formalwear without the hassle of starchy petticoats.

      A group of women wearing hoops

      Even the Belle o’ the Ball's revival would hardly be the last iteration of this silhouette. In 1987, designer Vivienne Westwood presented a shortened version of the Victorian crinoline. Turning the restricting aspect of the shape on its head, Westwood’s miniskirt version was about liberation rather than limitation. Westwood combined a historically restrictive silhouette with the miniskirt, a symbol of women’s empowerment, to create a whole new meaning for the garment in her 1985 mini-crini collection.

      The continued iterations of this shape illuminate the potential of historic silhouettes to be reinterpreted anew. Whether it's a 19th-century feminine ideal or a post-war New Look, fashion's transformative power is intimately connected to individual experience in a particular time and place. What can fashion tell us about what people were thinking about themselves and others ? How can fashion alter the body in ways that look forward and backward?

      Visit PEM’s Fashion and Design Gallery to see for yourself.

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