Originally posted on MCNY Blog: New York Stories.
Capricious, evanescent, outrageous: there has always been something to parody about fashion. It has had its moments of sanity, where form has actually nodded to function, but centuries-worth of acrid illustration captures its erratic permutations. Political satirists throughout the 18th and 19th centuries frequently targeted fashion’s absurdities – ballooning sleeves, wasp-like waists, meandering hemlines – as tantalizing subject matter for ridicule.
Currier & Ives, Thomas Worth (1834-1917), “The Grecian Bend” Fifth Avenue Style, 1868, Hand-colored lithograph. Gift of Mrs. Harry T. Peters, 56.300.1282
A deliciously obvious phenomenon was fashion’s “Grecian Bend” of 1868, itself a caricature with its forward-hunching posture (paraphrasing that of a tyrannosaurus) caused while attempting to counter-balance the backward thrust of an outrageously pronounced bustle and weighty mounded coiffure – made all-the-more comical while tottering along on the day’s tiny high-heeled shoes and balancing a miniature sunshade from tightly gloved hands. The conspicuous presence of the “Grecian Bend” along the main corridors of New York City’s fashionable shopping district (subsequently known as “The Ladies’ Mile,” and featured in the City Museum’s exhibition Gilded New York) prompted Thomas Worth’s sketch for lithographers Currier & Ives, typically known for their picturesque landscapes and sentimental visions of Americana. Their widely distributed “The Grecian Bend, Fifth Avenue Style” constituted a satirical sidebar for the firm, becoming the best known of their fashion commentaries.
The absurdity of the print’s imagery resonated throughout the day’s popular culture, inspiring the…