Hoi Polloi

In Ancient Greek, hoi polloi means ‘the many’, or ‘the majority’. In English, it means the masses or common people in a derogatory sense.

“When red-headed people are above a certain social grade their hair is auburn.” – Mark Twain

In the Ancient World however, it was not a derogatory term. It was used by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. The term was used to praise the Athenian democracy, contrasting it with hoi oligoi, meaning ‘the few’; from which we get the word oligarchy.

Hoi polloi is sometimes used incorrectly to mean ‘upper class’, i.e. the exact opposite of its normal meaning. It seems likely that the confusion arose by association with the similar-sounding but otherwise unrelated word hoity-toity.

Victorian Prudery in Fashion

Nowadays, Victorian men’s clothing is seen as formal and stiff, women’s as fussy and over-done. Clothing covered the entire body, and even the glimpse of an ankle was seen as scandalous. Though, one must be aware that there are gross exaggerations told about the Victorian age, especially on how prudish they dressed and behaved.

Wuthering Heights shocked the decorum of the t...

An 1868 idea of how the hemline should descend towards the ankle as a girl got older

Men’s formal clothing may have been less colourful than it was in the previous century, but brilliant waistcoats and cummerbunds nevertheless provided a touch of colour. Smoking jackets and dressing gowns were often of rich Oriental brocades. This phenomenon was the result of the growing textile manufacturing sector, developing mass production processes, and increasing attempts to market fashion to men.

Corsets stressed a woman’s sexuality, exaggerating hips and bust by contrast with a tiny waist. Women’s ball gowns bared the shoulders and the tops of the breasts and sometimes even revealed the hint of cleavage. The jersey dresses of the 1880s may have covered the body, but the stretchy novel fabric fit the body like a glove.

Popular culture has been known to link Victorian prudery in their dress – seemingly though it was – to their manners.

Certainly, they may have been as strict as imagined – on the surface. One simply did not speak publicly about sex, childbirth, and such matters, at least in the respectable middle and upper classes. However, as is well known, discretion covered a multitude of sins. It was a time in which prostitution flourished and upper-class men and women indulged in adulterous liaisons. On reflection, not everything was what it seemed.

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