Victorian Fad of False or Artificial Calves

The Victorian fad of embracing unusual fashions included many strange fashions. For instance, some women adopted the famous stooping fashion of the Grecian Bend. Other Victorian women adopted the limp of Alexandra of Denmark and were even willing to wear mismatched shoes to achieve it. Men supposedly likewise adopted a strange fashion: It was an S-shaped posture known as the Roman Fall. However, perhaps, the most unusual fashion that Victorians embraced was wearing false or artificial calves, a fad that had actually started in Georgian times.

Victorian fad

Example of the Roman Fall. Author’s collection.

So, what were false or artificial calves? One Victorian description stated that they were “nothing more nor less than the sculpture of cords, wires, and cotton.”[1] The Coventry Herald maintained they were usually “composed of lamb’s and other wool woven into the material of merino leggins [sic], just like a pair of masculine drawers; sometimes brain [was] used, and in all cases the imitation [was claimed to be] very artistic and perfect.”[2]

Perfect or not, the Victorian fad of false calves started in the 1860s among youthful ladies “who made dashing displays on skates.”[3] They embraced the artificial calves for three reasons. First, they came “in sizes to suit.”[4] That meant it didn’t matter how “cadaverous or ill-shapen” a woman’s calves were her deficiencies could be corrected. Second, when young women went out onto the ice they wanted to stand out from the other skaters. It quickly became apparently that those with desirable calves obtained “the ogling glances of … many admiring spectators.”[5] There was also a third reason. No one knew for sure whether a woman wore them. Apparently, sellers kept quiet about who bought the calves because to have told who purchased them “would have had a very injurious effect upon the sale of the article, and the tantalizing delusion would have been far less pleasing.”[6]

Victorian Skater, Author's Collection

Victorian skate., Author’s collection.

To ensure this “abounding” source of happiness prevailed among Victorian ice skaters, corset makers began to devote all their energies “to the fabrication of these rare bits of fashionable anatomy.”[7] But despite corset makers best efforts to keep up with demand, they could not suffice those embracing this Victorian fad. The fashion for false calves grew by leaps and bounds. It did not matter that false calves were not particularly cheap. The Maidstone Telegraph reported in 1869 that “a good pair of false calves, warranted to look in all respects like a natural limb, costs in New York about eight dollars,”[8] whereas in England the average cost was about thirty shillings.

Ice skaters were not the only one who adopted the Victorian fad of false calves. False or artificial calves were used frequently among theatre casts. For example, one theatre in the New York metropolitan required “twenty-three pairs of false calves … in another twenty-seven, and eighteen in a third.”[9] But actors and actresses were not only the ones interested in false calves. Cyclists found them appealing too and began demanding them by the late 1890s. They were most popular with female bicyclists who wore “breeches [as shown in the illustration below] or skirts of the bifurcated kind.”[10] To fulfill the demand for the calves, a prospectus suddenly appeared for an English company — “The Esthetic Calf-improving Company.” They claimed they would offer “an exceptional assortment of artificial calves.”[11]

Victorian Woman in Breeches, Author's Collection

Victorian woman in breeches. Author’s collection.

The desire for false calves even reached ecclesiastical heights when the clergy of the Catholic church decided to wear them. One reverend named Dabadie, who was living in Berne at the time, ordered a pair of calves after the church returned to the fashion of looping gowns in the back. Apparently, he was just one among many priests who wanted to “show [his] legs to advantage.”[12] The wearing of false calves by the ecclesiastical ranks might not have surfaced if Dabadie had paid for them. But he didn’t, and he got sued in 1879 by the Paris hosier who sold them to him. When the case was heard, Dabadie insisted he paid for the calves with a bottle of claret, but the judge decided otherwise and ordered him “to pay cash for his fine legs.”[13]

Wearing false calves involved more problems than lawsuits. In London in 1865 “before a most fashionable company an unfortunate contretemps occurred.”[14] A distinguished unnamed gentleman decided to enhance his shrunken calves and wore a pair of false calves to a fashionable event. Everything would have gone splendidly if the symmetry of the gentleman’s legs had not gotten out of place: The false calves twisted oddly to one side and his legs developed a sort of unnatural, lumpy look. Fortunately, however, the gentleman was oblivious to “the calamity,” resulting in the Stirling Observer concluding that “no doubt it was bliss to be ignorant on [such an] occasion.”[15]

As popular as the Victorian fad of false calves was, one newspaper reporter from the Edinburgh Evening News thought they might just be the beginning of all sorts of false things being appended or attached to the human body. He alleged that in Paris there were all sorts of ways to be “patched up.” One way was with “false fingers … which screw[ed] on to a maimed hand, and not only present[ed] a very complete effect under a glove, but … look[ed] very creditable without.”[16] In this case the junctions of the fingers could be hidden by wearing large rings, and the deception was complete as long as no one grasp the wearer’s hand too tightly. A person did not have to fear ugly ears either. False ears for show could be fastened to the ear and situated discretely under a person’s hair. Thus, it was asked:

“[False fingers.’ false hair, false teeth, false breasts, false hips, false calves, false ears — what next?”[17]

Advertising for False Calves from 1897, Author's Collection

Advertising for false calves from 1897. Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] Round Table, Volume 3, 1866, p. 129.
  • [2] “How the American Belle of the Period is Made Up,” in Coventry Herald, 09 July 1869, p. 4.
  • [3] Round Table, p. 129.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] —, in Maidstone Telegraph, 17 July 1869, p. 3.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Cincinnati Lancet and Clinic, Volume 35, 1895, p. 649.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] “Curious Action Against a Priest,” in Edinburgh Evening News, 17 April 1879, p. 4.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] “Art and Literary,” in Stirling Observer, 4 August 1865, p. 3.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] “Patched Up in Paris,” in Edinburgh Evening News, 16 January 1890, p. 3.
  • [17] “Novel of the Strange,” in Cornishman, 5 May 1881, p. 6.

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