Once upon a time, if a bloke wanted to look like a girl, he wore a farthingale.
The Shakespearean boys who played the Violas and the Juliets and the Titanias would not customarily wear padding. But a great underskirt structure of hoops and vertical strips sent petticoats a-flouncing and hips a-swinging; one looked naturally feminine when one wore a farthingale.
They were made of cane, or rope, or whalebone, and they continued to turn heads throughout the 16th and 17th century.
In the 1700s folks wore panniers: a crazy concoction of hoops which left front and back almost vertical but shot out at the side. Think Marie Antoinette.
And then, things got classical and utilitarian, and skirts went straight. Until 1810. When the crinoline made its appearance.
Initially a strange weave of horse-hair weft and linen or cotton warp, starched for extra stiffness, crinolines became sturdier and sturdier, sporting huge whalebone structures. They were great flamboyant skirty things: and though they were blamed for several fatalities when the wind swept ladies off cliffs and dashed them onto rocks below, their structure was to save at least one life. Two, even.
Reading, in Berkshire. A town with a river, the Holy Brook, which goes underground in some places. This strange channel is thought to be natural in parts, and in others man-made, a stream coaxed from a site outside Theale to what was once the necessarium – the latrines – of Reading Abbey, now a ruin. Historians conjecture it was created to supply mediaeval water mills and fish ponds.
So: at the junction of King’s Road and Duke Street stood a tobacconists, run by a gentleman who went by the name of Mr Ball.
His wife was in the shop one day, when the ground fell in.
It just caved in, a gaping great hole, and Mrs Ball – who was pregnant at the time – plummeted down into the cavernous blackness.
Which was not a dry hole, but part of the Holy Brook, surging beneath the city towards the old necessarium.
Surely the lady should have drowned, were it not for her expansive crinoline, which opened out and trapped air beneath, providing the ultimate buoyancy aid. The good lady was in pitch darkness, terrified, but sailing stately on in her erstwhile life craft.
After just a very short time she was out in the open, and surging towards the old abbey. She must have been yelling fit to wake the dead, for she attracted the attention of people in the local park, a fair distance away, who came to her aid.
And so Mrs Ball never made it to the necessarium.
Her child, when it was born, was named after the brook: he went by the name of Holybrook Ball.
Crinoline Ball just wouldn’t have had the same ring, would it?