Victorian Fad of False or Artificial Calves

Victorian fad
Sample of the Roman Fall, Author’s Collection

Victorians embraced many unusual fads. For instance, besides adopting the famous stooping fashion of the Grecian Bend, some Victorian women adopted Alexandra of Denmark’s limp and were even willing to wear mismatched shoes to achieve it. Men likewise adopted a strange fashion. It was an S-shaped posture known as the Roman Fall. But there was also another unusual fashion that Victorians embraced. It was wearing false or artificial calves, a fad that actually started in Georgian times.

So what were false or artificial calves? One person wrote they were “nothing more nor less than the sculpture of cords, wires, and cotton.” Another person 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.”

Victorian Skater, Author's Collection
Victorian Skater, Author’s Collection

Perfect or not, false calves started a fad in the 1860s among youthful ladies “who made dashing displays on skates.” They embraced the artificial calves for three reasons. First, they came “in sizes to suit.” 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.” There was also a third reason. No one knew for sure whether or not 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.”

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.” But despite corset makers best efforts to keep up with demand, they could not. The fashion for false calves grew by leaps and bounds. It did not matter that false calves were not particularly cheap. One English newspaper paper 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,” whereas in England the average cost was about thirty shillings.

Victorian Woman in Breeches, Author's Collection
Victorian Woman in Breeches, Author’s Collection

The Victorian fad of false calves was not just adopted by ice skaters. One 1869 English newspaperman reported that 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.” 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 to the right] or skirts of the bifurcated kind.” 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.”

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.” The wearing of false calves by the ecclesiastical ranks might not have come to light 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.”

There were other problems than lawsuits when it came to wearing false calves. In London in 1865 “before a most fashionable company an unfortunate contretemps occurred.” 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 newspaper concluding that “no doubt it was bliss to be ignorant on [such an] occasion.”

Advertising for False Calves from 1897, Author's Collection
Advertising for False Calves from 1897, Author’s Collection

As popular as false calves were, one newspaper reporter 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.” 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, the reporter asked, False fingers, “false hair, false teeth, false breasts, false hips, false calves, false ears — what next?”

References:

  • —, in Brecon Reporter and South Wales General Advertiser, 14 September 1867
  • —, in Edinburgh Evening News, 19 July 1880
  • —, in Maidstone Telegraph, 17 July 1869
  • “Art and Literary,” in Stirling Observer, 4 August 1865
  • Cincinnati Lancet and Clinic, Volume 35, 1895
  • “Curious Action Against a Priest,” in Edinburgh Evening News, 17 April 1879
  • “How the American Belle of the Period is Made Up,” in Coventry Herald, 09 July 1869
  • “Novel of the Strange,” in Cornishman, 5 May 1881
  • “Patched Up in Paris,” in Edinburgh Evening News, 16 January 1890
  • Round Table, Volume 3, 1866

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