As I squeezed through the doors of the 6 train in a 50-inch-wide hoop skirt, straphangers scurried out of the way to make room.
“Sorry,” I muttered, while eyeing a line of three open seats. It was just enough space for me to haphazardly wedge my skirt’s enormous plastic rings. I shimmied into the spot while the lady next to me scowled and scooted over.
Pleased with my bubble of safety, I folded my latex-gloved hands on the lap of my hot-pink petticoat and settled in for the ride.
“It’s not everyday you see a hoop skirt on the train!” the subway conductor yelled at me from across the car. “It’s the perfect thing for social distancing.”
And that’s exactly why I wore it.
Fashion has a funny way of adapting to the times — and if recessions tend to bring longer hemlines, then “COVID couture” must be all about masks and clothes that say, “Get the hell away from me.”
It’s not the first time women’s fashion has commanded space in the name of steering clear of a pandemic.
“During the Spanish flu in 1918, one of the ways women protected their space was by wearing really big hats,” said fashion historian Dr. Alison Matthews David, citing wide-brimmed “picture hats” and the even larger “merry widow hats” of the 1910s, as well as decorative and practical “flu veils,” which acted as a shield from sickness — and unwanted advances. “There are all these caricatures of men not being able to approach women because of how massive their hats were.”
So in pursuit of personal safety, I ordered a $20 A-line six-hoop skirt by Missydress from Amazon and took it out for a spin around Manhattan.
When I pulled it from the packaging, it sprang open like a circus tent.
Already feeling like a freak show, I stepped inside, fastened a bow in the back and started strutting down the street.
At Union Square, the attention was immediate. “Do a twirl!” one girl demanded. “Work it! I love that skirt!” another chimed in.
I spun in circles like a germ-free fairy godmother, waving my Lysol can wand at the amused audience.
As I made my way to Whole Foods, everyone from kids to grannies couldn’t stop complimenting my super-sized skirt. Even a homeless man didn’t dare ask me, the social-distancing queen, for spare change.
“You are a goddess!” he exclaimed. “I won’t even ask you for a dollar, you can walk on by all day.”
In the grocery store, however, people were a little less excited to reach around me. One woman gave me the stink eye as she huffed past my jutting side in the dried-goods aisle.
Subway riders were equally annoyed. It didn’t surprise me to find out that in the mid-19th century, satirical images of women hanging their hoop skirts on the back of buses before entering — so they could fit inside — were popular.
“There are tons of pictures depicting how women are taking up too much space while wearing crinoline, or hoop skirts, in public,” said David. “Men were especially frustrated because it limited their access to the female body,” the historian added.
Hoop skirts — which were typically made with a frame of steel, whalebone or basket willow — were originally designed in the 1700s to show off your status: The more fabric you could afford, the wealthier you were. From the mid 1800s until the early 20th century, however, they were a style statement for ladies of all classes.
“Most women, from duchesses to cooks, had about two crinolines in their wardrobe at that time,” said David, adding that women who could afford it still showed off their status with fancier fabrics and textiles.
My obviously synthetic taffeta really screamed, “Janky prefab Halloween costume.”
But the hoop skirt did exactly what I hoped it would do: It kept strangers far, far away.