Introduction

1856 drawing showing the crinoline frameworkIn the early 1800’s, women wanted clothing and accessories that gave them a “fullness” effect. Wide chests tapering to a narrow waist and widening back out at the hips, the “hourglass” shape became the desirable appearance for women. To achieve the sought after shape, women in the early 1800’s went through a cumbersome and complicated dressing routine that required many clothing items and multiple layers of apparel to achieve the “fullness” effect. By the late 1850’s, the affordable and easy-to-wear crinoline appeared which ignited a hoop skirt craze that lasted for well over a decade.

Crinoline eases the women’s dressing routine

Fashion plate showing group of women wearing hoop skirtsEarly 19th century women began their dressing routine by first putting on their stockings, held up by garters, and followed that with drawers, two separate legs attached to a waist band. Next they put on a chemise, an undergarment that was similar to a nightgown. Several starched petticoats were then added to create a bell-shape silhouette. Next came the stifling corset and finally the dress itself was donned to complete the effect.

Rare 1860 Crinoline photographThe dressing process took quite some time to complete and the difficulty was compounded due to the fact that women in the early 1800’s often changed clothes several times during the course of a day. This entire process was greatly simplified with the introduction of the “crinoline”, an invention that triggered a craze some called “crinolinemania” that began in the mid 1850’s and peaked in the early 1860’s.

The “caged crinoline” or “hoop skirt” was a series of steel concentric hoops that were hung from a waist band via cotton straps, in order to shape the woman’s dress into the desired bell shape. The hoops in the crinoline were smaller at the top and grew wider towards the bottom. There were typically nine to eighteen hoops according to the formality of the dress. Smaller hoops were worn during every day dress while larger crinolines were reserved for balls, weddings, and other special occasions.

The crinoline hoops were made of spring steel or watch-spring steel, a material that was flexible and allowed the hoops to be pressed out of shape for storage and transportation. The bendable hoops also made it easier to get in and out of carriages.

Earlier crinoline designs

Woman being assisted putting skirt over crinolineAn earlier crinoline design, introduced in the 1830’s, was made of stiff fabric constructed from horse hair and cotton. Whalebone or cane was sometimes sewn around the hem to help mold the desired skirt shape. The name “crinoline” was invented by one of the fabric’s manufacturers who combined the word “crinis (hair) and linum (flax).

By 1850, the word “crinoline” came to mean the rigid skirt-shaped structure made of steel which was also referred to as “cage crinoline”. Invented by David Hough, the design was granted U.S. patent 20,681 in 1846. In 1858, W.S. Thompson greatly facilitated the design by developing an eye fastener that could be used to connect the steel crinoline hoops with vertical tape hanging from a band that was worn around the woman’s waist. It is surmised that Thompson took the cage idea from earlier frame styles included in clothing items called “farthingales” (from the 1580’s) and “panniers”.

The crinoline craze

Series of hoop skirt cartoonsThe popularity of the crinoline grew because of the advantages the crinoline offered over the traditional method of dressing. The crinoline was much lighter than the weight of multiple, layered petticoats hanging from a corseted waist. It was also cooler because rather than wearing several petticoats to provide the desired shape, the woman only wore one petticoat underneath and one or two petticoats over the hoop skirt to hide the steel band ridges. The elimination of multiple petticoats also kept the woman’s legs from becoming entangled in the petticoat cloth. An finally, the invention of the sewing machine in the 1850’s, offered the possibility of mass production of sewn items. The ability to mass produce the crinoline allowed reduced manufacturing costs and hence the retail price was kept low. Unlike other clothing items of the day, the crinoline was affordable and worn by all social classes.

The crinoline craze was adopted with wide enthusiasm from the women of the era. The craze began in the late 1850’s, peaked around 1861, and faded away in the late 1860’s. Writers of the day called the craze “crinolinemania”. Magazines and newspapers spread news of the new fashion which further fueled the craze. The Lady’s Newspaper in 1863 wrote:

“So perfect are the wave-like bands that a lady may ascend a steep stair, lean against a table, throw herself into an armchair, pass to her stall at the opera, and occupy a further seat in a carriage, without inconveniencing herself or others, and provoking the rude remarks of observers thus modifying in an important degree, all those peculiarities tending to destroy the modesty of Englishwomen; and lastly, it allows the dress to fall in graceful folds.”

Crinoline disadvantages and fading away of the crinoline fad

1850 cartoon mocking the crinoline sizeThe crinoline did have its disadvantages though. These disadvantages, in addition to changing fashion trends, contributed to its decline in the late 1860’s. The diameter of the crinoline could be as wide as six feet. This exaggerated size made the hoop skirt cumbersome which made it difficult for the woman to get through doorways and in and out of carriages. Cartoons of the day depicted women placing the crinoline on top of the carriage as they travelled.

Crinoline cartoon mocking bizare fashion trendsAlso because of the size, the woman had to be consciously aware of the diameter lest she knock objects over as she passed by them. There are documented stories of women in factories knocking things over with their crinolines and of getting the crinoline shaped dress caught up in machinery. In 1860, the textile firm Couraulds instructed their workers to “leave hoop and crinoline at home”.

The weight of the crinoline, although beneficial for comfort, proved problematic in gusty winds. A gust of wind could catch the crinoline like a parachute and knock the women over. Worse, a strong wind would blow the dress up exposing the woman’s legs and undergarments. Similarly, the hoop skirt would hold the skirt up, revealing the undergarments, if the woman tripped or fell over (fainting in the day was quite fashionable too).

Classic photograph if crinoline profileSitting down in a crinoline took some practice. If the woman did not spread her legs properly, the entire hoop framework would fly up in the woman’s face. This effect provided much fodder for the newspapers and is depicted in several cartoons of the day.

And finally, the crinoline posed somewhat of a fire hazard too. Not only was the unwieldy width of the device conducive to brushing the skirt against open flames, air could freely circulate underneath the dress which posed a fire danger given the high flammability of the silk and untreated cotton fabrics used to construct the dress and undergarments.

The popularity of the crinoline began to wane in the mid 1860’s. Some women took a political stance against the crinoline claiming that the cage design of the crinoline effectively “imprisoned” women. In addition, around 1864, the shape of the crinoline began to change with huge skirts beginning to fall out of favor. A variant of the crinoline, the crinolette, moved the fullness of the skirt to the back of the dress. Rather than being dome shaped, the front and sides were made smaller so that the voluminous shape was shifted to the back of the dress. Eventually even the crinolette was superseded by the “bustle”, folds of fabric which were worn at the back of the dress, which were sufficient for supporting the drapery and train at the back of the skirt, making the crinolette obsolete.