by Masha Belenky
If you have recently been on the subway in New York City, you may have noticed a curious ad: “Dude… Stop the Spread…Please. It’s a space issue.” The public service announcement aims to curb the pesky behavior known as “manspreading,” an annoying habit of men sitting with their legs wide apart, encroaching on other seats. First coined by feminist social media, manspreading is unambiguously gendered: a display of male privilege and a way for men to claim public space as exclusively theirs.
Yet these issues surrounding modern locomotion and public space are not new to culture. They surfaced the moment that public transportation became a salient feature of modern urban life, in nineteenth-century Paris. When the first horse-drawn public conveyance, the omnibus, or l’omnibus hyppomobile, appeared in Paris in April 1828, it immediately attracted popular writers and artists interested in the study of contemporary everyday life. It served as a perfect social laboratory, a microcosm of society and the tensions that animated it.The omnibus (“for all” in Latin ) was unique for its time because it was by law open to anyone regardless of class or sex. This inclusiveness created new forms of urban sociability, as men and women of different social classes mixed and mingled and rubbed shoulders within the narrow confines of the vehicle. Scores of texts such as press articles, pamphlets, city guides, short stories, vaudevilles, poems, society board games, caricatures, songs, and even a piano sonata seized upon the omnibus as their subject of choice through which to tackle hot topics of the day.
And so, just as manspreading taps into our own cultural anxieties about gender privilege, nineteenth-century writers and artists used the omnibus to express their worries about class, gender, and comportment in public spaces. Predictably, however, these writers did so not to lay bare and correct the abuses of male gender privilege, but rather to protect men from women encroaching upon that privilege.
Consider the image below from 1859, featuring Madame Crinoliska, a protagonist from a series of caricatures called Paris Grotesque.
The series satirizes the fashion of wearing enormous hoop skirts that began in the mid-1850s and lasted into the 1860s. Here, Mme Crinoliska, a woman of easy virtue, literally invades the omnibus (and the page!), overwhelming her fellow passengers with lacy layers of her outrageously large skirt. Everything about Madame Crinoliska – her tiered skirts, the wide flowing ribbon and enormous bow of her bonnet, her fur-trimmed shawl nonchalantly draped over her shoulders- suggests ostentation, excess, and conspicuous consumption. At the same time, Madame Crinoliska herself is an object to be consumed, visually and otherwise; she is a spectacle on display, entering the omnibus (“faisant son entrée”) as if on a theater stage. From the get-go the attacks against “crinolinomania” took on distinctly gendered tones. And Madame Crinoliska is an excellent illustration of this, a woman literally identified with (or even displaced by) her huge skirt.
Why, we may wonder, such vitriol? In the first place, crinolines were a health hazard. They frequently caught fire and killed their wearers. In fact, this is how Madame Crinoliska herself perishes in another image, consumed by flames she sets off by igniting the hearts of her admirers. But the main reason for this contempt was because of the crinoline’s excessive girth. Women in crinolines simply took up too much room, crowding men out of public space, sometimes eclipsing them altogether. As we see in this image, several male passengers, including a priest and three respectable bourgeois men are virtually engulfed by the voluminous ruffles of the skirts. Crinolines and crinoline wearers represented excess, and their exaggerated physical presence flew in the face of rules of propriety and proper behavior that called for women to know their place (i.e. to take as little of it as possible), and threatened their male counterparts through its sheer scale.
But that wasn’t the only thing that vexed nineteenth-century observers about Mme Crinoliska and her ilk. Another big worry was the risk of finding yourself, or even worse, your wife or sister, sharing a seat with a prostitute. Texts and images suggest that public transport was an ideal place for ladies of the night to solicit clients. In another example, we see a courtesan – “une poule,” (in French, “chicken” but also “tart”) who attempts to board the omnibus but is turned down by a virtuous conductor, the guardian of moral order.
Even more troublesome, how was one supposed to distinguish a loose woman from a proper lady at a time when sartorial differences between them were becoming increasingly blurred? Journalist Edouard Gourdon, in Physiologie de l’omnibus (1842), bemoaned the difficulty in establishing a female passenger’s moral and social standing based on her dress: “Nowadays the proper lady’s silk dress, cashmere shawl and hat come from the same boutique where the prostitute shops, and the two share the same jeweler.” In the case of Madame Crinoliska, what identifies her as a cocotte is not so much the crinoline itself, but rather the outrageous way that she carries herself, scandalously displaying her dainty legs and even a bit of the cage, and spreading her skirts everywhere, like a visual metaphor for the venal contagion she represents.
Just as today’s indictment of “manspreading” recognizes public transit as a space of social confrontation, the omnibus in nineteenth-century Paris brought into focus the contest about women’s place in public urban spaces, and by extension, in society.
Masha Belenky is Associate Professor of French at the George Washington University. She is the author of Engine of Modernity: The Omnibus and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Manchester UP 2019) and The Anxiety of Dispossession: Jealousy in Nineteenth-Century French Culture (Bucknell 2008). She serves as Co-Editor of Dix-Neuf. Journal of the Society of Dix-Neuvièmistes.
For further reading:
On crinolines in nineteenth-century culture, see Linda Nead, “The Layering of Pleasure: Women, Fashionable Dress and Visual Culture in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” in Nineteenth-Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 35:5 (2013): 489-509.
On fashion accessories as marker of class distinction, see Susan Hiner, Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).