It is no great mystery why MGM made the controversial decision to garb Elizabeth Bennet in Victorian gowns for their 1940 production of Pride and Prejudice. Or why Samuel Goldwyn chose to dress Catherine Earnshaw in classic Victorian style for his 1939 production of Wuthering Heights. There is just something visually captivating about the tiny, corseted waist and wide, impractical profusion of skirts that was so popular in the 1850s and 1860s. The silhouette was both impossibly feminine and, considering the enormous size of the gowns, surprisingly dainty. To achieve it, one naturally needed a substantial corset. However, the primary component of the mid-Victorian shape was the crinoline.
A crinoline is essentially a petticoat, made of horsehair or some other stiffening material which holds the skirts of a gown out from the body. The horsehair petticoat was in use in England as early as the 1820s. By the 1840s, however, the skirts of gowns had grown to enormous proportions and the horsehair petticoat was often not strong enough to support them in the fashionable shape. As a result, ladies were forced to wear several layers of very heavy petticoats or crinolines in order to achieve the desired effect. This was far from ideal.
Fortunately, the difficulty was remedied by the 1856 invention of the wire cage crinoline. As author Karen Baclawski states in her book, The Guide to Historic Costume, this lightweight crinoline was made of “a series of hooped wires secured by sturdy fabric tapes.” The wire cage crinoline could accommodate skirts that were fuller and heavier and, as a result, during the years from 1856 through 1866, skirts grew to their widest proportions of the 19th century.
An unforeseen benefit of this was that ladies of the era no longer had to resort to tight lacing of their corsets. In proportion to skirts of this magnitude their waists inevitably appeared smaller by comparison. In her book, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, Anna Krugovy Silver writes:
“Although the waist remained the focal point during the next decade, increasingly wide skirts after the invention of the wire (cage) crinoline in 1856 made the waist look proportionately smaller, so that the practice of tight lacing probably decreased until the 1860s, when it again revived in popularity as a result of shrinking crinolines.”
This benefit was likely offset by the limitations imposed by the size of a lady’s skirts. Not only did the crinoline make a lady wider and less mobile than she had been in previous decades, it also impacted the lives of everyone in her wake – as evidenced by countless articles, pamphlets, cartoons, and even a one act crinoline play of the era. According to the anonymous author of the 1858 one penny pamphlet “The Dangers of Crinoline, Steel Hoops, &c”:
“No one can deny that an evil of the greatest magnitude has for some time been making serious inroads into the health, morals, and happiness of this country, in the shape of an absurd and preposterous fashion, digniﬁed with the incomprehensible designation of CRINOLINE. This monstrous innovation, like a restless spectre, invades the domestic hearth, and stalks abroad in the streets, a gaunt and grisly phantom, whose ‘bones are marrowless.’”
The author goes on to address (in the same quite unintentionally hilarious, melodramatic language) the pervasiveness of the crinoline in Victorian society:
“Old women tottering on the verge of the grave, enshrine their decrepit bones within it; young children, not long released from the trammels of swaddling clothes, jerk their little forms about in it; ugly women, pretty women, dark women, fair women, are all under the diabolical influence of CRINOLINE.”
True to the title of the pamphlet, after ridiculing the appearance of short, fat women in crinolines, and tall, thin shapeless women in crinolines, the author begins to present the multitude of dangers associated with the wearing of this “scaffolding” of wire and horse-hair “with puffs inserted, and, at intervals, hoops of steel or cane.” The dangers range from rheumatism, cold, and colic caused by the “cold currents” and “clouds of dust” that blow up the wide skirts, to horrific accidents caused by the crinoline catching in doors, bursting into flames, or (my personal favorite!) causing its wearer to be blown off a cliff.
Amongst these heartrending tales, is the story of a “beautiful maiden” in 1857 Yorkshire who went for a walk with her sweetheart whilst wearing a crinoline made of steel hoops. A thunderstorm was brewing and, predictably, the young lady’s metal crinoline attracted a bolt of lightning, which struck her and nearly killed her. She awoke many days later vowing to never wear crinolines again.
