The Grecian Bend, 1870
I love a spot of history surfing. Looking through some old book or piece of ephemera, coming across something I’ve never heard of, and then going investigating. (With extra points awarded if I somehow manage to cross-reference this with another old book I already have).
I was reading the problem page of The Young Ladies Journal from February 1870, which is enduringly interesting as problem pages always are, no matter if they’re from 100 years ago, or last week. This one is especially intriguing on account of the fact that only the answers to the questions appear, which sometimes involves a bit of imagination as to what the questions might have been – more of this in another post I’ll be putting up shortly.
One of the young ladies had asked about “The Grecian bend”, which elicited the following sensible response:
M.J.D.- Every age has its absurd fashion. The Grecian bend, as it is now called, is the present one. Avoid it, and anything else that has a tendency to deformity. You cannot walk too upright to widen the chest and give free play to the lungs.
It turns out that, much like wearing your trousers so low that you reveal most of your underpants (or like one bloke I saw, with his trousers belted right under his bum, all of his pants on show, and only able to shuffle along Pingu-style), the Grecian bend was a stupid fashion of the time. It involved pushing lots of skirt fabric into your bustle and bending your body forwards while walking. It was also known as a dance move. The reasoning behind the name is generally considered to be that it refers to the depiction of dancers on friezes from Ancient Greece, although historian David McCullough has a much ruder explanation – that it comes from “Greek” or anal sex.
This is what it looked like:
There were even special corsets made to keep your back in the correct bent position, which must have been incredibly painful. It was widely ridiculed as an absurdity, and music hall songs were sung to much amusement.
Here’s a few verses of a song called “Grecian Bend’:
‘Tis fun to see a lass so tall,
Lean forward ’till you’d think she’d fall,
Or pitch against a tree or wall,
Because of her Grecian bend.
E’en bashful girls are forward now,
So forward that the people vow,
They’ve been all day behind a plow-
To give them a Grecian bend.
What next we’ll have we do not know,
For novelty is all the go;
And when designs begin to flow,
Where will the follies end?
Perhaps you’ll see them by the scores,
Down on their knees upon your floors.
To try to get upon all fours,
And cut the Grecian bend.
Interestingly, as with all good history surfing sessions, it also uncovered another unknown fact for me. Widespread cases of decompression sickness were first seen during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge – it was termed “caisson disease” in 1873, after the underwater structures used while building its foundations. But at some point during the project, caisson disease became popularly known as “the bends” because sufferers looked like they were doing the Grecian bend themselves.