In the first decade of the Georgian Era, bell-shaped skirts were all the rage. This silhouette was accomplished with hoops of whalebone or wood that were tied together in a cage around the waist. By mid-18th Century oblong or fan hoops called panniers (French for basket) spread a lady's skirts out at the sides. Proponents claimed this style made for ease of walking and kept importunate gentlemen at a distance. As always, however, such fashion came at a price; women were forced to turn sideways when they passed through doorways, and climbing into a coach was logistical nightmare. So in the last quarter of the century, the emphasis shifted from the hips to the rump.
Pads filled with fabric or cork were tied at the waist and draped over the derrière, poofing the skirt in the back. Cartoonists were quick to lambast this new "bum roll" or "cork rump" trend. (See the above 1787 print by S.F. Fores called A Milliner's Shop. A bum roll is hanging on the wall to the right of the mirror.) Typical of the ridicule was this print by Matthew Darly from 1777 entitled Chloe’s Cushion or The Cork Rump. (Notice the puppy perched on the back!)
Satirists like Peter Pindar composed poems about the style. In 1815 he published The Cork Rump, or Queen and Maids of Honour. He’d already offered a backhanded criticism of the fashion when he extolled the virtues of the common maid in his 1794 poem, The Louisad:
“With Nature’s hips, she sighs not for cork rumps,
“And scorns the pride of pinching stays and jumps;
“But, pleas’d from whalebone prisons to escape,
“She trusts to simple nature for a shape…”
Cork rumps were a popular subject in newspapers and broadsheets as well. One gentleman observed in the December 16, 1776 issue of The Weekly Miscellany:
“A most ingenious author has made it a question, whether a man marrying a woman…may not lawfully sue for divorce on the grounds that she is not the same person? What with the enormous false head-dress—painting—and this newfangled cork substitute—it would be almost impossible for a man to know his bride the morning of his nuptials. If the ladies look on this invention as an ornament to their symmetry, I will engage they shall be excelled by almost any Dutch market-woman or fat landlady in this kingdom.”
There is an account in History of the Westminster Election of a riot on May 10, 1784 in Covent Garden between proponents of the three candidates standing for Parliament. The Guards were called and subsequently fired upon the crowd. Two ladies lost portions of their wigs, several were “deprived of their eye-brows” and one woman had her cork rump shot off.
But perhaps no story was more outrageous than the one which appeared on October 4, 1785 in The Morning Post. A lady reportedly fell into the Thames and was saved from drowning by—you guessed it—her cork rump. (You can read the entire article at Prinny's Taylor.)
Eventually, the cork rump faded in popularity, replaced by the Grecian silhouette and empire gowns of the Regency. (Check out Two Nerdy History Girls for their blog about Those Bumless Beauties, 1788.)
But as the saying goes, you can’t keep a good thing down. The exaggerated tush returned mid-19th Century in the form of the Victorian bustle.
The Works of Peter Pindar Esq. Vol I; The Louisiad Canto II; London;1794; p.252
The Cork Rump, or Queen and Maids of Honour by Peter Pindar; pub. 1815
The Observer; The Town and Country Magazine VIII for the Year 1776; London, p.650
Anecdotes of theManners and Customs of London during the Eighteen Century Vol II; by James Peller Malcolm, F.S.A.;London; 1810; p.353-354
Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray; by Thomas Wright, ESQ, F.S.A. and R. H. Evans, Esq; London; 1851;p.408-409