Another gruesome tale, aptly titled “Shocking Case of a Lady of Title being nearly Burnt to Death,” relates the story of Lady B__, “the acknowledged queen of fashion.” Whilst warming herself near the fire at a high society party, Lady B__’s skirts briefly brushed into the flames and she went up like the proverbial torch. The burns on her face, hands, and body were so disfiguring and severe that Lady B__ refused to ever see any of her friends again. She withdrew completely from the world, living out the rest of her miserable days in a convent in Italy.
Sentiment against crinolines was strong – especially male sentiment. An 1883 publication, titled The Great Anti-Crinoline League, begins with the following quote from the Pall Mall Gazette:
“We can suggest nothing better than an Anti-Crinoline League of eligible men who should bind themselves by fearful oaths never to dance, drive, dine, or enter into any tenderer relation with any wearer of ‘stiffeners,’ ‘wires,’ or ‘whalebone,’ in whatsoever form.”
And the 1866 tract, The Glories of Crinoline, is somewhat condescendingly dedicated:
“To Those Numberless Ladies throughout the civilized world who are wise enough to avoid extremes, and who prefer to be the possessor of a modest modicum of moderate charms rather than the bearers of an immodest mountain of immoderate monstrosities.”
Even in newspapers, such as The Illustrated News of the World, men bemoaned the encroaching effect of the crinoline. It crowded them out of omnibuses, cabs, and carriages. It crowded them out of pews in church. And it even prevented them from enjoying their “fair share” of the public sidewalk.
Meanwhile, despite the limitations of their skirts, women of the mid-19th century were beginning to feel empowered. In 1857, The Married Women’s Property Bill was first discussed in parliament. In 1858, The English Women’s Journal was founded, followed in 1859 by the formation of The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. Women’s colleges were springing up all across Great Britain and Victorian ladies were concerning themselves not only with women’s education and employment, but also with suffrage and the rights of wives. In the 1864 publication, Crinoline in its Bissextile Phases, a lady responds to the male demand that females give up their crinolines with a verse which speaks volumes for feminine feeling in the Victorian era:
“They tell us, again, in a bustling street
Our Crinolines hurt their poor legs or feet.
Not badly, I trust, — ’twere the doctor to pay,
My recipe is, keep out of our way.”
According to author Julie Wosk, fashion historians of the day called the invention of the wire cage crinoline “the first great triumph of the machine age.” In her book, Women and the Machine, Wosk goes on to state that the various satirical images that sprang up of ladies of the era in their wire crinolines revealed as much about the century’s ambivalence toward new technologies as about their feelings toward frivolous female fashions. The public was equally ambivalent about the changing role of women in society. Their giant crinolines were, at face value, a silly conceit, however those very garments made women formidable and difficult to ignore.
The crinoline passed all class boundaries. It was as common to see a housemaid in an enormous skirt as it was to see a wealthy lady of leisure. As author Mary Eyre writes in her 1863 book A Lady’s Walk in the South of France:
“Our wiser grandmother’s only wore their hoops in full dress. We, and our servants, wear them at the washing tub and the kitchen fire; our mill girls wear them in the manufactories, and sad and horrible have been the many accidents of all kinds this hideous, inartistic, ungraceful fashion has caused!”
Horrific accidents were not the only problems. Victorian houses were cluttered with trinkets and knickknacks that could easily be knocked over or broken by a wide skirt. In addition, the very nature of the wire cage crinoline made it virtually impossible for maids to bend or kneel in a manner required to scrub the steps or clean out the fireplace grate without exposing their legs – or worse!
By 1866, the popularity of the crinoline had decreased and, by the middle of the 1870s, fashions in ladies’ dress had moved toward a slimmer silhouette, accented by draped fabric and a bustle. Skirts would never again reach the epic proportions of the 1850s and 1860s. Nevertheless, the crinoline has not been forgotten. One need look no further than wedding gowns or the recent productions of fairytales, like Cinderella and Snow White, to see that the ultra-feminine contrast of small, corseted waist with magnificent flowing skirts is still as much the reigning vision of ideal beauty and proportion as it was for our mid-19th century fashion forebears.
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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