Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Novelty, simplicity, buoyancy, and pliancy – aren’t these all features we seek in every aspect of our day-to-day life? Helen Traphagen certainly felt these attributes were important when she set about designing and patenting the “Victoria Inflated Skirt” in 1857. The sketch below is an attachment to a patent granted by the United States Secretary of the Interior for a “new and useful improvement in ‘Ladies Skirts’.”The sketch is titled “Air Expanded Skirt” and the garment is indeed just that. When I first saw this sketch, I was half-hoping that the skirt was some sort of flotation device, created with the purpose of aiding the wearer if she were perhaps to trip and fall off a bridge or over the side of a ship into a body of water while wearing the numerous layers of clothing common for the time. However, the description affixed to the patent states: “The nature of [the] invention consists of attaching to the body of a skirt, or petticoat, a series of air tight tubes, to be inflated with air, for the purpose of expanding the surface of the skirt, to give a ‘set’ to the dress similar to that affected by the use of hoops, cords, and other devices now in use.”
The description goes on to describe the various functions of the undergarment, matching the lettered components in the illustration above to their respective purpose. “A” is the petticoat, or skirt, itself. “B” components are a series of horizontal “air tight tubes, formed of rubber cloth, oiled silk, or other suitable material,” which are made in equal circumference to the skirt itself, with the purpose of bringing the skirt to its full measure of expansion. “C” components consist of series of vertical tubes, made of the same material as “B” components, connecting the “B” components to one another, and allowing for the entire apparatus to be inflated at once. “D” component is the valve by which the tubes are inflated, by mouth, and then stoppered so that the air is retained in the tubes, keeping the skirt expanded. The patent goes on to explain that air-inflated hoops are much more preferable to cords, hoops, canes, or steel springs, which can be “oppressive to the wearer” due to their rigidity and weight. After viewing this short film, showing members of the Costumes and Textiles Department dressing a mannequin in a dress from later in the 19th century, I know I would have been looking for anything to help me feel less oppressed by my clothing.
Once Ms. Traphagen had obtained her patent, she began marketing her invention as the “Victoria Inflated Skirt.” The handbill below explains the name of the product by mentioning that the British Queen, Victoria, was so pleased with the product, she included it in her own wardrobe. The advertisement mentions the benefits of the inflated skirt to the comfort of the wearer, and goes on to explain it also “imparts that light and easy buoyancy so indispensable to the graceful effect of feminine apparel.”
These objects, however, left me wondering whether this petticoat was ever mass produced in the United States. At the time of publishing the handbill, a business by the name of Pantecnicon of Fashions was taking pre-orders, but the skirt does not seem to have been readily available. While a search of the New York Times archives mentions the invention of an “Umbrella Greatcoat” in 1854, which could be inflated by blowing air into it to expand the skirt of the coat out beyond the legs and feet, I did not see any mention of an inflated skirt. I spoke with Phyllis Magidson, the Museum’s Costumes and Textiles Curator, and she had never laid eyes upon such a skirt, either. She said that such an invention spoke to the popularity of full skirts during the time period, and also to the known problem of how cumbersome the supports for full skirts were. While there were many attempts to minimize the amount of weight carried by women in support of their garments, the crinoline was by far the most broadly used. Magidson also pointed out that this invention, which honors the Queen of England in its name, predated the Prince of Wales visit in 1860, when the United States formally began to reestablish a connection with England for the first time since the Revolutionary War.
If you’d like to see images of the types of dresses this inflatable skirt would be supporting, be sure to check out some of Charles Frederick Worth’s earlier designs, available through this online exhibition.