Inflatable Hoop Skirt

by Helen Traphagen, 1857

Inventor

  • NAMEHelen C. Traphagen
  • PATENTUS17241A
  • DATEMay 5, 1857
  • LOCATIONPatented in the USA – inventor residing in New York
  • INVENTION“Hoop Skirt”
  • THEMEExpanding
BIO —

Our most likely census matches suggest Helen Caitlin Traphagen was born in New York around 1830. She was well known in the city as a seller of opera wear, providing customers with the latest designs from a store called  Pantechnicon of Fashions on Broadway. A. Traphagen – who we think was her younger sister – seems to have been her dressmaking and retail business partner. They also ran a fashionable boarding house together.

In addition to the USA-filed patent for the inflatable hoop skirt, we also found an incomplete patent application for what would appear to be the same invention, filed in the UK in 1858. Intriguingly, there are further USA and Canadian patents issued in 1876 to a Helen Caitlin Traphagen, gentlewoman, for a design of window scaffold.

Invention

PROBLEM —

Hoop skirts were petticoats with concentric circles or hoops that supported the familiar dome-like shape of European-style skirts. At the time of Traphagen’s patent, hoop skirts were usually constructed from canes, baleen, steel springs or other boning contrivances. Not only could these be uncomfortably heavy, but they were often difficult to store, adjust and manage, particularly while trying sit down or pass through doorways.

SOLUTION —

Traphagen’s design innovatively used inflated tubes attached to a skirt or petticoat to hold the desired shape. This approach was lightweight and compressible, allowing the wearer to easily gather up their skirts to avoid dragging them through mud, or to sit down without their clothes becoming disarrayed – avoiding a so-thought “loss of their dignity”. When not in use, the air could be released from the tubes, enabling the garment to be folded and packed down into a small volume.

“The nature of my invention consists in 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.”
— Helen Traphagen, inventor
Helen Traphagen's invention in the press

"It is said that 'necessity is the mother of invention.' Miss H. C. Traphagen, has proved herself a benefactor to woman kind, and has invented a new style of skirt, susceptible of any degree of expansion, without the numerous inconveniences to which the ladies have been so long subject to in the use of hoops of hickory, whalebone, steel or gutta percha."

The Louisville Daily Courier1857

"The improvement consists in a series of air inflated tubes of oiled silk or India rubber. The tubes may be inflated and used separate, or they may be filled at once. What means are to be employed to 'raise the wind,' whether by the use of the air pump, or otherwise, is not stated."

Republican Banner1857

"With the advantages offered by this invention, skirts, however capacious the fashion may demand, many be accommodates to all emergencies. If for an evening walk, they may be expanded to their full capacity; if to attend the morning church, or take a ride, the wind may be let out so as to reduce the tubes to the capacity of the door of the pew or the carriage."

The Tennessean1857

"The dealers in Opera cloaks, gloves, lorgnettes, and so forth, are dying to have some one come forward to open the Academy. The beautiful and accomplished Mademoiselle Helen C. Traphagen, No. 599 Broadway, who, at the same time, is a great judge of music as well as an eminent manufacturer of the attire without which no person of established position or the slightest pretence to respectability can go to hear an opera, is waiting anxiously for an opportunity to adorn the elegant shoulders of the aristocratic ladies up town, with some entirely new styles of Opera cloaks."

New York Daily Herald1856
Speculatively Sewing Helen Traphagen's invention

Hoop skirts are often seen by contemporary viewers as awkward, inhibiting and limiting artefacts. There is no doubt they were problematic in many ways:

“These substructures pushed the skirt outward, first in a circular fashion and then asymmetrically toward the back to effectively put women at arm’s length from objects – brooms, pans, babies – that must be accessed in their daily activities.”

— Helvenston Gray, S. (2014) Searching for Mother Hubbard, Winterthur Portfolio, 48(1), p32.

Yet, they were offered ways for women to claim power at a time when they were otherwise lacking socio-political rights. We are interested in exploring their claims for adaptability and flexibility and above all, for wearers to make, claim and take space in different contexts. Many have written about hoops as being unexpected tools of identity and power.

“The origins, innovations, fluctuations, and failings demonstrate the tenacity of eighteenth-century Englishwomen in their autonomy. Although it is tempting to condemn the hoop as yet another example of female subjugation through dress, such as the medieval chastity or the crippling corsets of the nineteenth century, the hoop actually had quite the opposite function. In the face of widespread and violent protest from men, women willingly hoop as a means of protecting, controlling, and, ultimately, liberating female sexuality.”

— Chrisman, K. (1996) UnHoop The Fair Sex, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 30(1), p7.

Traphagen’s inflatable hoop skirt was immediately fascinating to us as it is one of the early inflatable inventions that claimed to offer flexibility, adaptability and control. It could be expanded and reduced in size by the wearer as needed, it was lighter and could be stored and carried more easily than steel, baleen and cane versions. It was also using a brand new technology – rubber tubing – which would revolutionise cycling towards the end of the century.

We reconstructed Traphagen’s inflatable hoop skirt using a calico petticoat with three concentric circles of rubber tubing. The inventor suggests they do not have to all join – as per the patent drawing. “[E]ach of the horizontal tubes”, she explains, can be “supplied with stop-cocks, so as to adjust the circumference of the skirt to the required dimensions”. A “stop-cock” is a valve for regulating or stopping the flow of water or gas. Using three separate tubes, with their own “stop cocks” or valves, meant the wearer could avoid the risk and embarrassment of total deflation (which was a very real concern of the time).

We used standard bicycle inner tubes, cut and glued together to make the larger circles. Each was secured inside the petticoat via calico sleeves. The wearer at the time could have either “raised the wind” using a pair of bellows or by mouth. We used a bicycle track pump.

We were delighted by the expansive potential of inflatable tubes – the skirt over doubled in size! We were also impressed by Traphagen’s design which meant that even when one tube failed to stay inflated, the other two maintained the skirt’s shape. This happened to us, and the skirt still worked. Another aspect we noted relates to storage. When not in use, and in its deflated state, Traphagen’s invention hangs neatly on the railings with other toiles, which is very appreciated in a small yet very full studio office.