Suffering for Victorian Fashion: The Grecian Bend

Cristen Conger

In the 1860s, American women bent over backward frontward to remain fashionably relevant. Pitched forward by the weighty combination of side-poufy panniers and rump-amplifying bustles and further restricted by de riguer tight-laced corsets and high heels, well-dressed women strolled down sidewalks as if always on the lookout for lost contact lenses. Even sitting down provided no upright relief.

Nicknamed the Grecian Bend, this posture became the object of both national reporting and parody. Not surprisingly, it was mocked as an example of women's vanity and vapidity. But, in a very man-repeller kind of way, some women staunchly defended their right to wear what they wished, backaches be damned.

As noted over at Slate, Laura Redden Searing (under a masculine pen name) wrote in 1868 in The New York Times:

"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."

In America's Music, from the Pilgrims to the Present, Gilbert Chase wrote:

"There appears to be a pattern of female assertion and male reaction in the social symbolism of the Grecian Bend. For the women, it was evidently a matter of 'doing their own thing' and telling the men to mind their own business. Take, for example, 'The Girl with the Grecian Bend,' song and dance...In the second stanza the gent explains his attempt to assist a high-heeled young lady, presumably in danger of falling in her face. His offer is snappily refused..."

The Grecian Bend made its way in Gilbert's music book since it was also a popular subject of Victorian-era sheet music in all sorts of arrangements, including "galops, mazurkas, waltzes, and marches." See also this cover of the sheet music for "The Original Grecian Band: A Grand March" featuring a high-heeled gent mimicking the Grecian Bend. Such jokers, those Victorians!

Western women everywhere, it seems, were engaging in a sport of Extreme Walking. For as strange as the Grecian Bend certainly was, it was bested by the Alexandra Limp happening around the same time on sidewalks across the pond. Then by 1870, changing fashions -- for better or worse -- put both spine-threatening fads out of their misery.

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