The "Grecian Bend": The Most Preposterous Ladies' Fashion Trend of the 1860s

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
April 3 2013 2:00 PM

The "Grecian Bend": The Most Preposterous Ladies' Fashion Trend of the 1860s

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In the 1860s, it was fashionable for American women to wear their skirts gathered at the back into panniers, with a bustle serving as the base upon which all of that fabric could be pinned. The style required the woman to lean forward in an exaggerated way, in order to compensate for all of that weight at her back. This lean, exacerbated by corsets and high-heeled shoes, came to be called the “Grecian Bend,” named after the way that women in some Greek sculptures hunched their shoulders in implied modesty at their nudity.

The Bend became an object of social analysis—and ridicule. Men writing for major newspapers, affecting bewilderment at this new feminine vanity, described their struggles to get their daughters to stand up straight. Writing for the New York Times in 1868, under her pen name Howard Glyndon, poet and essayist Laura Redden Searing thought that critics should take the trend seriously, as otherwise intelligent young women tortured by fashionable clothes were diverting all their energy to endurance:

If you knew the Spartan courage which is required to go through an ordeal of this sort for two or three hours at a time, you would not wonder that she has not an idea left in her head after her daily display is over.
Advertisement

The Grecian Bend inspired songwriters, who turned out Bend-themed vocal and instrumental music, and popular artists, who used the Bend’s distinctive silhouette in caricatures and cartoons. The 1868 Currier and Ives lithograph below is one such lampoon of the style.

The booklet whose cover appears to the right of the lithograph was an entire pamphlet dedicated to making fun of the Bend. Its illustrations compared the bending woman to a cat, and showed her evolution into a camel. Published a few years after Darwin’s Origin of Species (1855), this humorous sketch was part of the first wave of parodies of the famous figural representation of humanity’s evolution from primate ancestors.

Thanks to the New-York Historical Society’s archivist Susan Kriete, whose post on the N-YHS blog about historical fashion and mockery brought the Grecian Bend to my attention.

Grecian Bend 1

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. L: Subject File, PR 068. R: N-YHS General Collections.

GrecianBend3Final

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. N-YHS General Collections.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

An Iranian Woman Was Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist. Can Activists Save Her?

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

We Need to Talk: A Terrible Name for a Good Women’s Sports Show

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The U.S. Has a New Problem in Syria: The Moderate Rebels Feel Like We’ve Betrayed Them

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now, at Least.

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 1:04 PM An Architectural Crusade Against the Tyranny of Straight Lines
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 2:08 PM We Need to Talk: Terrible Name, Good Show
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Oct. 1 2014 1:53 PM Slate Superfest East How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 2:24 PM The New Interstellar Trailer Is the Most Exciting Yet
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 2:26 PM The Apple Graveyard Leave a flower for a dead Apple product.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 2:36 PM Climate Science Is Settled Enough The Wall Street Journal’s fresh face of climate inaction.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.