The Vault

The “Grecian Bend”: The Most Preposterous Ladies’ Fashion Trend of the 1860s

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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.

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.

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