Once a symbol of status, wealth, and taste, exaggerated, accentuated hips are stealing the scene once more
As Helen Robertson of Ladykirk maneuvered the three-meter-wide silk mantua dress through the grand halls, she knew all eyes would be on her extravagant sa on yellow choice. The year was 1760 and the newly married Robertson was announcing her arrival with a set of panniers – the undergarment used to create wide hips – the likes of which Holyrood Palace in Scotland had not yet seen. She might not have been able to walk straight through a doorway, or even sit down, but she certainly did not go unnoticed.
Panniers – also known as false hips – helped create the fashionable silhouette of the time. They were typically made of hoops of wood or whalebone that were covered in fabric, and were worn under a woman’s dress to make it flare out at the sides. Panniers were popular during a time when women’s fashion emphasized a wide, hourglass shape with a narrow waist and broad hips. By adding volume at the sides, they helped to create this desired silhouette. Unlike hooped skirts, which kept bystanders at a distance, panniers only widened out at the side, keeping the front and back of the dress flat. At a time when women were only allowed to be seen, not heard, an ever-expanding set of panniers helped them stake their space. Is it any wonder, then, that the silhouette has returned in the 21st century, an era so far fraught with attacks on women’s rights from all sides and in all regions?
Once again, women want to take up the physical space they are so often denied in the halls of power. Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen played with the shape in her SS13 ready-to-wear, revisiting it for FW23 in a showstopping red number worn by actor Jodie Comer to the Olivier awards last month. Maria Grazia Chiuri continued the conversa on with her SS23 collection for Dior, showing wide false hips that echoed historical shapes. “The idea was to play with this reference and how much fashion and power are in dialogue,” the creative director said. Black lace skirts with wide hips were contrasted with bra tops, while mini versions were accessorized with tough-girl fishnet socks and gloves. A white lace version recalled Victorian underwear, while muted golds and yellows harkened back to royalty.
Italian house Del Core pushed the boat out with a version in golden sequins, while also creating an illusion of false hips in green silk. Giambattista Valli, too, showed exaggerated hips on its SS23 couture runway, with exorbitant folds of sugary pastel silks creating the shape. JW Anderson at Loewe created more structural, stark shapes; his monotone midi pannier dresses strikingly paired with only statement shoes. For his FW23 ready-to-wear, Thom Browne went the opposite direction, accenting hips with folds and bows of fabric, juxtaposed with sharp, square shoulders. Roksanda created even more fanciful hips, twisting and shaping dresses into sculptural forms.
Jeremy Scott answered this clarion call with his Moschino FW20 ready-to-wear collection, comprising modern interpretations of OTT panniers in leather, denim, and trench coat shapes. In typical fashion, Scott clashed an outrageous 1760 style with the outrage of the 1960s – the mini skirt – to create a dialogue between the pre-French Revolution troubles and the challenges of our time. “Let them eat… Moschino!” the provocateur exclaimed. The specter of the doomed French queen Marie-Antoinette still hangs around a wide-hipped shape, with the royal loved and hated in equal measure for her extravagant fashions. Her clothing and accessories were often made from expensive materials and featured intricate details and embellishments, which helped to reinforce her position as queen and symbol of French royalty. What seems to modern eyes to be a vastly unpractical choice – limiting movement, excluding spaces – was always a radical political statement; one not just of status, but of agency. Men in the 18th century were quick to ridicule panniers, saying they distort the natural female form and prevent men from getting close to them physically – yet women continued wearing them. At a time when they were not allowed public, published, or broadcast opinions, a wide pannier could show that the wearer was not in the business of being aesthetically pleasing or easily available to men. That thesis seems more relevant than ever. “Designs create space, whether through grand gestures or structure,” says Emma McClendon, fashion historian and curator at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “In the case of volumetric clothing, there is a sense of visual impact and taking up space, particularly in relation to status.” Taking up room defines where you stand in the social hierarchy – and women are getting back on top.
Originally published in the May 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
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